I’m not sure what generation I fall into, or whether I’m even a fair representative of either the X or the Y generation. I’m sure I share characteristics of both and neither. But I’d like to talk about, and speak to, those of us who have come of age during the Bush Administration. In 2000, when I had just turned 20 years old, I voted in my first presidential election. My entire adult life has been the Bush Administration. Imagine that, those of you who’ve lived through Carter, Nixon, Reagan, even LBJ in your adult lives. Imagine how hopeless we’ve felt, how unempowered.
When you’re 20, if you have any sense, you’re mired in politics, steeped constantly in a political awakening that sponges up all of the self-righteousness of your youth. If you’re attending a left-leaning, hyper-intellectual, historically feminist liberal arts college in a blue state, you’re significantly likely to be self-righteously political in ways that you’ll probably come to regret. I regret, for instance: parading around a tense class-and-race divided neighborhood proclaiming my ownership of streets during Take Back the Night. I didn’t consider other matrices of power, and I wasn’t even aware of how much of a lynch mob we must have seemed. I also regret ruining several family dinners by “having to be right” about something that I was sure my 80-year-old stepfather couldn’t possibly know anything about, when I should have sat down and shut the hell up, being thankful that he was even alive. Mostly at that age, I was unwilling to listen, and that’s what I regret.
But hindsight’s 20/20, and my point is this: that at a particularly personal period of leftist self-righteousness, I personally saw our election stolen, protested the inauguration, watched the towers fall, saw it’s effect on our city, studied radical history, protested the war, and saw popular sentiment ignored time and time again.
I also campaigned for Nader, did I mention that? What was strange about 2000, looking back, is that for many progressives, Clinton was not far left enough. NAFTA really screwed the working class for instance. His foreign policy was imperialist. And he supported corporate globalization in a way that eroded, and has continued to erode, heterogeneity in american culture. Among other things, right? Now, we look back and say, “At least Clinton was intelligent.” Have we lowered our standards? I campaigned for Nader because Gore was not compelling, because I was idealistic and I wanted to vote for the beliefs that I held, not out of some obligation to the Democratic Party or against the evils of George Bush, Jr.
And another defining moment, for me, was the Battle in Seattle. I wasn’t there, but my sister and my now-brother-in-law were. I was thus a very close witness. It was the first time the anger and alienation in my generation took a productive political turn. I also believe it was many people’s first exposure to the very notion of the WTO. It was almost fitting that it was in Seattle, that bastion of counterculture that was one of the first American cities to get co-opted and sold back to the creative people that created it. Growing up in the suburbs listening to grunge, so angry at something but unclear about what exactly, Seattle was already ahead of the game. There was also that magical moment where someone smashed the plate glass window of a Starbucks. Finally, vandalism that meant something! That was a whopper of a symbol, especially to someone watching New York City change from a variegated landscape to a veritable sea of Starbuckses. For me, the Battle represented the beginning of my generation’s uprising, or the possibility of a shift in power, in participation, in political life.
Then, the bitter election stolen by the supreme court, the bitter cold protest against the inauguration (ignored by the media), the insensitive and utterly evil actions of other Americans following the 9-11 attacks including the commencement of the war in Iraq, the way I saw the NYPD treat families and old folks at the NYC protest against the war (ignored by the media), all these moments made me believe that we were headed in a downward spiral, and that all it could do was get worse.
Fast forward to my 24th year, where I protested, once again, in one of the most massive and colorful gatherings of which I have ever been a part, against the RNC in New York. Again, the scale of it didn’t make the news. Again, the election was close. Again, it was unclear if it had been stolen. But for the first time, I chose to vote this time against George Bush rather than for my real belief system. I told myself I was voting for Edwards, who I felt was more honest and more in touch than Kerry. This was a letdown. I have to admit I became more cynical. I stopped reading the paper, sure that whatever was in it would confirm my worst suspicions…George Bush or his cronies had done something evil, something irreversible, and democracy didn’t actually work.
So, on to Obama, who just yesterday received my wholehearted vote? The thing is…I know! I know what’s wrong with him! I know that a war in Afghanistan is going to exacerbate violence elsewhere. I know his healthcare system doesn’t go far enough. I know his support of Israel is unacceptable. But I want to believe in him. I want to believe that he’s really got Americans in mind, rather than lining the pockets of his friends. I mean, there are reasons to believe this. His background is very literally American in a way I find authentic and compelling. And all the criticisms levied against him have really heartened me: that he’s more liberal than he lets on. Good! That he was a community organizer. Perfect! That his pastor thinks that America is evil. Right-on! That he was on such-and-such committee with Bill Ayers. Wonderful! Spread the wealth. Exactly!
For the first time in my life, and especially in my adult life, I actually want someone to be president. I think he’s a good man. I respect his wife. I respect Joe Biden. I want, despite what Ralph Nader says about where he got his political contributions, to believe that he’ll speak for me. I want to feel hopeful. And it seems like, across America, that’s what other people want too. Michael Moore said the other day that he hopes that the campaign promises that Obama doesn’t keep are the ones having to do with stepping up military action abroad. But he still supported him. Listening to Democracy Now earlier, I heard a couple of interviews that they did in Harlem yesterday morning. One 18-year-old girl said: “[Obama]’s going to cure everything. Everything’s going to be perfect.” I know as educated people we can’t exactly believe that, but there’s a voice inside me saying the same thing. I know that politicians lie. But even if Obama doesn’t believe what he’s saying, everybody else does. More than half of the voters do. Wouldn’t it be nice to believe in something? Something like this: “Not the scale of our wealth or the strength of our arms, but from our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, hope!”
The chant we have yelled at protests for years, since November 2000, was “Not My President!” Now I feel ownership of this, I feel like Obama is my president.
I don’t want to end this on such a corny note, but, can’t idealism reside with power? Can’t hope for once be real and not tied up in cynicism? Ahem. Can’t we just enjoy this for a minute?