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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

9/10-12 and 11/3-5

Last night, as some 160,000 people gathered in Grant Park to take part in a historic moment, my brother-in-law and a friend, both of whom blog for an audience composed substantially of each other, gathered in an apartment in Chicago -- to live-blog the election while watching it on TV.  This is a little like celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall by sitting in a flat in Berlin with a friend writing postcards to each other.  I have something of that sense today.  Although blogs were a real part of this election, they still did not fully carry out anything like a journalistic function, but were largely echo chambers -- places of democratic participation, of a sort, but rarely sites of valuable reportage.  To blog about the election the day after seems a little beside the point.  But I have quotas to meet, so here goes.

In the post-9/11 era, people often spoke and acted as if America were a very different and much less safe place after September 11 -- as if the America of September the 12th was qualitiatively different from the America of September 10.  I have always been astounded by the tendency to speak in this manner about those events -- as if the plans had not been long afoot before the 11th, and as if the security flaws and accidents of dumb and brutal chance that became manifest that morning were not also long afoot.  Surely America felt different on the 12th than it did on the 10th, but it was not any more dangerous.  Those events were all part of the same process, and it was only their manifestation that changed us.

We might say the same thing about last night's election.  An election is of course a moment of change, and I can think of few more momentous than last night's election; who could not have been moved by the tears that streamed down so many cheeks lat night?  (Certainly not John McCain, whose concession speech, as I expected it would be, was gracious and fully recognized the historic nature of the moment.)  But the America that elected Barack Obama President last night, however different it might be from the electorate of 40 or 20 years ago, is not different from the America that existed on November the 3rd.  I don't think it's possible to overemphasize the profound impact that this nation's election of its first African-American President has had on all of us; it still seems both inevitable and unbelievable at the same time.  As someone who was not born into American society but chose as a foreign-born adult to cast his lot with the United States, I feel great pride and optimism today about my choice to tie my life, fortune, and sacred honor with this nation.  But the United States of which I am a part today is not so different in its component parts from the United States of two days ago, or for that matter of two years or ten years ago.  It is and always has been, I believe, a nation in flux, a nation whose views and assumptions are far broader and more accepting than its detractors have ever been willing to acknowledge.  The actions of the United States on November 4 manifested these tendencies, but they were not a sudden change; they were a snapshot of an America that has long been moving toward this moment.

Still, as anyone who woke up on September 12 can attest, there is a difference between knowing something as a matter of fact and experiencing it viscerally and immediately.  Those of us who lived through this moment can fully appreciate it, but should appreciate it not just as a sign that America suddenly changed on November 4th, but as evidence of changes that have been occurring for years and that we do not always see. 

One last note: Like my wife, I cannot help but think of my very young daughter, who, as my wife marveled last night, will simply never remember an America in which what we experienced last night was not possible.  There are challenges aplenty before us, and of course Obama will fail at some of them and demonstrate what will turn out to be characteristic flaws (and virtues) in dealing with them.  I really have always thought of Obama as a Kennedyesque figure, and we must remember that Kennedy emphatically had flaws in addition to his immense ability to inspire and articulate an American mood; I don't think Obama will be different in this respect.  But my daughter will, I hope, face her own challenges with a sense that she is a citizen in a country where little is impossible, where anyone can serve and lead, and where the day after some momentous event -- September 12th, or November 5th -- is both a new day and a manifestation of a history that is made every day, even when we do not notice it.         

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 5, 2008 at 09:15 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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And as further clarification, I actually was speaking of the baby that is on the way. The one that will be born after both a woman has been Speaker of the House and an African-American has been elected President. Not a major distinction, since our daughter won't remember life before Barack Obama, but it's even more striking to me that the next one will be born after that momentous event.

Posted by: Kelly Horwitz | Nov 5, 2008 3:10:52 PM

Rick, one of my favorite moments in Obama's speech last night -- which I thought was mostly very good -- was his effort to address those people who disagree with him and didn't vote for him. I think it is of course possible to think that the election confirms many fine things about the country without thinking that Obama himself was the best choice. I think McCain certainly acknowledged this, and I assume he did not want Obama to win.

My view is that it is certainly possible to think that Obama will either advance or make more likely -- simply by virtue of being a Democrat with Democratic allies in Congress whose views one might not agree with, even if one is an Obama supporter -- "misguided" policies. Which President does not present these risks? I think it is also possible that, given particular premises, Obama could make more likely some "immoral" policy outcomes, although one must point out -- and MoJ has been through all this -- that in some cases there are and have been Republicans who take strong *symbolic* stands on what one might view as moral issues that do not translate into real policy outcomes. Indeed, some of those individuals might not particularly *want* to do much to force those policy outcomes.

I do think, though, that it is less likely that Obama's election "suggests" much about these issues. That is, much of Obama's election can be attributed to things that both you and I would agree are "good things" -- hope, equal opportunity, and so on; and much of it can be attributed to dissatisfaction and exhaustion with the economy in particular, and the war secondarily. But I doubt that much of Obama's election success can fairly be attributed in any strong sense to some of the things that you might find "immoral," and I suspect that relatively little of it can be attributed to many of the things you might find misguided. That is, to be blunt, I doubt this was a strong vote for abortion rights (although I tend to support them) or for radical economic redistribution. It was certainly a strong vote for Democratic policies in general and for Obama as an individual leader, and a strong repudiation of some Republican policies and some Republican leaders; but it was more of a vote about the economy and for (unspecified) hope and energy than it was a vote about social issues simpliciter.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 5, 2008 2:48:42 PM

Paul's post is, as one would expect, thoughtful and moving. Certainly, it is a good thing -- a wonderful thing -- that, in the United States today, race does not appear to be an insuperable barrier to high -- even the highest -- office. That said, I hope that those of us who believe that, all things considered, the country made the wrong choice yesterday will not be charged, on the basis of this belief, with reactionary churlishness (or worse). One can, I hope, endorse entirely the spirit and tone of Paul's post, and agree entirely that Sen. Obama's election confirms many good things about our country, while still believing that not *everything* it confirms or suggests is good, and also that Sen. Obama's election makes more likely a number of misguided (even immoral) policy and other outcomes.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 5, 2008 12:29:31 PM

"there is a difference between knowing something as a matter of fact and experiencing it viscerally and immediately"

I think this differs depending one's viewpoint. For many African Americans, I suspect that they did not truly believe (or "know") that America was capable of electing a black president until last night. Therefore, I do believe 11/4 itself will dramatically change the perceptions of many African Americans.

Posted by: T.J. | Nov 5, 2008 10:45:17 AM

I should add in fairness that my wife added that neither would her daughter know a world in which a woman could not be Speaker of the House. Quite right.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 5, 2008 9:42:21 AM

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