Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Fix Is In: Election Reflection

I have only one memory of the 2000 election. This may be because I was a senior in high school and the world outside of me didn’t exist. The memory is from the limbo between Election Day and the Supreme Court ruling that finally gave us a president-elect. One of my Jesuit teachers plodded around the hallways of my Buffalo school mumbling, “The fix is in.” Every day. “The fix is in.”

He was talking about the election. I didn’t really know what he meant, until “the fix” turned into the next eight years of life.

I turned 18 on Sept. 11, 2001. It was my second week at college in Washington.

I have three memories from that day. I remember seeing, from the top floor of my dorm room, a spire of black smoke on the horizon. I remember, like everyone else, a blinding blue sky. I remember, at night, watching a man walk on the giant granite world map on the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the streetlights went from green to yellow to red to green even though there were no cars. The man flicked on his lighter over New York, then did the same over the Middle East, then sat down in the south of Spain.

The next seven years, for me, were like a prolonged vacation. College was fine. I lived abroad. I spent the best summers of my life at home, with friends, doing theatre. I interned at three fabulous publications before settling at the most fabulous of them all, where I have been gainfully employed with benefits. I have friends and a family who have provided for me. I have, in essence, skipped like a stone over the muck. I have been care-free, careless, as self-involved as I was in high school.

During this time, the country got away from me, from us. I blame myself. But I also blame the political climate in which I came of age. It was fearful, muddled, cynical, backward, conducive to complacency, unresponsive to the needs of the people, predicated on vulnerabilities sprung from a cataclysm. The climate appealed to the worst in us, which made a lot of us remain on the sidelines; who wants to play a game that is rigged from the start? Among all of our breathtaking national failures, the worst is still, I think, the episode of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib. Invading another country, arresting people, depriving them of due process and humiliating them — all under the guise of spreading a democracy that we ourselves don’t wholly practice — simply invalidates the United States of America as an idea. And without that idea on which we were founded, we don’t have much. How did Abu Ghraib happen? Complacency. We do what we want, consequences be damned.

It doesn’t make sense to blame one person. Sure, George W. Bush can be faulted for allowing corruption to smother him and his country. His was a poor example. But he was not the lone actor. Everyone who stood and watched can be faulted too. The United States of America has grown rich enough to allow many of its citizens to create their own self-sufficient worlds, cut off from circumstance. Wrapped in these cocoons, we have ignored those who need our help, our power and our voice. We have ignored ourselves. We let government get away with things because we thought it wouldn’t affect our own lives.

I became an adult on Sept. 11, but almost immediately I reverted back to the pupa stage, which is where I’ve remained. Until, I think, now. A prolonged war and an imminent depression has snapped me out of it. We created a savior when we needed one, and Barack Obama has gamely played the part. There appears to be, to our great luck, a good deal of substance behind his spectacle.

If I wasn’t a pseudo-journalist, I would express the elation of witnessing the election of a new president after being slowly and systematically beaten down by the current political climate. I would express the thundering wonder of watching a nation of PEOPLE — not inherited wealth or age-old political machines — launch a candidate to the the land’s highest office. I would express the admiration for a man who, if nothing else, appeals to the best of us. And that's a great start.

When the election was called last night at 11 p.m., I was at 14th and U streets, ground zero of the 1968 race riots of Washington. Forty years after buildings were burned, an entire city took to the streets with unchecked jubilation to celebrate the election of a biracial president. A drum circle on the corner reached a fever pitch, and passersby swarmed. Inside bars and restaurants, patrons pounded against the windows at the those watching the TVs from outside. Any object available to stand on was stood on, and the blare of car horns almost drowned out the repeated shouts of "Oh my God!" as strangers high-fived each other and fell into embraces. I have never seen or felt anything like it. I will keep three memories from yesterday: the sound of the car horns, the smell of damp pavement, and the sight of “Barack Obama Elected President” first sweeping onto the TV screen and sending a giant tremor up and down the street.

After absorbing the scene, I cabbed back to the Post to write three sentences of copy that wouldn’t be used. The frantic newsroom paused to watch Obama’s midnight speech at Grant Park and then resumed the work of stilling history into words and images.

Then I went to the White House, where hundreds pressed toward the gates. The mansion was dark both inside and out. Versailles was finally surrounded. The people have acted to protect themselves. A crowd of young people sang “God Bless America” toward the White House. The last time I witnessed a similar scene, it was 2001, days after 9/11, when the city converged on the Mall to mourn. Eight years later, something is finally worth celebrating. Most of the crowd appeared college-aged. How nice to become an adult on a promising note. Let’s not squander that promise.

In spite of the stunning errors of the current government, this election was not really about the issues. A president cannot solve a problem with a scribble of his pen. This election has always been about empowerment. Barack Obama won the presidency because he recognizes that a nation operates best when entrusted to the industry, altruism and vision of its citizens. And we needed to be reminded of that.

We worked together on these past eight years. We made them miserable for ourselves. Maybe it was necessary to our evolution. Maybe the first decade of the 21st century was equal to a young person’s adolescence, when bad decisions are made from a position of intense self-involvement. Everyone is forced to grow up sooner or later.

I said before that it doesn’t make sense to blame one person for a nation’s ills. It also does not make sense to invest hope in one person. Chants of “Yes We Can” turned to “Yes We Did” last night, and that made me nervous. The reparation of the country is not over. It has barely started: California voters, led chiefly by minorities, defeated same-sex marriage yesterday. Separate-but-equal. Still. Even on this momentous day. This further proves the election of a president is, at the start, an inspirational formality. Obama may be a great leader, but the country will not meet that standard unless its citizens do.

Perhaps today is a first step toward national adulthood, but it must be a collective step. The American people have proven they can send a man to the White House against all odds. Now, we must realize our powers do not stop there. The fix is in, but the fixing is ours to accomplish.