It’s awfully easy to be cynical about the American political system. Sometimes it feels like a struggling marriage: objectively, you can still remember what you saw in it, back when you were young and the Bill of Rights was more than a string of broken promises, when you and Congress strolled hand in hand over the moonlit grass on the Washington Mall, when you split a bottle of wine with the Supreme Court and you stayed up until dawn listening to Miles Davis and sharing stories about checks and balances and unbiased interpretations of the law. Now, though, you hardly have time to put your feet up after work before you’re dragged into the same old argument you’ve been having for years now, bringing up old wounds and fighting again about hanging chads and disenfranchised voters and campaign mud-slinging and wasted Congressional potential and stolen electoral votes…. Every now and again, you catch a glimpse of the political system across a room at a party, or you find yourself defending it to a friend, and you get a rush of affection for it after all these years, for what you’ve had together, and for what it could be still….
But with so many disappointments behind you, it’s so hard not to lose faith.
Lately, I’ve found myself with idle thoughts about these potentially historic times, and wondering if I shouldn’t be doing a better job of documenting them for any future children who might need to interview me for their fifth grade family oral history projects. “Grandma, what were you doing in 2008?” they’ll ask, and I’ll search through the cobwebby corners of memory and come up with, “Well, I was… hmm. If I recall correctly, I was… well, I do seem to remember spending a lot of time at Target….” Earlier this summer, I was at the Old Town Art Fair watching Peter Mulvey, and to introduce a song about Dwight Eisenhower, he said, “Back in the old days, we used to have presidents who wrote – and read – books!” The audience laughed, and someone yelled, “We will again soon!” and a couple other voices echoed him, and I thought I should write this down. These are the little moments I’ll want to remember. And then the tiny, cynical voice in my head said, Unless it doesn’t matter. Unless nothing changes.
And this is how we squash hope.
On the night of the 2000 presidential election, I was supposed to be working on a paper for some class, but instead I spent half the night down the hall in a friend’s dorm room, watching the results roll in state by state. Blue… blue…blue…blue… we were pleased, but not particularly surprised… until midnight, when the states all started switching colors, and the country turned red… red… red… red. Reeling, my best friend and I staggered back to my room to mull over this strange shift when we looked out the window and saw flames, hot orange fingers making dancing black shadows against the building next door. For a moment it seemed the world was on fire, and I thought, so this is how it will be from now on. We rushed down to call 911 and help if we could, and found that someone had torched the wooden dumpster behind Quad. The night was full of such violent, ineffective protests: shattered glass and arson and vandalism, all of it hateful. None of it helpful. Still, I can’t think of that night without seeing orange flames, the world ignited.
Sometimes, when I talk politics with my parents, they start to sound hopeful and then back down with, “That is, unless he gets assassinated first.” My god, what a terrible thing to say! And yet, how can you blame them: they lost John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy (and Wellstone, and….). There was the Democratic National Convention of 68, the Chicago Seven, and Kent State, and how could your heart not be a little shattered, after living through all that? Still, is this what the glorious baby boomer generation has learned about hope? Foster it, feed it, hand it over shyly, and then watch it get murdered in front of you?
We are the children of the Vietnam generation, and this, I think, has shaped us more than anything else. We’re not really Gen-Xers and we’re not really Millennials. We are the heirs of the late sixties and early seventies, the children of the flower children, raised by parents who protested the Vietnam war or who enlisted or both, parents who heard the call of their generation and changed their majors to sociology and education, who became social workers and union organizers and teachers to make positive change in the world, to make the world a better place for their children. For us.
As a teenager, I used to wish I had a cause to fight for like my parents had, studied Vietnam in my painfully dull Contemporary American History and yawned my way through videos depicting the events of my parents’ young lives. The events of their youth that informed their politics and shaped their personalities and shook their world were translated into multiple choice tests for my classmates and me, a series of dates and names to memorize the night before the test and forget immediately afterward. And yet, as a sleepy teenager in southern Wisconsin, I was impressed by the video footage of monks setting themselves on fire in protest, of marches and sit-ins and all that conviction. I wrote in my journal then, age sixteen or seventeen, that I wished we had something to protest, like my parents did.
In retrospect, though, I don’t think it was the fight I wanted but rather the conviction, the sense of community and purpose, the honest belief that one person could make a difference in the world. That if you worked together, you could literally change the world.
Of course, we got a taste of that after September 11, when we were all united in grief. But of course, instead of taking that newfound sense of communal understanding and sisterhood and directing it toward making things better, we allowed it to be squandered and we allowed ourselves to be divided. In 2003, we marched to protest the war in Iraq, a war not only unjust and unwarranted, but illegal. “The French political scientist Dominique Reynié has estimated that, between 3 January and 12 April 2003, some 36 million people took part in nearly 3,000 protests around the world against the Iraq war.” We marched – millions of us, across the country and across the world – we marched together, with a sense of shared purpose, with a common goal, working together to make things better, marching together to change the world.
And nothing happened.
Under the government’s thumb, the media gave little coverage to the protests. The Pentagon literally bribed news analysts to speak favorably of the war. Millions of voices, working together, went unheard. And this is how hope is squashed.
How can you not be cynical? How can you not give up? We are a cynical generation, a generation of lethargic hipsters who hold ourselves at an ironic distance from everything. We have to preface everything we say with qualifiers about how we don’t actually care, we don’t actually believe, we won’t actually let ourselves fall headfirst into anything like hope.
Last night I went downstairs to watch Obama’s speech with my neighbors. Five of us sat around watching the speech, occasionally cracking jokes but listening goddammit, sitting together for an hour to see history unfold before us. Making memories to share with our grandchildren. Because we can do this. We can make this happen. We can be the change we wish to see in the world.
Folks, we've been waiting our whole lives for causes as worthy as those our parents had, and now we're in the SAME place our parents were in the late 60s and early 70s. Vietnam, Kent State, changing norms and expectations of gender and relationship roles, barriers in race and class and sex breaking down.... and here we are again, if we embrace it. Our parents' generation talks about how Kennedy got them excited and inspired about politics; maybe Obama will serve a similar function for the facebook generation.
And if Obama’s not enough, and you can't inspire yourself, go talk to the people who came before us, our parents who changed themselves in order to make a change in the world. They worked to make the world a better place for their children -- US -- and their children's children -- and now it's our turn to pick up where they left off.
Keep hoping. Keep working. Keep the faith. We can make the world a better place. We can be the change we wish to see in the world. Yes, we can.