I've been getting flak for my posts, expressing for the first time in nearly a decade my bursting pride in being American since two days ago. People have been getting caught up in which invention I mentioned was or wasn't invented or developed or pioneered by an American, or my factual assertion that America is the oldest extant nation-state in the world.
But they miss the point -- the crucial point -- that I made. It's more than the things we've invented, which I do believe comes from a certain cultural dynamism and leveling of social barriers that constitutes a particularly American cocktail of hope and optimism; what accompanies the spectacular parade of things we've made is the social progress that absolutely cannot be denied: in a nation that set hoses on blacks 50 years ago, we now have elected a black president.
And the point isn't that there's a man with copious amounts of melanin in his skin occupying the powerful office of our land, but that he represents a huge broadening of the range of social possibility -- FOR EVERYONE. He is also a reminder of the hope that what is good about America can prevail over the cynicism of the former "right" and "left" alike. Some whites may have sworn there'd never be a "nigger elected president", but Tupac agreed with them in his song from not too long ago, ironically called "Changes."
I see no changes. All I see is racist faces.
Misplaced hate makes disgrace for races we under.
I wonder what it takes to make this one better place...
let's erase the wasted.
Take the evil out the people, they'll be acting right.
'Cause mo' black than white is smokin' crack tonight.
And only time we chill is when we kill each other.
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.
And although it seems heaven sent,
we ain't ready to see a black President, uhh.
-- from "Changes" by Tupac
Remember that? Things HAVE changed. Ever since Obama got started, cynics have been deriding the power of symbols, the power of rhetoric, the very power to inspire -- all of which are the things that undergird change. It's the Hillary argument, which was soundly rejected: MLK was all bluster, because it took real policies to change America.
This isn't a chicken/egg thing -- for those who've actually studied the Civil Rights Movement, it's clear that there needed to be a firestorm of desire to change FIRST, that Brown v. Board of Ed needed people willing to fight from the city council on up BEFORE becoming a Supreme Court test case, that there needed to be an Emmett Till being murdered to both enrage and galvanize African-Americans months before Rosa Parks made the political move to refuse to give up her seat on the bus (or did you actually think she was the first person to refuse to do so, or that she wasn't a hardcore political activist and secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP?), and there needed to be an inspiration far deeper than mere self-interest to risk fire hoses, police dogs, beatings, and even death to get blacks merely registered to vote. It took murders of civil rights workers in 1963 to truly enrage the nation, but before that, the solemn and sacred commitment to do something that very well might result in you becoming a dead matyr.
That's the moral force that made possible the passage of a 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, when it was a political liability for Lyndon Johnson, and an issue southern states were yelling "secession!" over.
Symbols are powerful. Rhetoric has the power to move. And a person who has the power to move others en masse -- and not by tricky sophistry, appeal to hatred, or to base instincts, which is what makes the comparison of true moral inspiration to demagogues or even fascists so absolutely disingenuous and disgusting -- has what it takes to be a great leader. And that's what George W. Bush wasn't, and what McCain wasn't, and Hillary Clinton, with her scorched-earth tactics and 1990's thinking, wasn't. It's what Barack Obama is.
And that makes me proud to be an American again. But if your kneejerk response is that this is the same sort of jingoistic, hateful, arrogant pride that characterized the "red meat" patriots that stole the stage over the last several years -- whatever. You'll figure out that you're dead wrong, and maybe even get on board the bandwagon of moving past all that. I'm not presses -- you just haven't figured it out yet.
And that's OK. We'll wait.
But surely Maya Angelou is a better closer than me, and better speaker than me. She's Maya frickin' Angelou! Duh! I essentially expressed the same sentiment she did in my last few blog posts, but perhaps my way of doing so obfuscated the important point. So watch this little historical overview and interview with Dr. Angelou and take her at HER words, and not mine. 'Cause she's the master wordsmith, not me. But take her point: it's not the THINGS we're bragging about, but the IDEAS as well as the IDEALS.
"I am an American, baby!"