A letter to Teju Cole:
Well, the euphoria is behind us and the hard work just beginning. I’m sorry you weren’t able to be in Washington, to experience the crowd and to feel more American than you’d probably admit to. On the other hand, I suspect you would have felt a part of yourself standing to the side, as I did. I didn’t find the inauguration as moving as election night, nor did I share the intense catharsis so many people there seemed to feel. I guess I was aware of something else out there, outside the security fences ringing the Mall, kept at bay for that one day but still malevolently present on the periphery. Here we were, a crowd of tree-huggers and children of slaves, old draft dodgers and peaceniks, and the poorest of the poor – a mob of outcasts and sinners for sure – who for this day had been passed graciously through the gates to stand as witnesses on the frozen turf of this symbolic home-ground of democracy.
And yet the memory returned, of another frigid day, not long ago in New York,
when we were herded into pens rather than being allowed to march in protest of
the soon-to-be Iraq War, controlled by mounted police, snipers on the rooftops
and helicopters overhead. And how many others in that inauguration throng had marched
in Selma, or endured the dogs and water cannons and rat-infested jails – those
lucky ones who didn’t suffer worse? During Vietnam our photos had been taken,
our names put on lists, our passive bodies carried out of college
The forces that held the hoses and threw the tear gas canisters and shot the students have not, by any stretch of liberal imagining, vanished just because someone who seems familiar and sympathetic has taken over the chief office of the land.
This is no time to be naive.
After the election, Teju, you wrote that to you “there's nothing sadder than what Jesus called ‘white-washed sepulchres.’ You wondered about the “psychic weight of the more than 600,000 people we've sent to an early grave in Iraq,” and the plight not just of the middle class, but of the truly poor. I wonder too.
I wondered about it on this trip as we drove past some of New York’s high-security prisons, part of a system that now houses 1 in every 100 male Americans – and 1 in 8 of all black Americans. What kind of karma is being generated not only by Guantanamo, but by our own domestic prison worlds behind the razorwire and moats? Or in the military hospitals where returning veterans who’ve lost limbs, spouses, and sanity languish, mostly forgotten by fans singing God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch? I also think about the fact that in my 56 years of privileged white life I've only had two close friends who were black - you and one other - and the unspoken fact that some white Washington-area residents stayed away from the inauguration simply because they were afraid.
But the flags, the bands, the banner-strewn facades, the pat phrases about American exceptionalism – my God, I’m sick to death of nationalism! Ultimately, the rhetoric has to change past those things “every senior politician has to say,” as the media puts it. Maybe there’s a chance it will. Maybe one day there will even be room for some humility, some remorse, some redemption.
(click for large view)
Walking home from the inauguration on the eerily-empty highway, we ended up walking right through the deserted parking lot of the Pentagon, past the Pentagon Memorial on the side where the plane hit, and finally up the hill past Arlington National Cemetery. From the rise there, crowned by the new Air Force memorial, you see an ironic panorama: the rows and rows of white military grave markers on the left, the fortress-like Pentagon of the generals and admirals on the right, and in-between, a gleaming white phallic symbol.
The problem is that I’ve seen too much in my lifetime, and it’s broken down my idealism...not into cynicism, which is like death, but into realism about both human nature and political cycles. Our capacity for greed and violence is as boundless as our capacity for love, and I sometimes see those being the two weights in blind Justice’s balance. We fall in love, and out of love; the scales swing one way and then the other. Incrementally, society has become somewhat more humane over history but for every step toward freedom, liberty, equality and compassion there are opposing forces willing to fight to the death to hold onto the status quo.
The day after Obama’s election, we received quite a few emails from
friends saying, in different ways, “you can come back now.” I understood
where that was coming from, and appreciated the sentiment, but we didn’t leave our birthplace because of one man, but because of the pervasive values and choices of a society. The ascendancy of another, far better man isn’t going to make us abandon
our new home in this gentler, more self-reflective place where we feel able to be citizens of the world and not merely of one nation, even though I am and always will be American, and want to do my part. I fervently
hope his keen intelligence and deep convictions about right and wrong
will be able to withstand the battering he’ll begin to receive from those
hell-bent to resist change. The look on his face, as he came down that corridor
toward the sunlight and the waiting crowd on Tuesday, is for me the most haunting image from the day. He gets it, but do we?