Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Thanksgiving Day 1963

As I watched tears streaming down the faces of black and white people in Chicago just as they heard the long-awaited announcement that Barack Obama had been declared as the elected president of the United States, a personal memory that had been festering for forty-five years came to the surface.

The memory was of a bitter cold Thanksgiving Day in 1963. On that day I had made plans to go with a friend of mine to a good restaurant in Beloit, Wisconsin, the town in which my friend and I were both freshman at Beloit College. When we got to the restaurant, the maître d'hôtel pulled me aside and quietly informed me that my friend could not be seated in the reastaurant, because his presence would offend the other guests. My friend was a black student from Kenya. The feeling that came over me on that occasion was one of a deep shame for the country in which I had been born—a country in which I had lived my entire life listening to many, perhaps most, of my white friends making insulting comments about Negroes (as Africans and African Americans were then often called when people were trying to be polite), and about Jews and about Asians and about Mexicans (as Americans with Spanish surnames were usually called in those days). My family's culture was deeply at odds with the tone of racism that permeated America in the days of my youth. The prevalent cultural values of my home and native land were embarrassing to me, filled me with shame, made me angry and plunged me into despair. In 1963 I never dreamed I would live to see the day when an African American would be elected president of the United States. Therefore, like hundreds of millions of other people around the world, I wept with joy when the announcement was made last night.

There was not much to feel thankful about on Thanksgiving Day 1963. Just six days earlier, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. And Kennedy's presidency had been an ordeal for many of us who believed in peace and disarmament and who were alarmed by what Eisenhower had dubbed the Military Industrial Complex. Kennedy's presidency was not necessarily the beginning of America's tragic transition from a nation to an imperialistic power, but it accelerated us along that trajectory. The Kennedy years plunged us deeper into an unrealistic paranoia about the putative evils of Communism and Socialism and into a patriotic conviction that somehow America had an obligation to make the world free. The Kennedy years had been, with only a few exceptional moments, mostly unpleasant to people with my convictions. The brutality of the way that unhappy presidency ended only puncuated the tragedy that the United States had become.

The election of Barack Obama feels to me as though a curse has been lifted. It is as though an evil spell has been broken—a spell that was cast during the 1960 presidential campaign, a campaign in which there were no positive options in the race for president, a campaign in which the Americans were presented with having to choose the lesser of two evils: John Kennedy or Richard Nixon. That curse of having to choose the lesser of two evils has been with this country ever since. With the exception of the candidacy and presidency of Jimmy Carter, the American people have not been offered a wise and insightful and capable presidential candidate by either of the two most powerful political parties. For the past eight years the American people, and the entire world, have suffered under the policies of a man who quickly secured for himself the distinction of being the most disastrously destructive president the country has ever had.

In the interest of honesty I must confess that Obama was at the bottom of my list of preferences for a Democratic candidate. Early in the race I supported Dennis Kucinich. Then I settled for John Edwards. Then I supported Hillary Clinton. When only Obama was left, I reluctantly supported him, despite strong temptations to vote for the Green Party candidate, 100% of whose policies I could enthusiastically endorse. Obama's foreign policy makes me nervous; it is far too militant for my tastes. He is not nearly socialist enough for me. He believes in the death penalty. He does not endorse strong gun control. He does not favor same-sex marriage. I cannot imagine him dismantling our nuclear arsenal or closing all American military bases on foreign soil. On most issues that matter most to me, he is too far to the right, and in matters on which we agree I do not see him as a president who will push hard enough to achieve good results quickly. But for all that, he is, to my mind, not simply the lesser of two evils. He is the first presidential candidate since Carter for whom I have felt I was casting my vote for him and not just against his opponent. (Again, to be honest, I have voted for a presiential candidate only twice in my life. The 2004 election was the first one in which, at the tender age of 59, after thirty-six years of residing in Canada, I cast a vote for anyone for any office in an American election. In that election I voted for the lesser of two evils.)

On Thanksgiving Day 2008, I will celebrate the prospects of finally seeing a black family in the White House.


Jayarava said...

HI Dayamati

Thanks for this. I must confess that I switched off at some point in the proceedings and didn't understand much about what either candidate stood for - on the one hand I have no vote there, and I don't live there; but on the other hand US policies deeply affect me and both my home and my adopted home. A year and a half of campaigning politicians is more than I can bear - I tend to think that it doesn't matter who you vote for the politicians always win. I never comment on politics on my blog on the basis that giving them attention only encourages 'em.

I found your summary quite helpful - the triumph of a brown skinned man in a position of power (although only 52% of the people voted for him); alongside concerns that actually not that much may change because his politics are not those of a radical, but sound quite conservative.

Best wishes