March 18, 2008
By Mary Lyon
"I may not get there with you..."
So said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once upon a time, talking about a figurative Promised Land that he himself would indeed never reach. It was a Moses reference, with the Promised Land in this case being the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave - in its most perfect form, evolved, open, transcendent, every inch the land of opportunity for ALL - not just those well-heeled, well-positioned, or exclusively white-skinned. It was a portrait of a Promised Land that he envisioned for everyone in the dream he had for America.
Moses never made the transition to the Biblical Promised Land with his people. It was left to Joshua to lead the Israelites there. Perhaps we in early 21st-Century America have our own latter-day Joshua, finally? Or at least the hint of one?
I suspect the younger ones among us will someday point to the Philadelphia speech of Barack Obama as their latter-day version of the "I Have a Dream" speech. This will have become a watershed moment that signifies a leap forward. It will render all those yammering empty-heads, fear-mongers, and hatred-hawks - who insist on obsessing on selected clips of Pastor Wright in full-eruption mode - suddenly passe, so yesterday, so last century or more, so pitiful, small, and small-minded. It's as though they can't make the leap. Their feet, like their minds, are fixed and fixated, embedded in a sociological concrete, leaving them unable to rise to the next level. They'll forever be philosophical groundlings, as though evolution did not allow them to transcend their lizard phase and sprout wings or sailing skins. We all certainly could go there and wallow in that, Obama said. And the Swiftboat 2.0 crowd surely will. But if they insist on embracing the past, the old, the stale, the obsolete, the increasingly irrelevant, fine. Let them. And let's leave them there, where they're sadly comfortable. The rest of us need not join them.
There were many reasons why I loved Barack Obama's speech about "a more perfect union."
Suddenly, I realized that we had the mindset available and ready to lead us toward the world that "Star Trek" visionary Gene Roddenberry once sketched out - one in which all of us were represented in warp-speed ships that zipped through the known portions of our galaxy. That version of us had slipped the surly bonds of prejudice long ago. We were living up to our best and highest selves. All races, genders, even species, had a place in that world. Nobody was hamstrung by how they looked or what blend of blood flowed beneath their skin. It was an ideal we all loved - that inspired Mae Jamison to reach for the stars as the first black woman in the astronaut corps, inspired by Roddenberry's black female communications officer, Uhura. Listening to Obama speak made me feel, for the first time, that maybe we might be ready to jump the first hurdle toward that better, broader, freer future.
It spoke to my own conflicts about my church, and why I won't renounce my Roman Catholic background, or abandon my church even while some of the preachers and speakers in its pulpits still speak of the need to deprive me of my right to choose, to deny my right to have the last word over what happens to my body, and to aver the status of women in general as terminally second-class. I can see why Barack wouldn't walk out on Pastor Wright. I never would have done that to Father Murray, either, even while I disagreed strongly with his teachings and his biases.
It was a speech that took guts to deliver, on a premise that took guts to confront so publicly. It's about time we admit to ourselves our own inner prejudices, especially those mumbled under one's breath in the privacy of one's own car or living room or barber shop. Bringing these last taboos out into the open is the first step toward facing, understanding, overcoming, and outgrowing them. It is humanizing, and unifying, to realize that we all have those moments, those ghosts in our closets, those unspoken fears and dreads that keep us divided from and suspicious of each other. And it's the point from which we can reach, with the courage of recognition,
It also demonstrated how wise, circumspect, measured, and even-tempered this man is while meeting a crisis (and meeting it head-on, too). It would be reassuring to know that this is the mindset of the person who might actually have to answer "that" phone call at 3:00 am - FAR more comforting than the alternative, the Republican opponent whose own Senate colleagues dread his kind of hair-trigger temper inches away from "pushing the button."
It showed the generous and diplomatic spirit of a speaker who singled out blunders by a colleague of a Democratic competitor without naming names, while referencing her with admiration in his description of the white woman trying to break the glass ceiling. He behaved honorably when talking about his political adversaries, avoiding finger-pointing, scolding, or insults. Might it not be easier to get opposing sides in an international dispute to the bargaining table if no one in either camp is derided, marginalized, demonized, or otherwise put on the defensive?
And what if we really had a grown-up mindset at the helm, one not afraid to look at where we've been for the sake of understanding where we're headed, and what we might have done to contribute to the mess we're in now? One willing to examine logically and dispassionately that quintessential national security dilemma - "Why they hate us" - without stumbling over a lot of unnecessary baggage? There is a disappointing and rather infantile tendency among some of our political leaders and opinion-makers to shy away from examining the whole picture. It's far easier to embrace an artificial victimization, to point fingers and yell about what "they" did to us without bothering to try to figure out why "they" felt driven to it. Unless we grow up about that, we are doomed to taste again the fruits of that arrogance and neglect. If we don't go back and review blunders in the past, whether they involve generations of old prejudices or the lies that dragged us into war, or the wilfull ignorance that led to 9/11, if all we can do is dismiss that as "old news" from which we should just "move on," we'll never get to the heart of what got us into those tragedies. As it is with any addict turning toward some serious rehab or 12-step program, we first have to admit we have a problem if we ever hope to begin to grope towards a solution. And make no mistake. This is no shallow, simplistic, "blame America first" avoidance maneuver. This is what it means to be a grown-up - where the adults REALLY are back in charge. If we're really going to deal with some of our society's ills, we're going to have to ask ourselves some mighty difficult questions, and we can't shy away from their answers or make excuses. We're bigger than that. Or at least, we should be.
I see harbingers of all these possibilities in Barack Obama's speech. To form that ideal, that more perfect union, it's going to take growing up a little and looking at ourselves and what we bring to the table with very clear and open eyes. It's those same eyes that are capable of seeing past surface differences and suspicions and other superficialities that keep us divided.
I saw a man who presented his case in a most presidential manner, who was willing to outline the job ahead with a gentle, non-accusatory voice, wisdom, and a wide-ranging forgiveness in his heart. It made me want to stand up straighter. It made my son want to change out of his ratty shorts and put on a suit. It made confused and fearful neighbors turn and start talking to each other. It made strident partisans set down their verbal arms and embrace the common good in each.
That isn't a half-bad starting point. And if it doesn't result in a more-perfect union outright, it will at least lead us toward one.