Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Free at Last, Free at Last

I've tried to keep this blog politics free, despite the remarkable campaign taking place this year. I cannot let last night go by without some comment however.

As a history student (and educator at times), I have been, from a young age, aware of the fundamental dichotomy of American history, the gulf between the core ideals of America and the harsh realities of its history. A literature class I had as an undergrad summed it up in its title, "American Dream / American Nightmare"

The American experiment was founded by a group of wealthy, educated farmers who cobbled together a number of somewhat obscure theories from European philosophers of the prior century into a quasi-coherent system of government. The core principles were radical to say the least, and represented a dramatic departure from the governments of the previous two millennia. In putting these ideas down on paper and creating a society based, at least in theory, on those ideals, the founding fathers created a paradigm that was to be copied, sought and held up as the last best hope of earth for generations.

But for most of its history, the grasp of the American people has not met the reach of the founding fathers. Time after time, we as a people have failed to live up to the lofty standards that were set out for us when we began this trial. Slavery, internment, lynching, Jim Crow, religious persecution, domestic slavery of women, and a permanently impoverished class, to name a few. To be a student of American history is be aware of the horrible crimes that have been committed in the name of America at the same time you are aware of the great promise that this land holds.

Yes we have progressed throughout our history towards that more perfect union. Many of our greatest heroes come from those times of progress. But that progress has been slow and halting, often interrupted by intense periods of regression. To those who have struggled, it has seemed as if change would never come.

But the events of last night, and really of the this entire campaign showed that we have changed, and we are on the way towards fulfilling that promissory note that the founding fathers gave to us. From a practical standpoint, the election of one person over another for president might not make much of a difference in the daily lives of most citizens, and many will see the implementation of one party's policies over another as a step backwards. But no American, Black or White, Male or Female, Democrat or Republican, Jew or Gentile, can deny the symbolism of a country that once legally counted African-Americans as 3/5 of a person being led by a black man. No one can look at the fact that in exit polls people who viewed race as a factor voted in the same way as people who didn't view it as a factor and not see it as a sign that we are moving ever closer to the day when a man is judged by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin. In short, last night made it clear that although we still have a ways to go, we are closer to the American Dream than we have ever been.

Among a flood of unbelievable images and poignant moments from Grant Park, I was struck by the figure of Jesse Jackson. Seemingly alone in the middle of this massive crowd, he stood straight up, a good foot taller than all who stood around him. He clutched an American flag in his right hand, and with his left hand he pressed his index finger against his lips, trying to maintain his composure while tears streamed down his cheek. You could only imagine what was going through the mind of this 67 year old preacher, who had fought the battles of the civil rights movement, and who was on the balcony of that Memphis hotel on that horrible April day so many years ago. Perhaps it was the realization that after generations of struggle, we can finally see a world where the dreams of his friend and mentor are in sight.