Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Making an Election

A young woman protesting the war. New York City, Summer 2006.

Today is Super Tuesday in the United States, also known as Super-Duper Tuesday, Giga Tuesday, Mega Giga Tuesday, and Mega Giga Super Duper Califragalistituesday. 24 states across the country are holding primaries to nominate Democratic and Republican candidates for the office of president. As I write this, Americans in New York have already begun to cast their votes. It's possible (although given the closeness of the races, perhaps not likely) that today's results will reveal the Democratic and Republican nominees for president.

In Australia Tuesday is just about over. While America arises we are on our way to bed. As I myself lay down tonight I thought back to the speech a skinny new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama gave at the Democratic Convention in 2004. Whether today he's the best candidate for the job of president is of course up to the American electorate; but what struck me then and now is his awareness, beyond candidates, elections and parties, of a spirit that seeks to divide us, to demonize us to one another, to isolate us from one another.
The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Shanell and Shavonna Stampley and cousin. Cabrini Green, Chicago, 1997.

Obama pointed to something similar in South Carolina last week:
Let me say this, South Carolina. What we've seen in these last weeks is that we're also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation.

It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon, a politics that tells us that we have to think, act and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us, the assumption that young people are apathetic, the assumption that Republicans won't cross over, the assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor and that the poor don't vote, the assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate, whites can't support the African-American candidate, blacks and Latinos cannot come together.

We are here tonight to say that that is not the America we believe in.
"In the end," he said in that speech, "we're not just against the ingrained and destructive habits of Washington, we're also struggling with our own doubts, our own fears, our own cynicism."

Six months after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, February 2006.

In religious language, we talk about this temptation to demonize or despair as the evil spirit. It's that voice in our heads that whispers that those who think different, look different, act different can't be trusted, that there's nothing more important than winning, that the best we can hope for our lives is to protect what we each have, and ultimately, that the noble ideals of our youth are but a fool's fantasy.

It's not the only voice in our head, thank God, there are other spirits and desires which roam around within us. And at different times in our lives we come to moments, what Jesuits call "moments of election", in which we are asked to step back, listen and make a clear decision -- which is the voice of grace? Where is the hand of God? Where is my heart leading me?

The primaries today -- of course they're about Obama or Clinton, McCain or Romney. But whether you like Obama for president or not, I wonder if he isn't right, the real election to be made is not fundamentally about parties or generations, but about beliefs: Cynicism, or hope? Blame, or self-sacrifice? Powerlessness, or possibility?

Heather Sierra, Red Cloud Senior. Pine Ridge, SD. May, 2000.

Standing before any moment of election, it's good to remember what we ourselves have known, felt and seen, as that's where our wisdom is to be found. I've included with this blog photos, mostly of younger people I've met along the way, including the one below of three young immigrants on the Staten Island Ferry, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, because they help remind me of what is important, of whose needs and what dreams I want to stand for. But I'll end with what Obama himself recalled in South Carolina.
Here is what I know. I know that when people say we can't overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of that elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day, an envelope that had a money order for $3.01 along with a verse of scripture tucked inside the envelope. So don't tell us change isn't possible. That woman knows change is possible.

When I hear the cynical talk that blacks and whites and Latinos can't join together and work together, I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I organized with and stood with and fought with side by side for jobs and justice on the streets of Chicago. So don't tell us change can't happen.

When I hear that we'll never overcome the racial divide in our politics, I think about that Republican woman who used to work for Strom Thurmond, who is now devoted to educating inner city-children and who went out into the streets of South Carolina and knocked on doors for this campaign. Don't tell me we can't change.

Yes, we can. Yes, we can change. Yes, we can.