My purpose in this life is to chronicle the events of our time, to shine a light on events and actions that damage us all, to reveal good works whenever they actually happen, and when possible, to show people places and times where they can make a difference should they choose to get involved. In the ten years I’ve been at it, I have seen everything: wars and rumors of wars; economic collapse and environmental calamity; state-sanctioned murder and torture and rape; theft, graft, fraud, deception and greed vast and dense enough to bend the light.
I have also seen millions upon millions of people pour into the streets to raise their voices as one against all these terrible things. I have seen people hurl themselves into political campaigns that have no hope of succeeding because they believed in the candidate, because the campaign message mattered as much as winning, and was made of so much truth that it required their labor. I have seen previously disconnected people get plugged in somewhere, anywhere, because they could no longer abide the silence of the sidelines.
I have seen a man, a veteran of the ongoing Iraq war, walk past me on the street on two prosthetic legs. I have looked into the eyes of too many people whose futures were charred to ash by the flagrant criminality that continues on Wall Street even to this very moment. I have watched helplessly as friends lost their jobs, their homes, and their hopes. I have seen people rise above all this, and I have seen people subsumed by it.
In 2006, I watched as the George W. Bush Big Top Circus finally, finally, finally crashed and burned under the weight of its own incalculable wretchedness. The American people finally stopped buying what he and his people were selling, and on one memorable November night, I watched as those people removed what had been total congressional power from the GOP and hand it to the Democrats. Then I watched as those Democrats failed to do anything even remotely close to stopping the wars, as they failed to thwart the noxious aspirations of the Bush administration, failed to properly investigate and expose the crimes of that administration, failed to impeach, failed to do anything but enjoy the new offices they got for holding majority power.
In 2008, I watched history unfold. The Democrats expanded their control in congress, and more importantly, a black man and a white woman grappled for the White House against a demonstrably unfit Republican from Arizona, a man whose final epitaph will someday credit him for further poisoning our political culture by elevating Sarah Palin to national prominence. On the night Barack Obama sealed his victory in the general election, the reaction across the country was two-thirds jubilation and one-third doomed dismay; in Boston, thousands of people took to the streets beating drums and banging pots as they shouted with joy, while others made hasty arrangements to buy as many guns as possible. That January, the world watched as the United States shrugged off two centuries of rancid history by inaugurating a president who, just fifty years earlier, would have been required to use a separate water fountain if he wanted to quench his thirst.
I was not lured into believing the 2008 presidential election was going to mark the beginning of a sea change in American politics. I approach politics and politicians with one simple rule in mind: if I have heard of a politician, count on that politician being deeply and perhaps irredeemably compromised. In order to achieve the kind of notoriety and financing required to be successful in politics, politicians have to sign their names on a number of dotted lines that are not in any way in the best interests of the people. There are exceptions to this, of course – Sen. Paul Wellstone was one, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich is another – but for the most part, a politician who has reached the lofty heights of genuine power and influence does so by donating themselves to the crooked interests that donated to them on the way up.
President Obama is no different. He took money from BP, which is killing the Gulf as we speak. He took money from the big banks and investment houses that raped our future even as they laughed their way into massive and undeserved bonuses. He is a creature of the “defense” industry, just like every president before him going back to Truman. He is an American politician who reached the highest possible position, and I knew going in that he would be, in the main, another compromised disappointment. Better, but not by much.
I thought I was prepared for this, but a year and a half into this brave new world, I feel…I don’t know exactly what. I am glad Obama is the president, I am glad McCain is not, I am glad the derangement of Republican rule has been upended, I am pleased with a number of policy initiatives that have been undertaken, and yet there are these empty spaces in my mind and heart that actually, literally, ache. A few things are better, a lot of things are worse, and most things remain exactly the same. I knew it would be like this, but still, the emptiness is there.
My role is to chronicle these times. During all the years I have done so, I have been clinging to a belief that has managed to sustain me even on the darkest of days, a belief that has always filled some of that emptiness. It is a belief I fear our president has allowed himself to forget amid the cacophony of corporate power, military mayhem and runaway greed which binds him to a familiar course that, if left unchecked, will come to be the end of us all.
This belief is simple: America is an idea. We have borders, roads, cities, farms, armies, but that is not America. The idea that is America was forged in the crucible of Europe, when kings could mandate a state religion and incarcerate or kill whoever disagreed, when rights only existed if the powerful deemed them so. The idea that is America was forged upon the premise that these things were wrong on their face, that people are endowed with rights that cannot be taken away by fiat. At no time in history had any nation premised its existence on the bedrock truth that all of us are created equal until the Founders did so in Philadelphia, and in doing so, they created a self-improving process of national growth and redemption that functions through the will of the people alone.
We are an idea, and all of us are bound to it through the ink that explains us on old pieces of parchment. We are an idea, and in that idea, we can locate our nobility, our strength, and the better angels of our nature. Too many of us, including our president and congressional representatives, have forgotten this. Perhaps, if we remind them in strong enough terms, if we make We The People a true force for right instead of a catch-phrase, things would get better. Until then, the idea that is America will continue to wither, and the empty spaces within will endure.