Monday, October 13, 2008

My Closing Argument for Obama

On September 11, 2001, a Tuesday, I had a date planned with Powerpoint and my laptop, as I was scheduled to give group meeting the coming Friday. I had my radio tuned to WEEI, the local sports-talk station, and in the background I heard John Dennis mention something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. The way he announced it made it seem like a small puddle-jumper making a mistake, tragic to be sure, but nothing outside the ordinary. A few minutes later, I answered a phone call from the girlfriend of one of my apartment-mates, asking if we were "watching this." Going to the living room and turning on the TV, we then saw replays of the second plane hitting the towers. The next few hours were a blur, with phone calls, and even worse, attempted phone calls that didn't get through, to friends and family that either worked in NYC or worked in tall buildings anywhere -- at the time, we didn't know, right? There were vague, then confirmed, reports of an attack on the Pentagon, and reports of another plane that had fallen off the screen. One moment I remember most clearly was when I was on the phone with my dad when the first tower fell. It is hard to say if it was the sorrow in my dad's voice -- I had to narrate what was happening to him, as his office had no TV, the 'oh my god' as I told him that the tower was collapsing on itself-- or just the visual itself that has glued that memory into my brain as the epitome of that tragic day. I spent the night at a very dear friends' house, because it wasn't the sort of day that, if at all possible, should close with solitude.

Over the next few years, I would hear people's stories about Where They Were on the day of 9/11. Perhaps the most telling was a night in Queens, over a bottle of Sambuca, with some guys, much older than me, who had been New Yorkers all their lives. As much as I had to say about that day -- about friends who worked right there, about my uncle whose daily commute on the PATH train took him beneath the WTC, about everyone I could think of who just may have been there that day -- the people who lived in NYC had 10x the number of who-they-knews, and had 100x the it-couldda-been-me.

For me, 9/11 too quickly became a symbol for everything that it shouldn't have. I mean, jeez, George Bush won in 2004 running on 9/11, when the 9/11 widows endorsed Kerry! (why he never played that up is reason #1196 why Bob Shrum is a moron). On Election Day 2000, I was following along with Tim Russert on the wipeboard -- hell, Ayres or Zhung, if you're still out there, I may have whipped out the wipeboard before he did -- I was into it, but more in the way one follows a sporting event -- yeah, "life or death" at the time, but really, win lose or draw, tomorrow doesn't change much. Of course, had I known then what I know now about the disastrous foreign and domestic policy that Bush would lead us into, well, I can't say I would have cared more, because trust me, I've hated the state of New Hampshire ever since that day (if their 4 EVs had gone for Gore, Florida would not have mattered). Perhaps I would have been more despondent? In the year following 9/11, I felt particularly American, but that is of course wide-open to interpretation, so here is what I mean:

I grew up in an American household, and I don't mean American in the "my country, right or wrong" sense, because that is idiotic. I mean American in that I grew up learning what it meant to be American, to question tradition and authority -- exhibit A: the topper on our Christmas tree? Not an angel, not a star, not Santa, but Thomas Jefferson (as for my own little American Revolution, John Adams sits atop my proto-family's evergreen in December). America isn't about family name opening doors for you, it is about your actions determining your fate -- so screw you George Bush, having your way paved for you even though you never had to work for anything, and as Molly Ivins put it best, a guy who "woke up on third base thinking he had hit a triple." And you too, John McCain, who slacked your way into the Naval Academy on the name of your father and managed to finish fifth from the bottom. America was founded by Ben Franklin -- a guy who showed up with no money in his pocket and got by on his brains alone; by Alexander Hamilton -- someone so smart that even on a dinky island in the Caribbean, his talent was so noticeable that he found a patron to send him to America for an education; by George Washington -- a wealthy landowner who had everything to lose and nothing to gain from joining the rebel cause, and upon his retirement from the head of army at the end of the Revolution, King George III said "if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." America was a country founded not by gods but by humanity that, under the watchful eye of posterity, demanded the best of itself.

Now I look at the current election, an election still in the shadow of 9/11 even if it is not the topic of the day of the commentariat. I think, what if Obama were president on that day? What would he have asked of us, as Americans? What would the son of a single mother -- a man who has fought for, and earned, everything he has ever achieved -- what would he have asked us to do on that day? There is no doubt that we are -- as we always are, whether we recognize it or not -- at the precipice of crisis. Don't we want a leader who has always demanded the best of himself? Don't we want someone who is not taken to ideology, whether it be in the realm of economics, or warfare, or religion, and rather someone who sees pragmatism as the surest way to achieve broadly-appreciated ends?

There are those who won't vote for Obama because they think he's a Muslim, but even more distressing, there are those who won't for Obama because they think one of the following: a) my vote doesn't count, and I perceive myself as too mathematically literate for you to convince me otherwise; b) Obama is just another [insert liberal politician] and I won't vote for that. To both the former and the latter, I say you're cowards. There have always been people like you, and you have sat on the sidelines as America decided between Tories and Minutemen, slave and free, Union and Confederacy, democracy and fascism, civil rights and Jim Crow, the expedience of industry and the very health of our planet Earth. If you don't see a difference, if you don't look at the past 8 years and think that your vote can make a difference, then you're not the smart one, you're not the iconoclast you fashion yourself to be, you're simply too chicken shit to choose a side and believe in something.