Perhaps I have gone mad. It’s a possibility that must be considered. If everyone is acting in a way that I cannot fathom, perhaps they are not crazy, but rather I am. Such is the case in regard to President-elect Barack Obama.
I have been writing on civil rights issues since I was in high school, so the magnitude of the first black president is not lost on me. It’s a big deal. The tear-stained face of Jesse Jackson was poignant, if only because the emotion was so clearly sincere. The tears of last Tuesday notwithstanding, America was ready for a black president as early as 1996, when Colin Powell declined to run. Indeed, so keen has America been on this score that in 2004 serious people treated Al Sharpton as a legitimate candidate. Still, it is a major milestone, justly celebrated.
But the euphoric eruption escapes me. Not so much from excitable college students or the long-suffering wizened ones who endured segregation, but from some of the sagest commentators.
“You’re lucky to live through big history. And you’re living through it.” So wrote Peggy Noonan, who knows something about history, writing speeches as she did for President Reagan when he was prosecuting the end of the Cold War.
Marcus Gee of the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s ablest foreign policy commentators, found himself in Japan on election night. He watched on the Internet, crying in his Tokyo hotel room.
“What a moment! What a man!” Gee swooned. “For a few hours, let’s just savour this moment. History doesn’t serve up many like it: the Liberation of Paris, the day that Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, the fall of the Berlin Wall. These are times when you can hear the great wheel of history turning, times when the heart sings with awe at what free people can do, times that make you feel not so foolish after all to believe in the ultimate triumph of justice and the power of the human spirit.”
Comparable to driving the Nazis from Paris? The end of the Soviet Empire? America was not under totalitarian occupation last week; it conducted a democratic election, not a rebellion against foreign powers. Nelson Mandela? He walked out of prison after years of brutal suffering. Mr. Obama went from Columbia to Harvard to the Illinois Senate to the United States Senate.
Much of the breathless reporting on the election tried to conjure images of South Africans voting for the first time in 1994, or other iconic moments of national revolution and liberation. In point of fact, it was a rather standard American election.
The much ballyhooed voter turnout was roughly the same as last time — perhaps one percentage point more.
In comparison, during the much reviled Bush-Kerry, red state vs. blue state, swift boat, draft-dodging, negative, negative, negative election of 2004, voter turnout increased six percentage points over 2000.
The 2008 planet-is-healing election results were roughly equivalent to the violence-in-the-streets election of 1968, when riots rather than rallies marked the election year. Those facts were ignored in a desire to inflate the significance of this election, even beyond historical wheel-turning to something approaching salvation.
“Dignity has been restored to humanity,” wrote Moishe Goldstein in a one-line letter to the National Post. His seemed to take the majority view.
Those of us who don’t get it are like those in 1997 who thought that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was just a horrible tragedy. This moment feels something like that, when Britain collectively went mad with real grief, faux grief and the forced grief of those who wanted desperately to be part of a historic moment, even if they had to create it themselves.
Perhaps the best explanation for what is happening comes from the last man who stood between Sen. Obama and the restoration of humanity: John McCain.
“Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone,” McCain wrote in his memoir, Faith of My Fathers.
Most people don’t get a chance to fight for a great cause, or even to be around those who have so fought. But the desire remains, and with a little credulity and a heap of melodrama, it seems possible to imagine that we are bit players in a great historical moment. Of course it’s madness. Or is it madness not to go along with it?
Father Raymond J. de Souza
was the Register’s
from 1999 to 2003.