Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Born Again

I can’t remember feeling like this. Ever.

I must have had moments like this. I know when I was younger there were lots of thrilling experiences.

But it has been a long time.

I want to be cool, not to say anything that will make me feel like a fool later. I want to hold to the Buddhist Middle Way, keep my healthy cynicism. But it's not working. I'm being swept away.

My eyes started filling with tears at 8 o’clock in the morning yesterday, and I still feel myself choking up. Barack and Michelle dancing, Sasha giving her father a thumbs up after his speech, Sergeant Caleb Green singing the national anthem, Aretha's hat. Practically everything seems to be choking me up the past thirty-six hours.

This was always going to be exciting, Lord knows. We've gone from segregation to a black president in my lifetime. Washington, D.C., is for the the first time in history – at this moment, at least – a cheerfully integrated city. And so, we want to believe, is all America at the moment.

But the tears. The oceans of tears. Jesse Jackson bawling. Not just tearing up, but actually bawling. The woman from Oklahoma being interviewed who just can’t finish the interview because she loses control. Juan Williams of Fox Network breaking down. What's with all these damn tears!

Obviously a whole lot is going on beside the celebration of a black man in the White House. For me nothing matches the relief, the sense of liberation from those eight years of darkness, and the hope that America might be getting back on track.

With it comes the revelation of this embarrassing secret that so many of us have who see displays of patriotism as the sign of a weak mind and dangerous politics. It turns out we love our country. We just couldn’t say so, because it was not a time to say so, but a time to be ashamed. We had lost faith and we've got it back and it's making us peculiar.

It's not unlike being gay and being afraid to say so for years. The day comes and the secret rushes out and the sense of liberation is like a wrenching pain in the gut leaving the body and you can't believe the relief.

In Berkeley and San Francisco there is dancing in the streets. We’ve got a president who might actually come to visit some day. The last one couldn’t because nobody could guarantee his security and they didn’t want to have the world hear the boos that would have drowned out anything he might have tried to say in public.

Africans, too, are dancing. In Obama, Japan, they are dancing. And we're doing a lot more than dancing. We're coming out as “born-again Americans.”

So many things came together. People who say Jesse Jackson tried but the time wasn’t right miss the point that it’s not just the timing; Jesse represented black pride, but not a whole lot more. This is a mixed race man who represents kids raised by single mothers, this is a man who gave up black ward politics and provincialism after his loss in Chicago to Bobby Rush and set his sights on the bigger pictures, making progressive whites and progressive blacks his base. It’s not just time for a black man; it’s time for a black man who can play politics effectively. A young man who managed to get the tone just right to transcend race and represent black America simultaneously. A man who might well disappoint us with his inexperience, but we trust will not make us ashamed to be American.

Your inner skeptic still wants to say, “OK, here comes the manipulation, here comes the stuff that masks the imperialism and the American provincialism and arrogance.” But it seems to be cracking all the defences, this belief that this is a good man, a smart man, a hard-working man as well as (at long long last) a black man, and that we may actually have a chance to start over. It feels so good to have hope again. To hear trumpets and not smirk.

Gay people are all over this man Obama for his decision to give Rick Warren a place of honor at the main event. The paranoid fringe is making lots of noise about how Gene Robinson’s inaugural prayer wasn’t included in HBO’s broadcast and other news coverage and about how the Gay Men’s Choir singing backup to Josh Groban and Heather Headley was not identified as such.

Good. I like that. Keep it up. Keep their feet to the fire. That’s your job, you young gays. Don’t give an inch.

But me, I’m going to focus on the glass way more than half full. On the fact that “non-believers” were actually included, along with gays and lesbians in Obama’s big tent. On the fact that for all the rage, we got through Warren’s prayer with great civility and a sense he needed to be allowed to do his thing. On the fact that when George Bush and Laura got on that helicopter we saw not just W. buzzing off, but a dignified farewell of one president to another, complete with American hugs. Wow. Obama asks us to look back at our better history and then goes and shows us how it’s done.

I will be very surprised if I ever feel this kind of elation again. Perhaps when the religious homophobes are forced at last to take their hands off the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans. Maybe then I’ll cry with joy like I cried today.

In the meantime, though, there’s lots to feel good about.

Today, on President Obama’s first day, there’s a hold on Guantanamo.

See, it wasn’t just a dream.

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