Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Keep on Rocking in the Free World

I don't know what to do with this abundance of hope.
Barack Obama is a man I know. He lives in the city where I grew up. He taught at the university I attended and think of as my intellectual home. He voted in a public school that my mother consults to. I have been in the hospital his wife administered. His chief of staff is the son of a pediatrician who stuck swabs down my throat. I know this man and yet I cannot fathom this. How is it that he has inspired so many? How is it that he mobilized thousands of people to take part in the democratic process that they had been so estranged from? I don't understand this, but I hope.
I do not belong to the cult of Obama. I don't believe he is the messiah or the harbinger of a Utopian world. He is a man and a politician. His administration will be riddled with compromises and disappointments. He will fail as often as he succeeds. I also know that part of his success in this election is a matter of timing. The looming economic crisis and the sense of disillusionment with the Bush administration had a lot to do with his victory. But I can't shake the hope. I can't shake the feeling that this man has vision-and vision, to be clear, is not an ideology. It does not claim to know how the world ought to be, it is an idea of how the world might be. That is an important distinction. I believe Obama knows this. Of course, I'm taking that on faith. But when it comes down to it, most things are.
I've been traveling back and forth between the United States and Israel for five years now. Over the past few years I've noticed a marked difference in the atmosphere at the airport as I went through passport control. During the first years I traveled I would be greeted with a smile and "welcome home", which I always returned in kind because Chicago is home, no matter where I live. But over time the smiles faded and I heard phrases like the "Patriot Act" and "security" more often. I saw more guns than I was used to in an American airport. There was a feeling of nervous intensity; of fear. This spring when I went through Passport Control I was stopped because my passport picture no longer resembles me. It was taken 10 years ago, after all. But no matter how many pieces of identification I pulled out I could not convince the woman in the booth that I was who I claimed I was. Now, I suppose that's a legitimate reason for stopping someone, but to be honest, I don't much look like a terrorist and all my forms of ID were utterly consistent. I realized that fear had trumped common sense. This was not the America I had left behind. In this America there was distrust and "us versus them" and a low simmering panic. In this America, Homeland Security agents could burst into the home of my Israeli cousin, whose visa had run out in a bureaucratic glitch and arrest him in front of his wife and kids. He too, is not a terrorist. I do not know if people living in the states felt these changes as sharply as I did, but in coming and going, I felt them and didn't recognize them.
Growing up, I lived on a fairly multi-cultural block. There were a few Orthodox Jewish families, and a few non-affiliated ones as well. There was a Phillipino family and two Muslim Indian families and the Weisses who are Catholic, and have lived there longer than anyone else. The adults were neighborly and we kids all played together. We rode our bikes and fought block wars with the kids who lived around the corner. We traded words in Hebrew in Arabic, "baba", and "abba" and the shared cultural experience of not putting up a Christmas tree in December; of being a minority in America. During high school I attended a city-sponsored program for the arts. I learned how to write with teen-agers from all over the city, from every socio-economic background. On the first day in the program I found myself sitting next to a Palestinian boy. I wrote about the Holocaust. He wrote about the Palestine of his parents. We weren't close friends, but I don't believe we bore each other any ill will. I know that if anything, I felt a vague affection for him. I hope he felt the same for me.
I do not mean to imply that my experience of America was all rainbows and ideals and the American dream. I was aware of racism. I was aware of hate and poverty. I experienced those things, and I believe that they still exist. But we did not fear-not each other and not the world around us. With Obama's election comes the feeling that America is finally rousing itself from the specter of fear; that it is coming to understand that fear is a hollow and transient thing. It cannot sustain itself. It must be bred. It seems that America is learning to value the power of shared experience. That it too, is a potent weapon.
And maybe that is the draw and charm of Barack Obama. He comes from everywhere and nowhere and so we all see a bit of ourselves in him. For me, beyond the feeling of an intellectual kinship, it is the way in which he speaks to a reality I knew; an America I knew. I am sure that for other people it is different and for many other people, perhaps, his figure does not resonate at all. I do not know that he will be a great president. I hope he will be a good one. I hope he will live up to his promise. I hope that America will live up to the promise of this moment. It will make it easier to come home to.

In other, completely unrelated and insignificant news, last Saturday night my sister, my friend and I went to go hear the great Geva Alon play in honor of my friend's birthday. (Happy birthday, M.) I had heard him play about a year ago with his backup band and was duly impressed. This time however, it was just him and his beat-up guitar (and a harmonica. We mustn't forget the harmonica). I never knew that just a man and one stringed instrument could make so much music. He makes his acoustic guitar sound like an electric one. Seriously, there are no words for how awesome he is. The man is nowhere near as famous as he ought to be.
An added bonus was the kid who opened for Geva, dear, little Or Zubalsky (also known as Juviley). Listen to Geva and he'll blow your mind. Then listen to Or and he'll gently put it back together for you. Or's music is like a day on the shores of some secluded lake with nothing but a pile of books and a bottle of beer for company. Even at his angriest, when he's singing about another disappointment, or asking for patience, his music never loses any of that sweet, whimsical serenity. Go listen to them both-NOW.

Thesis Watch: Hey, I found the Book of the Himyarites

Music Rec 1: Geva Alon, Wall of Sound

Music Rec 2: Juviley, How to Miss the Ground

1 comment:

Tobie said...

Obama glee makes me sad, envious, and a little optimistic. Sad because I'm not on the Obama train- I'm not crazy about his economic policy and in general, he's a little more liberal than I would like. Envious because I can hardly imagine how much fun it would be to believe that much in your future president- to be crying with joy when he got elected and to honestly believe that the world was about to become a wonderfully better place. I want one of those, for me to believe in. Young and brilliant and charismatic and all that good stuff. And optimistic because even my hard Republican heart can't help but hope that maybe- just maybe- he'll justify all of the hooplah and everything that he believes in is secretly brilliant and perfect and all of my silly ideas are wrong and he will save the world by bringing America into the glorious, liberal tomorrow and so forth...