Blasts From the Past

Optimism from the 2008 election.

“Jesus Was a Community Organizer; Pilate Was a Governor:” Or, a Few Words About Why I Support Barack Hussein Obama

I am not interested here in the spreading of rumors, of campaigns of misinformation, or of the cultivation of fear. I am not interested in hate-mongering or in questioning the judgment of anyone who would disagree with me. I am only interested in speaking a truth; my truth. Words, say those who oppose Mr. Obama, are cheap, and soaring rhetoric is beautiful but empty. I disagree; it is with words that we humans inspire, that we comfort, that we create. History itself began with the advent of the written word; we have inherited words from the past and it is our words we will leave inscribed for the future.

Of course, we will leave more than words, just as we too have been recipients of more than just words. Those generations which follow our brief occupation of this land will inherit custody of a civilization and all of its trappings: a judiciary, a legislative body, a system of defense, an infrastructure, an economy. They will gain stewardship over the environment, over its oceans and its mountains, its hurricanes and its earthquakes. They will have passed down to them rivalries and feuds and a history violently written, and they, like us, must determine how best to cope with such monumental responsibilities. And if we are to offer any wisdom or guidance for them it must be in our words.

Words alone, of course, cannot fix the problems that we face, but words can heal divides and bring together those who can then engage in the compassionate action that real problem-solving necessarily entails, that it demands. Words are the first step, and we may choose to borrow words which offer hope or we may choose words which inspire hatred and fear.

Hatred and fear are divisive things. I am young and there are many things in life that I have yet to learn, but I do know this much: hatred and fear are divisive things, and in their division they lead us astray, away from the compassionate action in which we are all called to engage.

I am young; I may be, in the eyes of many, naive. But I have seen and known some extraordinary things in my brief life — the extraordinary generosity of family and friends and virtual strangers when I was very young and my mother was very ill. The remarkable joy of scientific understanding and discovery, and the realization that the world works in rational and complex and wonderful ways which can be knowable to us if only we submit ourselves to the task. The bone-deep satisfaction of committing my time in service to others, of forsaking the pursuit of material ambition because, well, my life is already rich, and if I do not try my damnedest to share that privilege than my time on this planet has been nothing that I can ever be proud of.

I may be an idealist; I may be a fool. But just as there are those who find meaning and solace in their religion and its holy books so too do I derive my greatest strength and my greatest sustenance from the certainty that each person on this earth has within themselves the capacity to engage in the world and to make it a more loving and more honest place.

These are, of course, minor mysteries of life; just a sampling of its richness and texture. But all of these experiences have been profoundly mine, and they are what I know best, and what they have taught me is that to live fearlessly, acting compassionately in service of the truth, is where I find my greatest spiritual fulfillment.

I want a government that will reflect that same commitment.

I want a government that will leave to future generations not a legacy of fear and corruption, racial tension and religious warfare, anti-intellectualism and a mockery of those who might, with hearts full of love, attempt to enact positive change in this world; no, I want for myself and for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and your great-grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of strangers from Iowa to Iraq a government that takes as its highest task not the maintenance of an international hegemony but the fulfillment of the human potential of all of its citizens — that we may be healthy and productive all, adequately housed and properly educated and fairly paid, that our communities may be organized to thrive.

Such a government must ensure that those who are poor and in need of care can receive that care. Such a government must put people before profits and compassion before corporations. Such a government does not mock the service of those who seek in its halls a vehicle for the betterment of the human condition and such a government does not find hope for a brighter tomorrow to be nothing more than a punchline. Such a government does not enter into war and the willful loss of human life lightly or on false pretenses but exercises its might with restraint and the wisdom and judgment that is the hallmark of genuine authority.

Such a government finds faith in the future, not comfort in the past.

I do not believe that Barack Hussein Obama will be able to realize all of these dreams. He is just one human person; intelligent and courageous, yes, but still only human. I do not believe that he is the savior of Washington, but I do believe him to be a remarkable man. I do not know if he will be a remarkable president, but I know he will be a better president than John McCain.

I take as my evidence for this conclusion that which these two men have offered most readily to me, and that which I in turn offer to you tonight: only words.

Mr. Obama is a purveyor of hope. Mr. McCain prefers to trade in fear.

I will cast my vote without fear.

I will cast my vote with hope.


Tonight should be a great and victorious night for anyone of a progressive bent in America, and in many ways, it is: we elected a historic candidate, a man made unique amongst the halls of power for the color of his skin and made perhaps even more so by the quality of his rhetoric. We overcame fears and smears and ultimately, we chose hope.

But we also chose hate.

Prop 8 returns are still filtering in; the race is too close to call. I cannot sleep. I cannot bear to think that on the same evening that so many see as a crowning achievement to the American civil rights movement, such a crippling blow could also have been dealt to… well, to another kind of American civil rights movement.

But. We cannot think of failure.

I don’t mean that we can’t imagine Prop 8 to fail (which is to say, to pass). I mean that if Prop 8 passes, if discrimination is written into and codified in the California Constitution, if thousands of previously legal marriages are put into limbo and hundreds of thousands more put on indefinite hold — I mean that we cannot think this to be our failure. And if we need to take our lessons from any point in history, we need look no further than the events of this same evening.

It was forty years ago that Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was throughout the sixties that civil rights marched onwards against hate and prejudice, against legal challenges and physical abuse. There were boycotts, speeches, marches; there were riots. There was suffering beyond what I can imagine, and underneath it, carrying people forward in the face of it, there was strength and there was faith — faith that having dark skin didn’t make someone any less of a person, any less deserving, than having light skin. That faith was unshakeable, and that faith is what has led to so many triumphs, including the election of President Obama (God, that sounds so right!).

To compare the struggle for gay rights to the struggle for civil rights is an inexact comparison, and I don’t mean to equate the two. There are vast differences, but they were and are underpinned by the same fundamental claim to full personhood: the idea that being black or being gay should never be made to impede one’s ability to live free of harm, to excel in a chosen field, to attend a particular school, eat at a particular restaurant, ride a particular bus — and to love. To love freely, fully, and without legal restraint, to fulfill that most basic of Darwinian drives and to raise a family.

Gay rights may seem, relative to the civil rights struggles of the sixties, narrowly focused, and indeed — many of the legal victories of the civil rights movement have allowed gays to live more freely as well; protections granted African-Americans, that they might not be second-class citizens, have been extended to a vast number of groups and paved the way for a greater equality across society. We are all indebted, regardless of the color of our skin or the nation of our origin or the leaning of our sexual preference, indebted to those who soldiered on through those struggles. But of all the victories of the civil rights movement, surely one of the greatest was the striking down of the backwards and divisive miscegenation laws by the Supreme Court — the striking down of laws which prevented blacks and whites from marrying, which made it illegal for love to cross socially acceptable lines of race.

But love in so many of its forms is so rarely socially acceptable. The striking down of miscegenation laws didn’t happen until 1967 — long after the integration of schools, after the declaration that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal. Marriage, it seems, has a hold on the traditional imagination that is greater than schools or businesses or busses (to see how the anti-gay-marriage rhetoric so clearly echoes the miscegenation rhetoric, read about the historic Supreme Court decision here:

But progress always wins. I don’t mean to speak for an entire generation but I think, being so young that it’s difficult to remember a time when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was hotly contested as being overly tolerant, setbacks like Prop 8 can seem greater than they are. I don’t mean to minimize the effects of Prop 8 — its effects will be real and they will be hurtful. But they will not ever be insurmountable.

Progress always wins. It takes time; it can take so much longer than we would like, and so much longer than is fair or right. But if Prop 8 passes now it will be written over sometime soon — maybe not next year, and maybe not the year after that, but sometime in the not-too-distant future there WILL be real marriage equality in our society. If Prop 8 passes now then those who live in hate and fear and ignorance, those who believe in legislating an exclusive morality, will think themselves victorious, but those opposed to Prop 8 have something greater than a narrow electoral victory on our side, and that is history.

History will favor us. The religious zealots and the hate-mongers and all those who support Prop 8 might celebrate their bare-knuckled margin in getting it passed, but that should not bother us, because the passage of Prop 8 should not deter us. We will win. The demographics make it inevitable. We will win.

Just remember that: it may not happen today or tomorrow or in the next couple of years, but the undeniable truth is that we will win. We will win, and someday it will seem as bizarre to outlaw gay marriage as it seems now to have ever outlawed interracial marriage. We will win. Or, to borrow from the man of the hour: Yes, we can. That’s not a slogan to take lightly, or to abandon easily.

And I know — the path has already been long, the struggles intense, the hurt deep. It would be so beautiful if Prop 8 failed now, if the returns shifted as I wrote this, if all this is for naught. But if our struggle for marriage equality for all people must be more prolonged and difficult than we’d like then we must dig in and fight.

Watching Barack Obama speak in Chicago, MSNBC repeatedly cut to the reactions of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson: a man who has devoted his whole life to civil rights, who has suffered and witnessed innumerable setbacks and disappointments along the way. He ran for President himself, and I’m sure he would have liked to be the history-maker, but as tears streamed down his face tonight it was clear that even if he were not the man realizing the dream it did not matter, because the dream was realized.

Prop 8 might pass, but Connecticut legalized gay marriage after California did. Massachusetts has already demonstrated that gay marriage can be viable, can go unchallenged, can be easily absorbed into a culture. Canada and the Netherlands and Spain and so many other countries have shown us the same. The dream will be realized — maybe not now; maybe it will not be about Rosie, or Ellen and Portia, or Gavin the Champion, but it will be somebody and it will be beautiful.

And as we work towards equality in marriage, I say, let’s go one step further; let’s not only be undefeated by the results of this election night, let’s be inspired by it. Let’s recognize that tonight, a black man became our president, and that between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin it is no longer absurd to think of a woman as our commander-in-chief. We’ve broken some huge barriers in who we’ll accept in the White House. And in that spirit, I say, let’s broaden the dream: let’s imagine a future where gays can not only marry and raise their children, but where an openly gay man or woman might hold the highest office in the land.

The old argument used to be over who would hold the presidency first: a black man or a woman? We have an answer now, but I suspect (perhaps optimistically) that a woman won’t be so far behind. Let’s put forth some new debates — who will hold the White House first, a gay person or an aetheist, a Jew, a Muslim?

It may seem too fantastic to even discuss — but then, people thought that about the black man-vs-woman debate not so long ago, and then the 2008 Democratic primary changed history. So let’s keep focused on the immediate fight and work towards marriage equality in our state and across the country, but let’s broaden the discussion. Let’s talk about gay presidents. And if we start with marriage, if we start with basic civil rights for all, if we are dogged and persistent and keep the faith and remember that we will win — then maybe one day we, like Jesse Jackson, will get to see some of our greatest dreams realized.

And on that day, everyone will win.

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