As the intro to this piece says, I'm sending this revised essay to my email contacts ... my contribution to the campaign.
I’m voting for Barack Obama, and despite ridiculous nervousness, I’m sending this declaration to my entire email list. I know everyone else is doing it, but it feels risky, that maybe I should choose a safer topic. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I should choose a safer candidate, too.
However, I realize I no longer know what “safe” means. The dictionary suggests two things: doing what we’ve always done and staying out of harm’s way. As if they’re inextricably linked. As if traveling the same road is the only harmless route.
But what if business-as-usual is destructive? What if real threats keep leaping from trees along that well-worn path, even though the sign reads, familiar and implies safe? My dictionary doesn’t list different and great in the same entry. It’s as if I need to invent a new language before I can walk a road both new and improved.
Yet, I support Barack Obama because he is a life-affirming choice, and so despite his difference, he is my safest choice. My life, business as usual, doesn’t feel very safe. I have astronomically expensive health insurance that I’m afraid will be cancelled if I actually file a claim. I fear I can’t afford gas in my daughter’s car, let alone her college tuition. Economic collapse means clients can’t hire me. My electronics are Asian, my car German, tech support from India, alternative energy technology from Europe … while the quality of U.S. k-12 education plummets, the cost of higher education spirals, and our ingenuity and workforce are left in the international dust. China may steal our infamous distinction as the world’s largest global warmer, but we’ve been actively fighting the obvious a lot longer, and unlike our global peers, we haven’t invested real money or muscle to fix the problem. All that, and we’re fighting a wildly expensive war (that’s lasted longer than WW II), and most of the world hates what our current administration has done.
Yet, it still feels scary to vote for a man who ignores traditional rules of this game and asks me to do the same. It’s easy to be cynical about a politician’s slimy attempts to turn patriotism into a flag-waving sound bite. But I pause each time Obama does something different: opposing the Iraq invasion before it happened; refusing to lie about his aimless freshman year or his controversial former pastor; describing real problems intelligently and with the complexity they deserve; and calling us on our own racism, ignorance, and hatred. Asked about health care, Obama also explores health, deftly saying that eating fast food and watching too much tv and video games are as destructive as inadequate insurance. He tells white folks to start sharing the sidewalk with black folks, and that I should recognize all children, no matter how poor, as my own. He describes openly my own secret angers and fears about preferential treatment and urban violence, and he challenges me to let them go. And he told a black audience in Ebenezer Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to stop being homophobic and anti-Semitic. Usually only comics touched those subjects, and, sure, Chris Rock always makes me laugh. But Obama makes me think … and strive.
However, I’m not accustomed to politicians treating me like an adult or saying controversial – yet obvious -- things out loud. I have been so lulled by our version of the Roman Forums -- loud, mindless, simpleton arguments that have become the spectator sport we call politics – that I have forgotten what leadership looks like. I agonized watching the first debate, hoping in vain Obama would go for McCain’s jugular so pundits would declare his unequivocal victory. Until I remembered, embarrassed by my own tunnel vision, that true leadership has very little to do with verbally eviscerating an opponent on national television. Our next president will need tremendous intelligence, strategic patience, strong relationships, clear-headed decisiveness, and – dare I say it – noble integrity and charisma. Obama’s impeccable drama-free campaign, the way he inspires a crowd or took non-partisan, well-informed charge the morning our economy collapsed … these things more vividly illustrate his leadership than televised sparing matches and commentary drivel we disguise as political discourse.
Obama’s campaign of hope has been maligned as naive and unrealistic, yet I believe the criticisms grow from a deeper terror. Obama asks us to take stock of our lives, both personal and political. To see our current circumstances as direct results of our choices, perceptions, and actions, and to become more conscious and thoughtful about those things. But, frankly, I’ve been lazy. For too long I have sustained myself on spoon-fed watered-down politics, figuring pundits have more time than I do to research such things. Assuming most politicians are in bed with corporate lobbyists feels oddly less frightening than knowing Obama is beholden to the millions of us who’ve contributed $25. Sure I feel more empowered, but I also feel more responsible, more on the line .... more vulnerable. I have to lower my cynical guard and be engaged in the future of my country in ways that feel new, and surprisingly scary. I used to have an excuse – when I believed politics would never change, I could live my life and ignore the actions of my nation that did not affect me directly. But Obama says our country, our troubles, our lives are a complicated mess for clear reasons, with complex, risky -- yet doable -- solutions. And that I must participate. Typical politicians go for political expediency, let us off the hook, and we feel safe as a result. A presidential candidate who examines his own life and vision with honest integrity and asks a nation to do the same seems so … radical.
It creates an incomprehensible mathematical proof: the safe way of politics has created exceptional danger; the only way out is to follow a radically different course; yet that course initially feels so damn unsafe …So I’m changing the calculation and the metaphors I embrace. I am voting for Obama precisely because he is different and because he challenges my country and me to be different, too. To be hopeful. Intelligent. Thoughtful. Principled. Courageous. To replace my long-held cynicism and fears with passionate actions that dare to bring forth inspired results. To re-engage with my country, to write about it, and then send my beliefs to everyone I know. This still feels oddly scary, extending my trust far beyond my comfort zone. But maybe that’s what safety truly means.