Wednesday, 20 January 2010

one year on

"Wish we'd wake up one day, and everyone feel good." sings Paul Weller on my iTunes. Everybody needs a little Style Council every once in a while.

Was there ever such a day?

Yes, I think there was.

January 21, 2009.

The previous day, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. The world breathed a collective sigh of long held breaths - yes, the evil W was gone, yes, we had managed a smooth transition of power, yes, we had put an African-American firmly into the office of the presidency without incident. Yes, yes, yes.

As I walked around that day the anticipation was thick. Everyone had plans for where they would be. I went to the Theatre Royal in Stratford where Kat Francois was hosting an event. They broadcast the Inauguration in the theatre and after there was a jazz band in the bar. I was with an American friend and a Scottish one and we ate Caribbean food listening to jazz and the place was ebullient.

Waking up the next morning felt like the first day of everything. Even in the grey London winter, people were smiling and seemed joyful. Like there were clouds under their shoes.

Every possibility for positivity and change was suddenly in play again. All would be better.

January 21, 2010

Is it better?

No. It is not. The change is so slight as to be cosmetic. The things we hoped for and were promised - real transparency, real accountability, real transition - have been lost in large gestures that have hidden meanings. Like the closing of Guantanamo only to shift the prisoners to a huge costly facility in Obama's home state creating an ever-more permanent limbo for those incarcerated, like the continued shipping of certain captives to third-party countries, like the continued suppression of the images of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the cobbled together compromise on health care that amounts to not much more than people like me paying for our own health insurance, but now being forced to do so whether we can afford it or not.

I was never fully on the Obama bandwagon. Edwards was my first choice - his work on poverty is absolutely inspiring. Despite his personal issues, I always felt his depth of passion and activism. By the time I got to vote in the primary, Edwards was no longer in it. I chose Hillary, who I truly thought would make a great president. Maybe not a visionary one, but great. I felt that no one knew more about the health care issues and she had enough experience on the world stage to just get on with governing. She had plenty of allies, and probably as many enemies, as well, but power often cures those relationships. And, yes, I really wanted to see a woman president.

As the campaign tilted toward Obama, I was hesitant. My friends were fully committed. I appreciated the engagement of a generation of people who had decided they would never participate in the process and were suddenly energized. I just didn't see it. I was afraid he was The Secret candidate - we, and he, were filled by wishful thinking and prophecy and we were going to will him into office and into a great presidency. Obama would win the poetry slam with a 30, no doubt, but being President is not only about talking, it's about doing. GWB made us feel bad while he was running our country into the ground; Obama had the power to make us feel good while that was still happening. That was what scared me.

I appreciate his analytical skills, his intelligence, his talent as an orator and writer. I appreciate his dignified bearing and his compassionate understanding. Yet, I am disturbed by the actions of his first year as president. Reading Nat Hentoff's recent Village Voice article George W. Obama disturbed me even more.

Truly, I wish I could say my life, where it intersects governance, is better after a year of an Obama presidency. It is not. I wish I could say I felt that we would be winding down the military violence, but I fear we are escalating it. I wish I felt more prosperous, or safer. I wish I could point to one clear victory for those who worked so hard to propel this man to office. I wish I could say I was surprised that the Republicans picked up Ted Kennedy's senate seat.

I hope Michelle Obama inspires people to eat better - that would create a lasting positive shift in our population and its health. I hope she continues to preserve her family, as that would be a real and positive example. I truly hope there are no scandals. That, at least, would be something.

Yet I anticipate us decimating Yemen; I anticipate engagement with Iran where we have already begun the same path there that led to the horrible violence in Central America and the Middle East.

Obama is pragmatic, and this is a positive trait, but he is also inclined to play it safe. Dangerously safe, it seems as he moves further and further into Centrist territory, leaving his constituencies flailing, but not willing to call in their marks just yet.

Finally seeing a Democrat in office, I felt as though we could all move on with our lives and stop spending so much time as critics. We have moved on, and only lately have I felt the need to double-back, assess, and wonder what exactly has changed, if anything. What becomes clear is that as artists, as citizens, we can never fully relax in this climate of emerging technologies and revived tribalism.

Democracy demands vigilance. Maybe that is true and proper; maybe that is what a representative government is meant to be - a state wherein the citizens are always accountable for the actions of their officials, and therefore must maintain a degree of pressure at all times. Certainly this is how the rest of the world perceives us, though they seem to take their cue on who Americans are from episodes of Friends and reality television. After the recent weeks of NBC's folly, perhaps it is more important for us to put pressure on network executives than our actual government.

Except image isn't everything. Actions hidden by the mire of complicated situations eventually surface as part of a chain of events, despite the spin placed on them.

We do more than just vote - we advocate and we activate change. We do. The two-party system does not function as anything but a see-saw for the status quo - the center is stationary and all actions veer towards there, while the tone changes erratically. But tone does not dictate life and its quality; actions do.

With Obama's election, I felt as though we had earned some time off for a job well done, for good behaviour. I don't think I was alone in that. I felt that he would protect the freedoms he said he would with commensurate action. I felt I could take up different causes, easier causes, or more overlooked causes than peace, or our Constitutional rights.

One year later, I've sadly come to see, that there is no vacation from true citizenship. While I feel a certain kind of misery at reinstalling my critical software, I also feel that it is unavoidable. It's not okay to let Obama slide because he's Obama or because he's not a Republican or because he's smart, educated, erudite, and palatable in comparison to the previous office-holder.

There are things we'll never know; things that were in the letter left by GWB to Obama; things that change the expression and the eyes of the newly inaugurated president. There are parameters placed on the presidency that Obama never dreamed in running for office, and making the promises he made. However, the country functioned fairly well in its first two hundred years without many of the impingements to our freedom we are now seeing and without much of the vehemence that has come to classify our actions in world policy.

Technology has opened new doors and we feel life at an ever-increasing pace, yet every generation has felt that incessant pressure of the march of time and ingenuity. Human nature hasn't changed. The country was founded and maintained on principles that eschewed the implantation of fascism and factionalism in government. Eroding our internal freedoms while engendering fascism outside our borders is a sad and dangerous game.

With so much greatness in human capability, in resources, in lush topography, could we not put our energies and efforts to better uses?

I am sad on this day. Sad to think back to a year ago, and what has turned out to be, a momentary lapse of reason.

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