Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sprinkling on the Parade

This is my attempt at a much more traditionally bloggish piece (is that an oxymoron?), a departure from the first two posts.

During the primary season, while most people of my ethnic, socio-economic, and age demographic (I’m white, educated, thirty-five, and a liberal) were busy listening to the music of Barack Obama’s awe-inspiring speeches filled with complex and smart ideas, I was busy deciding that I would vote for Hillary Clinton. I left the “Presidential Preference” section blank on my mail-in ballot for days, but diligently researched the options of and filled in every other section. Finally, one day, I grabbed the ballot, hastily checked the box next to Hillary’s name, and sealed it as quickly as I could before my husband, or anyone else, could see it. I have not told many people about this decision, especially not my father, who while not part of my age demographic, has never cared for Hillary Clinton. The man who stormed out of a cruise ship movie theater during a screening of American Beauty, yell-whispering accusingly to the daughter who had brought him there, “This movie won the Oscar for best picture! This movie!” will not be pleased.

At the time, I just wanted a known quantity. I felt at least that I knew her, flaws and cardboard political persona and all. The people who voted for Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections thought they knew what they were getting from him and look what we got there: compassionate conservative, my ass. Hillary’s laundry and flaws had been aired out already, I reasoned. I was also concerned by what I saw among my peers as the pedestalization and idealization of Obama.

I’m known to be skeptical, critical, and wary of the latest trend. I hated the movie Titanic (why should I have paid good money to spend an hour watching people screaming and falling to their drowning deaths and the rest of the time being hit over the head with the formulaic “so evil, so good” character dichotomy); the girlfriends I watched it with wished they had left me at home. When I started questioning the literary quality of the Harry Potter series to my super fan family-in-law, they came close to shunning me. A friend from my husband’s graduate school days, himself no pollyanna, once lamented, “Great, Rachel, you’ve ruined another restaurant for us.” I have a way of raining on the parade, but during the primary, I kept my mouth shut about my doubts about an Obama presidency.

It’s not that I was in any way anti-Obama or that I had any particular problem with his voting record or policies. I liked what he had to say and how he said it. I was not disappointed when he attained the Democratic party’s nomination. In fact, once the racist undertones started in earnest in Hillary’s campaign, once she and Bill alienated the African-American community that had been so loyal to them, and her true turncoat colors began to show, I deeply regretted voting for her. The last straws were the proof offered that her campaign altered Obama’s image to make his skin tone darker and nose broader as well as comments like, “He’s a Christian, as far as I know.” It was too easy for her to sell out the black community for the working-class white males (who vehemently hated her just recently, but the irony of Hillary bashers becoming Hillary lovers is another story) and to try to profit politically from hate and ignorance. Around late February, I started rooting for Obama in the primaries. Once he won the Democratic nomination, I started praying for his victory in the general election.

Once he defeated John McCain, I myself was not immune to Obama fever. Election night was a joyous night, although that elation promptly deflated with the passage of Proposition 8. Inauguration Day was also a glorious and emotional day. I cheered and jumped up and down that morning, singing, “Ding dong the Bush is gone, the Bush is gone, the Bush is gone. Ding, dong the wicked Bush is gone!” I teared up and flat out cried several times that day watching the inauguration coverage on my living room television. To have a president who is educated, eloquent, smart, open-minded, curious, intellectual, from a non-traditional family, a person of color, and with an elegant, stately, and well, presidential wife and children is thrilling. It is refreshing to have Barack Obama be the person of the hour who so many of us, especially young people, are looking up to. Like so many, I felt proud to be an American that day.

That night and the next morning, however, the euphoria began to fade; I started to feel anxious and the misgivings I had during the primary season resurfaced. The excitement of the inaugural consummation started to turn into an inaugural hangover for me, and I started to worry that we might eventually do a walk of shame after the initial fervor surrounding Obama’s historic rise to the presidency. The pictures I saw on-line and that friends had posted were informative and documentary, but the prevalence of iconographic paraphernalia and images of idolatry disturbed me. During election season, the Obama campaign needed all of the free advertising and fundraising resources it could get. I understood the cultivation of a cult of personality for the sake of strategy and marketing. Likewise, Inauguration Day should be marked with all of the fanfare and souvenirs it was (especially if that means money is going into the pockets of disenfranchised and underfunded D.C. residents. Disclaimer: I am a prickly native of the District of Columbia). It was his day, D.C.’s day, African-American’s day, and America’s day.

But now I’m hoping that we can move on from the cult of personality and fan club mentality. I fear Obama has become the new Che, the person who people proudly sport on a t-shirt but of whom they have little idea for what he stands. Obama is not a savior. He is not the Messiah or the Buddha reincarnated or the second coming of Che. He’s a politician. He’s a family man. He’s a human being. Will Obama be like the movie that everyone raves about but which ultimately turns out to be a disappointment once we really watch it? Has he become the politician to love much like Bush became the politician to hate, even for things that he shouldn’t have been hated for (like watching a movie with his family in October of 2001)? Would he become merely the celebrity of the moment to worship, like Angelina Jolie is the one so many of my mommy peers seem to despise because she’s rich, beautiful and has eight nannies? Furthermore, have we built him up so much that he’s destined to fail?

There is a lot Obama does not know. Let’s take education, one of my pet topics (I was a public school teacher for seven years). The author of his education platform during the campaign was, refreshingly, Linda Darling-Hammond, but his choice was the pro-high-stakes testing “reformer” Arne Duncan. In his blog, Mike Rose, a veteran teacher and currently on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, does a good job of explaining the conflicts behind his appointment and why Darling-Hammond was a better choice. Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) has produced some reports on problematic “reform” efforts that took place in the Chicago Public Schools under Duncan. In the last debate with John McCain, Obama praised Michelle Rhee, the current Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, as "wonderful." (If she's so wonderful, why isn't he entrusting the education of his own children with her schools. Cheap shot, I know.) Rhee is another pro-standardized-testing-based curriculum “reformer,” who also happens to be a darling of the national media but not of current D.C.P.S. educators or of those who have toiled to improve D.C.P.S. in recent decades. Even Colbert I. King, the Washington Post columnist who was a Rhee supporter, is starting to see through the buzz surrounding her. In an especially paternalistic piece in the New Republic, Joel I. Klein and Al Sharpton, of all people, add to the grand media fawn . An idea of hers that should give Obama pause is her plan to remove many D.C.P.S. career teachers (who are mostly over forty, middle class, and African-American Washingtonians) and replace them with Teach for America-esque recruits (who are mostly white, affluent, and from out-of-town).

Let’s hope that Obama won’t be blinded by the buzz surrounding individuals like Rhee and Duncan, and neglect to gain real knowledge about quality teaching, public schools, and education. Obama does surround himself with smart, knowledgeable people who have differing opinions, and he seems to listen to those people and to be a lightning-quick study. I just hope he listens to all of the experts in education (and other fields) and not just the policy wonks and people who get the media’s attention with gimmicky slogans but no substance. I hope he is able to convert what he doesn’t know to positive, progressive, and logical solutions. His administration's stated agenda for education so far includes a sound and reasonable approach and philosophy that does seem to include making teachers and educators part of the reform effort, and I like how they want to change No Child Left Behind (N.C.L.B.). But still, the statements are full of vague language such as, “demanding more reform and accountability” and neglect to lay out many details or the how of getting their goals accomplished. We need to recognize how much Obama doesn’t know and need to give him a chance and time to learn.

In the meantime, we need to do what we can do and fulfill our responsibilities as citizens and help him to fulfill his promise of change. The Obama team does offer a forum for ordinary citizens to express themselves on various topics. If we have detailed, expert knowledge, let’s speak up and make ourselves heard and remind him of his promises. Using education as an example again, we can make changes at the local level by at least considering enrolling our kids in public schools--if there are things we don’t like or would like to see change, we can engage the school leadership in a respectful conversation about it and join the P.T.A. We can ask actual educators their opinion about policies such as N.C.L.B., rather than rely on politicians three steps removed from the system. We can volunteer to work with young people at schools or elsewhere. We can pledge to withhold contributions to elite institutions of higher education until they vow to get out of the U.S. News and World Report ratings game, reform their S.A.T.- and A.P.-dependent admissions policies, and decide to reward students who are great and promising students, and not punish those poorer students whose parents could not afford S.A.T. prep classes and whose schools are unable to offer plentiful, or any, A.P. courses. (For more on this and to understand why loan-free grants to low-income students are not enough, consider reading Peter Sacks’ somewhat preachy but very well-researched Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education.) While we’re at it, let’s ask them to spend the ten dollars we are able to afford to give on the students and not on those useless pamphlets showcasing new computer labs or whatever. Finally, let’s not assume that just because we’ve studied a subject that we know how to teach it, or that because we’ve attended school that we know how the education system should work. I’ve been a city bus passenger numerous times and I have a driver’s license, but I don’t know the first thing about what it takes to actually drive a bus, unruly passengers and all, and I certainly don’t know how to show someone else how to do so.

Obama is not perfect. He is going to make mistakes. He is going to make compromises. He is going to make decisions that will be unpopular with certain groups of people. To butcher Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time. He may have a lapse in judgment at some point, either personal or professional. None of this bothers me or makes me think he should not be president or even stops me from believing that he may be the best president we’ve had. I’m not simply happy to see him in office because he isn’t George W. Bush. I did not agree with all of the Nader supporters in 2000 who said, “How much damage could one man do in four years?” No, I’m concerned that we’ve come to expect such perfection that if he makes one unpopular decision, makes one mistake, or has one momentary crisis or collapse of his moral and ethical code, that he won’t be forgiven and that the people who were engaged in the process for the first time in this past election because of Obama will disengage from the political process altogether. I’m afraid that the thin line between cynicism and unabashed optimism will blur and that all of those people will disengage and not vote again. We need to understand that Obama will make mistakes and the he will do some damage.

So, here’s what I’m inspired to say. Let’s not do that walk of shame. Let’s not be minions of the man and his image; let’s be minions of his message and values. Let’s not end up like my sophomore year economics textbook, full of highlighting for the first chapter but nothing beyond that. Let’s not pat ourselves smugly on the back after our one day of service and ballot casting. Just because we slap a bumper sticker on our car and buy a t-shirt does not make us part of something, except a no-longer-necessary branding. Let’s disavow greed, invest in public education (and be distressed that even the guy who wants to reinvent America's relationship to government did not see fit to send his own kids to America’s public schools), be active members of our communities, become civically engaged, demand affordable and universal healthcare, address the shame of having a class of people called the working poor, demand that equal rights be granted to all Americans, and address the ineffectiveness of incarcerating so many for so long.

There, I’ve said it. I’ll lie in wait for all three people who read this blog to say,"Come on, Rachel, do you have to ruin everything for us? Let me alone to enjoy my feelings of hope and relief." I realize that I am not the first to express these concerns and sentiments. For a much more wonkishly nuanced version of the sentiments in this piece, but regarding the economy, read this. In another wait-and-see piece, Juan Williams asks us to refrain from judging Obama based on the group he represents, although I rather feel that Juan Williams is not giving African-Americans enough credit. As a social studies teacher during the 2000 election, I took part in the Supreme Court Historical Society’s course for D.C. Social Studies teachers. After commiserating about the outcome of Gore v. Bush and bashing Bush, bashing Clarence Thomas was next for the majority African-American class. He got no free pass for being the second African-American on the Court. My favorite response so far to Obama’s Inauguration is from Jay Smooth’s blog, ill Doctrine, where Jay tells his readers to be pleased with the outcome of the election, but not to stop working to make ourselves and our society better.

I have a great deal of confidence in Obama, but I am concerned that the fan club mentality that seems to have swept over some of my demographic peers will cause them to make only superficial changes in the way they think, live, act, and spend. I’m concerned that Obama will fall hard and fast from that pedestal and that no one among us will question his choices or hold him accountable while he’s up there. Here is my commitment: I will endeavor to be a steward of his message and of the promises he made, I won’t be surprised or disappointed when that mistake, that failing, or that compromise comes, and when it does, I’ll still be loyal to Obama and, more importantly, to his message.

(photo by flickr user Lanterna)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Inaugural Memory

This piece is dedicated to my parents, especially to my Dad, who worked tirelessly to help turn Virginia blue during the recent election.

In November 1980 I learned “Republican” was a dirty word. The word barely passed my lips without some amount of stuttering and shuddering. My parents were civil rights lawyers in my native Washington, D.C., interested and at times active in politics, and they were liberals. That year Republican Ronald Reagan soundly defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter in the Presidential election. I don't remember my parents feeling pinched by the high energy prices, run-away inflation, or high interest rates; if they were affected by those economic conditions that helped to bring down the Carter administration after only one term, they never said as much. But, while I added words like "landslide" to my vocabulary during Election Night in November and tried to make sense of all of the numbers and red and blue representations of the United States on the television set, my parents were submerged in hushed disappointment. I absorbed their views and would deftly rattle them off as my own. For a newspaper assignment in my second-grade class that school year, my own self-published, single-edition manifesto included headlines such as, "Is Ronald Reagan Messing up the USA?", found alongside the feature, "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, So You Better Start Saving for College Now."

My father often took us to the Mall to visit the monuments and museums and to attend events like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. And, I know both of my parents attended political events, marches and protests. But, imagine my surprise when my father informed my sister, Dina, two years my senior, and I that we would be spending Reagan's Inauguration Day on January 21, 1981, lining the sides of the Inaugural Parade downtown.

I can't remember if my father suggested that we make posters or if we took the initiative to do so ourselves, but somehow signs materialized. Rather than construct them with paper or poster board, we made them out of an art set – one with hard white plastic boards with grooves into which colored bits could be pegged and then dismantled and used again. My parents were early conservationists and probably thought that using an entire piece of poster board for a non-school project would be wasteful. Plus, I can't imagine they would have wanted the signs lingering for days after, reminding them of the celebration of Reagan's election.

In light of my parents', and consequently our disappointment, Dina and I were plotting creations of an unpleasant and a contentious sort, but my father would not permit this. So, my sister and I each endeavored to produce an appropriately tame placard in honor of the day's event, which meant making nothing too favorable towards Reagan, but nothing malicious either. My sister's was patriotic and a simple testament to the process of our democracy: an American flag. Mine was a portrait of Ronald Reagan, although I concede now that it may not have been recognizable as such. It was, at the very least, a guy with black hair. Beneath Reagan's head, I had written, "He's nice". Without pause, nodding her head with contempt, my sister scoffed, "He's nice?!?! Humph!" To her, I was committing high treason against our family and our long-held political views. Truth be told, I didn't actually know if he was nice or not. Given the number of poor and mentally ill people who subsequently suffered under his administration's policies, I would have to say that niceness was probably not chief among his personal attributes. But at the time, it was the most positive and bland statement I could think to peg with some sincerity onto my white board. He may well have been a Republican who would ruin our country, but he looked like a nice guy. Despite my sister's protest, my Dad did not impose editorial control over my statement. I think he recognized that it was the best I could do under the circumstances.

On the Metro ride downtown, feeling like a hypocrite, I hid my sign beneath my jacket, turning the board so that the picture and offending slogan were face down, and held it against me. Once at the parade, however, I got caught up in jubilation of the moment—the marching bands, the happy people, the sense of being part of a historic moment—and felt emboldened to shed my tentativeness. It was a warm day, the warmest day, in fact, on record for a January Inauguration at a whopping fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, which probably also helped me to transcend my feelings of apprehension. As I sat upon my father's shoulders, waving a little American flag in one hand, I held my sign aloft with the other. We had secured a spot among the spectators close enough to be a stone's throw from the parade participants, including Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who rode openly in their vehicle. As their motorcade passed us, I saw our new President pause his mechanical arm waving long enough to point my sister and me out to the First Lady, and then she looked over and they waved just to us. I imagined him saying, "Look at those sweet little girls with their homemade signs, Nancy. The one on her father's shoulders thinks I'm nice! How wonderful!" And, because of that moment, my shame abated, my statement of betrayal had been worth it and perhaps even confirmed. I realize now that he probably did not notice us in particular, but for that day, I had fallen victim to the parade's pageantry and hoopla. I felt as hopeful as a seven-year old Democrat could about the incoming president.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, my father's enthusiasm to attend this particular inauguration and his discouragement of displaying any negativity also encouraged me to enjoy it. In retrospect, it seems incongruous that he would have taken us, but not uncharacteristic of him. Perhaps my father wanted to reject the role of the sore loser and give the guy a fresh start. To this day, he often remarks upon Reagan's skill as a politician despite disagreeing with his political views and policies. Or, maybe, he wanted to spend a day off from work with his children, taking advantage of this unique DC-based excursion that allowed us to participate in an American tradition, the Inaugural Parade, as a spectacle of our democracy rather than as an opportunity to heckle or pass judgment upon the new Republican administration. Perhaps, he gathered hope in the innocence, wonder, and openness of his children to help ease anxiety about a potentially devastating presidency. He might say it was a combination of all of the above. Whatever his reasons were, I know that although he relishes debate, he strives to approach disagreement respectfully with a rejection of pettiness and bitterness, and to emphasize optimism and graciousness in defeat over bitterness and acrimony. On that day, he taught us to do the same. Even though Republican was a dirty word, it was okay for me to say Reagan is nice.

I live in Oakland, California now. My own young children knew the 2008 presidential candidates’ names and lived through the election night tension alongside us just as my sister and I did with our parents in 1980, the difference being that our candidate won this time. I am sad we won’t be in DC to take our kids, unambiguously joyous signs (and grandparents) in tow, to Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate the inauguration of “Rock-O-Bama.” My hope is that in our place, some Republican dad will put aside politics and bring his little girl to herald the new Democratic President-elect and for that moment, she’ll leave behind her family’s misgivings and allow herself to hope.

(photo by flickr user Travlr)