Las Vegas, Nevada — My good friend Micah Sifry framed this historic day perfectly right about noontime: “The hands that picked the cotton are the hands that are picking the next president of the United States.”
Barack Obama’s election is laden with so much significance it seems an impossible task to attempt any systematic unpacking. But this much is for certain: The full impact of the Oval Office being occupied by a black man has yet to hit home. This single fact alone overshadows every other facet of his campaign and of this election. It is something I thought I would never see in my lifetime. Some of my friends, as recently as midnight before the voting began, still didn’t believe it possible. But here we are at a moment of national redemption. And it’s a victory that conservatives and liberals, right and left, should claim and celebrate with equal pride.
This is no longer the America of 40 years ago, nor of 25 or even as few as 10 years ago. Things do change and, sometimes, for the better. Racism, ignorance, bias and prejudice have neither evaporated nor been abolished. But anyone who believes that our boilerplate political discourse emerges intact from this stunning moment needs to be dispatched to the same pasture where John McCain will listlessly spend the rest of political eternity. No longer can it be said that a black child cannot dream of becoming president. No longer can it be said that Americans are TV-doped sheep, easily managed and manipulated by some sort of right-wing media conspiracy. You thought that nothing would ever be the same after 9/11? Well, how about after a black man, his black wife and two black children move into the White House?
It’s unimaginable to yet measure what impact President Obama will have on the way America is seen around the globe. It will be as confounding for others to think about us the same way they did a year ago as we did about ourselves. And, if I might say, just in the nick of time.
Perhaps history itself demanded that we pass through the pain and humiliation of the Bush era in order to merit the relief granted by this election. We have been forced to suffer through the most vile of administrations, one that has shown total disdain for the Constitution, for the rule of law, for basic humanity. And this is the second most important takeaway from the election. After nearly three decades in which the power structure pandered to, exploited, refined and capitalized on all the worst of our collective base instincts, along comes a candidate who speaks only to our most humane and compassionate side. That says something striking about Barack Obama. And it says even more about the American people. It’s one more victory we shouldn’t hesitate to claim.
Third, this is a generational change that makes not only good headlines and easy reporting narratives but also serves as a great gift to our children and theirs. The election of Barack Obama liberates a new generation from the now-dreary debates of a self-obsessed Boomer generation — be they wilting flower children or graying warriors of the right. I might be quick in saying so given the bans on gay marriage that just passed in Florida, Arizona and our own California, but Obama’s landslide also effectively buries the most vicious of American political gargoyles — the culture war. Those who have so cynically divided and polarized us on the bogus issues of Gays, Guns and God will be exiled if not to Siberia, well, then to the wilds of Alaska. Good riddance.
Where this tectonic shift will lead us is unknowable. As McCain himself said recently, “Nothing in American is written.” The future, thankfully, is finally in the hands of a new generation. And at the very moment I write this sentence, I see thousands of young people around me in this Las Vegas ballroom explode in ecstasy as NBC officially projects Obama as the 44th president of the United States. What a moment! I, too, am overcome by emotion as it all seems at once so unreal yet so well-earned by all of us. I can only compare this to the sensation I felt exactly 10 years ago at 3 a.m. when Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet lost his own self-engineered plebiscite and was voted out of power. Throngs poured into the street and strangers embraced and cried and danced just as they are here, this very moment, in the Brasilia ballroom of the Rio Hotel.
Just like that night in Santiago, no one knew what loomed in the future. It was enough to know, in fact, that once again a future was possible.
Tonight we know that a black man whose middle name is Hussein has been elected president. The ghosts of Jim Crow and Bull Connor have been exorcised from the most tenebrous shadows of American life.
We know that we have witnessed the collapse of an entire political era based on the narrowest and greediest principles of social Darwinism.
We know that Americans resisted and rejected a puerile campaign of fear commenced, at first, by Hillary Clinton and shamelessly escalated by a dottering John McCain.
We know that Americans are capable of repudiating those who would impose upon us a politically illiterate huckster as a vice-presidential candidate.
We know that Americans can no longer tolerate the exercise of torture in the name of freedom.
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We know that Americans will soon demand the shut down of Guantánamo.
We know we will no longer suffer the indignity of watching a president unable to speak in public and incapable of understanding — and uninterested in — the world around him.
We know we will have a new president who demonstrates an intelligence, a thoughtfulness and a seriousness that has long been a stranger to the White House.
We know that when asked if we could do it, we answered with a throaty, Yes We Can. And we did.