Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An Age of Fear

Okay, so I couldn't wax eloquent on Inauguration Day.  Much of this has been percolating in the back of my head for at least a week, though, so hopefully I'll pull something at least readable out of it.

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Maybe it's the collection of kids.

Maybe it's that they are, collectively, more academically able than just about any group I've ever had.  (Yes, I had Shy Girl for 4th grade, and she got re-classified, but I'm talking about the overall 'nature' of my class.)

Maybe it's that they are, by nature, a competitive group.

Maybe it's just that they can all say "Obama."

Yes, all.  Yes, even Bulldozer and Elastigirl.

But the fact of the matter is, my little experiment in civics lessons, which began more or less at this time last year, was a resounding success.  My students were incredibly invested in the election, in President Obama's move to the White House, and, yes, even in what type of dog Sasha and Malia (and, yes, they can name the girls too) will be getting.

Ironically, though, the experiment arose out of the frustration I remembered during the 2000 elections, when Patrick -- who was not yet old enough to vote -- knew more about the candidates than many people interviewed on the news.

If you'll recall, I said I took a perverse pleasure in the idea that my 9-12 year olds with moderate to severe disabilities might know more about our political system than the Average Joe on the street.

Of course, that didn't happen.  The whole world, I would venture to say, was captivated by the election, and I would hope that, whatever side of the political line you lie on, most people were at least touched by America's ability to move past some of its damaged past.

It may be that America elected its first black president.  But what would be nicer -- and what we'll likely never know -- would be that America simply joined together in a repudiation of the Bush era and elected the Democratic candidate.

Who just happened to be African American.

Because it will be at that point that America has truly embraced racial equality -- when it truly, literally does not matter.

That moment may in fact be a long way off, but this is the next best thing.

A few weeks ago, I posted a rambling comparison of Aragorn and Theoden's differing approaches to leadership -- as evidenced by their separate mustering of their troops in Return of the King -- and it occurred to me yesterday that, in effect, that that was the choice America faced.
Arise! Arise, riders of Theoden!  Spears shall be shaken!  Swords shall be splintered!  A sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!  Ride now!  Ride now!  Ride!  Ride to ruin, and the world's ending!  Death!  Death!
That, of course, was Theoden.

The message there was basically, if I might borrow a Klingonism, "It's a good day to die."
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers: I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.  A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. 
An hour of wolves, and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day!  This day we fight! 
By all the you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!
That, of course, was Aragorn.  And he was basically saying, "Look, I know you're terrified, and this sucks.  I am too.  But today is not the day to falter, and for the good of others, stand up and do the right thing."

I think America wanted the latter.

America, collectively, I think, is tired of being led by fear -- by fear of the Other, and even by fear of ourselves.

It became fashionable after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to say that the world had changed.

Of course it hadn't.

Terrorism has been a part of history for centuries.  In the past, airliners have been hijacked.  Bombs have exploded in buildings -- in the World Trade Center, no less.  Terrorists have attacked American targets before, and will again.

It was just that, in the scope, scale, and sheer gutsiness of the attack (I mean, really, who would have thought of flying into buildings), we were taken aback.

The world didn't change on September 11th.  It was merely our perception of it that changed.

What was once something you viewed with dull horror on the evening news -- a suicide bombing in Israel, an embassy attacked -- was in New York.  It was close.

And it was here.

And if it was here, it could be anywhere.

It, of course, was not long before America had declared war on Afghanistan -- something which, while not tasteful, made sense, as they had supported Osama bin Laden.

America was reeling from anger and fear, and we fought back.

But it didn't end there, and without getting into the political implications of the Iraq war, or the War on Terror -- notice the language,'s not "war against terrorists" -- it's a war against fear.

We spent months -- years, even -- hearing about how so-and-so had dirty bombs, so-and-so could kill millions with one vial of ricin, how so-and-so had suitcase explosives, and so on.

Remember how, eventually, you got tired of watching the endless replays of the September 11th attacks?

Remember how, eventually, you had to turn off the TV and go read a book?

Remember how, eventually, you watched Saturday Night Live, just to have something to laugh about?

The Bush administration used fear to justify the PATRIOT Act.  The Bush administration used fear -- by saying it was protecting us from all sorts of horrors -- to justify torture.  The Bush administration used fear to justify wiretapping American citizens.

The problem is -- eventually, one of two things happen.

Either you simply get tired of being scared and want to move on, or you realize that the world hasn't really changed all that much, and that with prudence and caution, you can pretty much look at it like you looked at the world on September 10th.

Because the world did not change on September 11th.  Terrorists who had already tried to destroy those same buildings, terrorists who, a few months before, had attacked an American warship, got lucky by trying something no one could ever have predicted, and it worked.

For whatever reason -- and perhaps the faltering economy is one of those reasons, but I'm truthfully not certain -- the American people decided that they want to be led by Aragorn.

America decided that rather than facing the endless litany of things that could -- and, perhaps, should, scare us -- with secrecy and a paternal pat on the head and the suggestion that eroding just one more freedom would be enough to Make Us Safe, we wanted Aragorn.

We wanted someone who could say to us what President Obama said in his Inaugural Address.

Someone who could -- who would -- say with authority that, yes, things suck.  That, yes, it will be hard.  That, yes, mistakes were made.  That, yes, we face an uphill battle.

George W. Bush could possibly have said all that.

But can you imagine -- truly -- George W. Bush responding with assurances that America has, when pushed to its limits, risen to its challenges?  Or would George W. Bush have reassured us that the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security would make us reasonably safe?

What America chose, I think, was not so much President Obama's vaunted "change" -- I think what America chose was to believe in the slogan "Yes, we can."
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the
world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
Yes, we can face the future as Americans, with all that entails -- all the freedoms that have been in peril the last few years -- with our heads held high.

America was told we can, that we are able, that we are capable.

I think that is what America was hungry for.

When you take teacher's education courses, they tell you that positive reinforcement should outnumber corrections by 4:1.

People need reassurances that they are competent.

Americans were hungry for someone to say, "Yes, it will be hard, and it will take a long time, but it's do-able."

I don't necessarily want to draw any undue correlations between Barack Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt -- though it's interesting, of course, that FDR was (to my knowledge) another first: the first president with a disability (that he worked hard to hide, but that's a post for another day).

But I think Americans reacted to Obama the way they reacted to FDR, who famously remarked that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

And FDR said that not about World War II, as I imagine most people believe, but about the nation's grave economic troubles at the time, better known, of course, as the Great Depression.

Ultimately, I think it will be up to history to judge not only the reasons for President Obama's election but also the true impact of former President Bush's administration.

Can President Obama truly fulfill all the expectations that now lie squarely on his shoulders?

Truthfully, I don't know.

I do know that, in a few days, America will settle down to blissful indifference, and the only people who will really be aware of what the new administration is doing will be more or less the same people that followed the Bush administration: supporters looking to justify their choice and detractors looking to find fault.

There is still deep animosity between both sides of the aisle, and I think that -- without playing the blame game too much -- that comes from 8 years of the "if you're not with us, you're against us" mentality.

For my money, that's the deepest wound of the Bush administration.  Guantanamo can be closed, the PATRIOT Act repealed, transparency increased, but it will take real work to extend the goodwill that was largely directed at President Obama yesterday into lasting cooperation between the two parties.

To get back to my original point (which I hope wasn't lost), I think the election of Barack Obama was a repudiation of fear: of fear of the Other who means us harm, of fear of the Other who looks different than us, of fear that our challenges are too extensive to address effectively.

And even of fear of our neighbor -- because I read yesterday that few, if any, arrests were made in D.C. yesterday, even given the enormous size of the crowd and the heightened state of emotion.

During the Inauguration yesterday, most of the school crowded into the cafeteria, where our principal (or, most likely, Retiree DF, as she refers to her husband) rigged one of the computer projectors to show CNN.

My class sat quietly, clapped when President Obama walked on screen, and listened to his whole speech.

It's often said that kids with special needs are attuned to the people around them -- that, for instance, they react with anxiety if they sense people around them are anxious.

So my kids' interest in the election may very well have been a reflection simply of the mood of the rest of the country.

I doubt I'll never know for sure, but I'll tell you one thing: we'll definitely track the next election from primaries on, no matter what group of kids I have.

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I've said before that I try to keep politics off the blog, except for things that I feel very strongly about (Prop. 8, for instance).  I often find myself a little on the outside of political discussions, for a variety of reasons.

One is that my political views are sometimes in opposition -- to each other.  While I'm registered Democrat, my views are actually closer to Libertarian in that socially I'm quite liberal (for instance, referencing Prop 8, if you're consenting adults, I don't much care what gender or how many people are involved as long as all those who are involved can consent), and yet I tend to the conservative where it comes to money.

Another is that I've always been fascinated with history, and so tend to view things with a longer eye than some folks.  For instance, I remember blundering into a political discussion with my dad and grandparents (my mom's side) some time in the mid-90s, before I learned not to beat a dead horse.  They were complaining about the Clinton administration and perceived corruption in politics.

(As an aside -- from a purely sociological standpoint -- it's always fascinated me that the general perception of Clinton's lying about being...sexually...serviced was categorically worse than selling arms to bad guys and then lying about it...but what do I know, right?)

Anyhow, I pointed out that corruption specifically and turmoil in general in politics seems to be a cyclical thing.  The 1860s saw the Civil War and deep divides over slavery and how the South should be repatriated.  The late 1800s saw deep corruption at all levels of political activity.  The 1960s saw deep divides over racial equality and other social issues. Beginning with Nixon, of course, America saw a string of less than ethically sound decisions from the highest office in the land.

It took until the early 1900s for the corruption to shake itself out of American politics last time around.  Is Barack Obama the turning point once again?  Will the cycle repeat itself again?

Only time will tell, really.

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