I saw this video at Ezra’s and started to choke up, like the giant nerd that I am. The idea of America has seemed so unlikely for so long that I thought it was most likely dead for me, but turns out that my hopes could surface once again with the mere application of a folk song that expresses the best of our national character, instead of the worst that’s been given license to run a path of destruction for the past 8 years. A friend of mine said that she knew the minute that they certified Bush’s election that we would be at war within a couple of years, but I doubt even the most prescient of us could have predicted that we’d see a major American city all but wiped off the map under his watch. We’ve lost so much. In fact, I’m choking up again thinking about it, and not in a good way.
Eight years is a long time. My memories of the debacle of the ballot count of 2000 are all mixed up with my memories of my first major adult relationship finally falling apart years after it really should have been put to bed, and so it’s a doubly painful memory for me. Sorting CDS and thinking about hanging chads. Packing the car and thinking about the Florida riots. Putting on a Clash CD so that I could go another hour of late night driving and wondering if the right to choose would be gone soon. Hanging up the phone angrily and thinking about if we were facing a potential economic catastrophe. Being happy to be back home in Texas, but being ashamed that Bush was from Texas. Spending time with friends who I feared I’d left behind for good while worrying that we were too late to fight global warming. There was, in the months of the year 2000 turning into the year 2001, a sense of dread hanging over everything. And so when a friend called me on the morning of September 11, 2001 and told me that a plane had hit the WTC, I was not actually that surprised. I was still on the phone with her, turning on the TV when the second plane hit. And somehow, I still wasn’t surprised. I didn’t expect disaster to come in this form, but somehow I expected disaster.
In retrospect, it was a fucked up thing to think. Unlike the war or the tanked economy, which were in our future, the events of 9/11 were not Bush’s fault. I mean, there were competence issues that came out later, but unless you’re a crazed 9/11 Truther, you can’t really lay this one on his feet. And really, I think that the ransacking of the country that happened in the years after that did in fact put the tragedy firmly in the past for everyone but a few wingnuts who will cherish the trauma forever, because it makes them feel like victims, which is their comfort zone. Bush still had many years to show us what willful destruction he could rain on this country.
Eight years, looking back, is a giant chunk of my life. The Bush administration ate up my 20s, which means that the country spiraled down the drain and lost its way as I really found myself and built my life. It’s enough to make one superstitiously wary of a better administration, if you’re prone to that sort of thinking, which I’m not. In trying to wrap my head around the past 8 years, all my memories are grounded irretrievably from domestic settings. New Year’s Eve 2000: a Man Or Astroman? show at Emo’s where the sense grew in the room that this was somehow the last night of some kind of era, and you should party like it. I remember the build-up to the war as a series of TV viewings from a secondhand couch while wearing boxer shorts and wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket. Fights with my then-boyfriend about whether or not there were WMDs in Iraq. (My stance: “Bush is lying.” His: “There’s bound to be something.” We were both completely against the war, so I fail to remember why there was fighting.) The quiet, dark room around me as I started to put together my first blog to talk about these issues, with cats sitting curiously in the windowsills next to me. Going to bed at my one owned home Mouse Manor when I though Kerry had won. Going to work at UT where people were crying quietly at their desks when it was certain he’d lost. Watching Katrina approaching New Orleans while sitting in my gun metal blue office at Mouse Manor. Unpacking my things post-break-up in my new apartment and getting a panicked phone call from my mother, who was worried that Hurricane Rita would somehow be a problem for me in my new place. Going to Amsterdam and having Dutch people give me pitying looks when I said I was from Texas. Having to abandon a trip to go see Obama speak in 2007 because the landlord wouldn’t let me break a lease to move in with my new boyfriend. Selling my truck after paying $50 at a gas station to fill up. Moving into a badass new condo as Obama transitioned into being the certain Democratic nominee. Mundane stuff, really, but how we experience politics in our lives. Even as my life has gone up and down over the past 8 years, I’ve felt something was stolen from me, and it changed things. It’s not just that I became a political blogger, though that’s the big one. It’s just that it made a difference in who I was at a fundamental level, and everything I describe above was colored by it. Cynicism set in. Knowing how mean, racist, petty, and vicious Americans can be—enough to elect Bush once and nearly elect him once before—infected my thought processes and decisions, for good and for bad. Mostly, it made me ball up into my own world, trying to stick around with the tolerable people of Austin and save my own hide. I started to blog mostly to vent, not because I thought it mattered. If anything, I blogged at first because I thought it didn’t. Decency had lost. The dream was over. Now all we had left was pushing pus out of the wounds by screaming onto our blogs.
I didn’t believe in the dream of America. And it was you guys out there in the blogosphere who turned things around for me. I blogged, and you replied. You blogged, and I replied. We were coming from a common place, and it was this dream. It wasn’t completely spoiled. It wasn’t a lie. Every day, people out there are living it. They believe in justice. They live for freedom. And while we’d strayed from the path, I could see pretty solid evidence of how far we’d come in my own life. A generation ago, a woman like me would be trapped in a bullshit marriage with a couple of children that I hadn’t really desired so much as just accepted. I’d have no creative outlet. I’ve had my troubles, but because of feminist gains, I’d been able to get past them. The dream hadn’t been killed completely, since I’ve been able to live it.
The Obama campaign became this yelp of hope and love from this country, and even hardened cynics like me got swept up into it. After all these years, we found we had it in us to believe again. The right accuses of us of making Obama some kind of messiah, but that’s not how it’s really experienced. We aggressively believe he’s just one man. We know that we are the real story, the everyday Americans who reached past the cynical destruction of the Bush era into ourselves and found that we do, we really believe that humanity can be better than this. We can transcend racism and sexism and homophobia and all our other petty bigotries. It may not happen in our lifetimes, but we can strive. We can be better. I hope the history books note this, but the brilliance of the Obama campaign was not that they dictated this feeling of movement, but they spotted it and rode the wave. “Yes we can,” became a slogan not because it was demanded on high, but because people responded to it, and the campaign responded to the people. It didn’t feel canned to say it. It felt real, because in a sense, we invented it, not them. On the night of Obama’s election, I went to a party and people did spontaneously chant, “Yes we can! Yes we can!”, and frankly, through all my cynicism, it felt real. They weren’t say that Obama could. After a point, it wasn’t about him. We can. We do believe in this country, and this election proves it.
Obama is not some sort of leftist dream, and we know it. He’s a centrist Democrat, barely a liberal at all. But really, the moment was not about him. It was about reclaiming what Bush took from us, which was the American Dream. And that’s not the dream of the white picket fence with 2.5 kids. It’s Martin Luther King’s dream for America, a place where we can transcend a long human history of injustice and brutality. Not because we elect the right politicians, but because we ourselves are it. The feeling of waking up from a long national nightmare isn’t exactly rooted in this policy decision or that. It’s the feeling of waking up from 8 years of a hateful America, an America where people have slowly lost their minds because they’ve been fed a steady diet of resentment and fear. It’s the feeling you have when you wake up and your first thought isn’t about how you’re going to get through the day, but about how lucky you are to have this lovely day. It’s like nothing I’ve ever really seen.
I keep breaking into tears, because I thought that my country and its ideals were a joke, but now I’ve found that underneath it all, I still believed in the ideals. It’s been a long 8 years not knowing that about myself.
So please, share your stories in comments about how it’s been for you these past 8 years.