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05 November 2008

Transformation

There have been many pivotal, maybe even transformative, national and international events that have occurred during in my lifetime. I was born during the waning days of Eisenhower's presidency. I don't remember JFK's assassination for what it was on a national level but for the phenomenal event of my father moving the television into the dining room for the latest news updates and for my brothers jumping over chairs, nearly knocking over my younger sister's high chair, to turn off the TV when Ruby shot Oswald.

I remember the shock of hearing of King's assassination during an interruption of a favorite TV show -- I think it was Bewitched -- and my sister waking me up in tears to tell me about Bobby Kennedy being killed two months later. The nuns at school, their eyes red and puffy, led us in prayers for most of the next morning. I can remember these event, and they are not without impact on my life, but they weren't significant in a personal way.

Beginning around age 10 I began to read the paper on a regular basis and one of my favorite things was Howard K Smith's Commentary at the end of the evening newscast. The Vietnam War was going on and I knew about hippies and radicals and student protests in far away places like Berkley and not so far away like Kent State. I remember my older brother, a college student, telling me that I better start paying attention because the Republicans had done something really stupid at a hotel in Washington and it would be big news. This angered my father, an avid Nixon supporter and staunch Republican, very much. I watched the television coverage of Nixon walking across the White House lawn to the waiting helicopter and waving one last goodbye in August of '74. A teenager by then, I knew that this was a momentous -- and somewhat frightening event to adults -- to see a President both disgraced personally and be disgraceful of the honor of his office. But still, these events were remote, contained to the nightly news and morning papers.

As I ended high school and began college, it seemed that I had several friends who wanted to brand themselves as like the 60’s radicals but failed to ever find an identity of their own. They wanted to fight against the mainstream. We found our heroes in the idea of those who rebelled in the '60s and were somewhat disappointed that we had not been born a few years sooner so that we could have self-righteously worked for truth and justice and good in the world. So that we could have made a change.

But, even as we expressed wistful regrets that we had somehow missed the big happenings of the Baby Boom era that we were still a part of, we understood the feelings of Alex's friends gathered in The Big Chill: that it all might have been for naught. We weren't so arrogant to believe that we could have made it better, but we lacked a sense of calling and purpose that we saw in our older boomer peers. They were selling out, so we just got stoned, had fun, made ourselves into our images of philosophizing intellectuals, did nothing more radical than act as escorts at Planned Parenthood clinics, try to support the small population of Middle Eastern students at our university who were being spat upon and jeered in '79 - 80, or lamely protest US intervention in places like El Salvador.

After graduation, many of my like-minded students -- a small minority of the university by any count -- rushed to law school, or to get MBAs, or into corporate America. Still, as we took our places in the mainstream adult world, I think that a few of us felt that we had missed out, that fate, the chance of birth had played a trick on us, depriving us of an experience, a sense of community perhaps, that we never had the opportunity to experience. We didn't get our 'moment'.

Through the Reagan years we moaned about the Moral Majority and trickle down theories. We watched in horror as the Challenger blew up and thought that this might be our generations 'Where were you when ....' event. We never dreamed that a little less than 20 years later something far more inconceivable than a spacecraft malfunction would be seared into our brains and that everybody would feel empathy for the iconic New York City.

I watched Apollo missions and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. I threw away the slide rule that had been handed down by a sibling since a calculator was now the required tool in science and math. I witnessed the birth of personal computer era with a Tandy, a K-Pro, and an Apple II and parlayed my typesetting skills on a Wang into a jobs as a computer operator, then trainer, then software developer. A new profession for which few had studied allowed me access to a career that I never would have imagined when I nearly failed a college computer class when I carelessly dropped hundreds of punch cards and almost didn't complete my final project. A revolution was happening every day and while I knew it was significant, I was swept up in the steady wave of changes.

It doesn't seem so revolutionary when you are in the midst of constant cultural change; it is difficult to step back from when you are living it. It isn't easy to see that things are dramatically different. I thought that an experience of 'a moment' was something that would be lost to me and my peers.

Until last night seeing Barack Obama addressing the nation in Grant Park.

"This campaign was never about me', Obama has said. "It's always been about you". November 4th, 2008 was a defining, transformational moment, a demarcation between the past and whatever is to come.

This morning I was thinking what my Dad would have thought about Obama's election. I am doubtful that, if he were alive, he would have voted for Obama. I think he would have had immense disagreement with the Bush administration, but I think he would have liked John McCain. But....he would have been watching the midnight speech. I think he would say that he understood the exuberance of African-Americans and he would have compared it to how he felt as a Catholic when John F Kennedy was elected. Although miles apart economically, like my Dad, Kennedy was Irish and Catholic, and he opened doors for all who had been called 'mics'. There is a bond in the shared commonality of those who have suffered from racial discrimination that my father would have understood.

He also would have understood how much harder it has been for African Americans, and for a country as a whole that continues to struggle with the ugliness of slavery in a society of the 'free'. He would have understood the enormous significance of people of all stripes -- religiously, economically, socially, racially -- coming together to elect Barack Obama. No matter what he might have thought about the Democratic policy platform, he would have loved the fact that this was made possible by contributions of money and time by individuals, the real average Joes, and Joses, and Janes that make this country great. An army of volunteers believed that this is America and things could be different if we tried. Obama said last night that it is an American Creed "Yes I Can".

Yes, we did. This is our defining moment, and it is a glorious one. And, now, we continue with the hard work that is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy.

3 comments:

Charlotte said...

It certainly seemed like a transformational moment for me, watching it from the outside. Even though it was an American experience, I felt included, because I think Barack Obama's world-view is compassionate and inclusive. He reminds me so much of Nelson Mandela, but with 40 years on his side!

Such a superb post, Cam. Thank you very much.

Kay said...

Yes a truly superb post Cam - thanks. I can identify very much with the sense of coming in on the tail end of the Baby Boomers - the ones a little older than me (I secretly dub them the School Monitors!) always seemed so much more glamorous, fiery, politically-minded, radical, self-assured and dedicated than I ever felt ... and I can sense a little of the 'defining moment' feeling that Obama has wrought for America, and the wolrd. Congratulations to all Americans and the ripples of hope that this election result has sent around the world.
Once again, Cam, thanks for this articulate and insightful post.

Cam said...

Charlotte, I can understand your comparison. It is unfortunate that in America it has taken us so long, and, sadly, I don't think that this means that racial divisions will cease (though I wish that they would!). But, it is such a watershed event and I'm glad that I was apart of it.

Kay, I like the idea of the 'school monitors'. It is amazing how this has reverberated around the world.