Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Living History

Today, November 5th, 2008, I decided to cancel my class. I sent this out to my students explaining my decision:

"Tonight's results are historic, and this isn't a platitude. You have witnessed a profound moment in American history - this is a moment that will be more than a historical footnote. Whether you agree with the election's outcome or not, I encourage you to consider the shift that has occurred in society in the past five decades.

Fifty years ago, segregation was enforced and part of mainstream culture. Blacks and whites had separate bathrooms, separate water fountains, separate lives and citizenry. While slavery had been abolished, we were still living the legacy of reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, in which race relations were at a nadir. Lynchings and persecution of minorities were accepted practice in many communities that viewed race as a legitimate reason to denigrate others and relegate them to second class citizenship.

Fifty years ago mixed-race marriages were unacceptable, and "miscegenation" was the cause of scandal in communities. Fifty years ago people were killed for encouraging minorities to vote. Fifty years ago towns would encourage minorities to leave before sundown, so that they wouldn't be killed.

Fifty years later we have elected Barack Obama to the position of President of the United States. Fifty years later we have shown that leadership is not to be identified with race, but by national mandate and governing ideology. Fifty years later we have seen the most significant step in race relations occur in the history of the United States.

This is living history. All too often we identify history with events far in the past, associating the idea with a list of names and dates that we memorize for a test and quickly forget. We ignore the fact that history begins at the end of this sentence. History is not dead - it informs the present and shapes the future. History is one of the most important things we have. This moment will live in history, and I want you to remember it.

Learn from the next four years to see if it is possible for us to overcome the acrimony of the presidential race. Learn from the next four years if it is possible for us to overcome the profound ideological divide that had us at each others' throats. Learn if we can find a common identity as Americans, rather than red states or blue states. This is history you can tell your children, as you experienced it first hand. This is history the likes of which we as a nation have never seen before, and will define our character for the foreseeable future.

I am cancelling class tomorrow - abortion too easily serves the politics of division. I will be on campus and will hold normal office hours, but I will not teach on this issue. We will resume lecture on Monday. Use tomorrow for what purposes seem best to you, but remember that these moments are few, and far between. Use them wisely."

This is my generation's moon landing - an unparalleled event in the history the United States. This represents the best the United States has to offer. This is the kind of event that restores faith in the voting public and is a resounding blow against the politics of division. There are times when I am ashamed for what has been done in the "national interest" and our legal obfuscations attempting to rationalize the most horrific of practices. There are genuinely times when I question whether we, as a nation, have forgotten the political ideals that informed our sense of national identity.

Then there are days like today, when I remember the good that we as a nation can do. From his first words, we have someone seeking optimism and ability. We have someone who recognizes that 50,000,000 isn't a mandate when there are 50,000,000 who voted against him, and recognizes that his political obligation is to all Americans, and not just his base. This makes me proud to be an American, through and through, and the recognition that leadership is not a partisan issue, and that times of need requires a willingness from everyone to assist.

I donated blood with hundreds of others following 9/11. I was part of a line that stretched around the block of people willing to give of themselves when the nation as a whole was attacked. I watched this sense of national identity, of collective existence, wither under puerile criticism and attack over the following seven years. I watched us return to our partisan feelings and sense of schadenfreude when some self-appointed moral paragon revealed himself to be just as human and fallible as the rest of us.

Tonight was the first time in a long time that I felt the same possibility of genuine American identity and mutual support. I hope the next four years is not more of the same. I hope that we use this time to remember that we are a pluralistic nation, not "real Americans" and "fake Americans". I hope we can remember that sense of common identity we realized during 9/11 and its aftermath. I think tonight we've all earned the right to hope.



Hanno said...

Add a by line. Wouldn't want my students to think they were getting off today just because history was made...

Lee said...

Damn it. If only i had your class on wensday.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

On common identity and 911: I consider this a destructive idea and a reductionist one, given that 911 was a very complex event, not a unipolar one. Acting forth from this "common identity" (the wars, the degradation of our individual freedoms, the degradation of the economy resulting from the wars, the degradation of our international image resulting from both the wars and the promises of further wars) has thusfar laid this nation on its side.

I can't bring this up without the obligatory political naming, but if neo-conservative (who are actually neo-liberal in philosophy)politicians are to blame for our inaccurate and disproportionate response to 911, then "the other side," or, "liberals" or democrat politicians have been almost perfectly in line with the response for the last 7 years as well.

If Obama was the change agent he has paraded to be, then we should be disengaged, with apologies, from both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as repealing the Patriot Act and all complementary legislation regarding it very soon into his term.

Civis said...

Nice post. Too bad the main choices this election were between a socialist and a facist. It is a historic event and a sign of progress, though this is not exactly a time to rejoice.

"We cannot expect the Americans to jump from capitalism to Communism, but we can assist their elected leaders in giving Americans small
doses of socialism until they suddenly awake to find they have Communism."
- Nikita Khrushchev, 1959