Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reflections on Obamarama

On the morning of November 4th, all the newspapers in Paris, from Le Figaro to Le Metro to Le Monde, said one thing: TOUT LE MONDE REGARDE L'AMERIQUE: Everyone watches America. Obama shirts flooded the metro; a stagnant tension fell upon the city. I cannot imagine how it must have been in the states, when even four thousand miles away from New York, a city held its breath.

We in Paris fell into the glorious kitsch that is Obama, throwing ourselves at the feet of his legacy. We sobbed together, cheered watching the television in a bar until 5:15 in the morning, when the streets near the Opera erupted, as if ablaze, with sheer happiness. Flags waved, we hugged people we had never seen before, and, for the first time in far too long--perhaps since September 11th-- that I was proud, yes, proud, to call myself a citizen of the United States of America.

And it is time t think about what this means for us, for the country, and for the world. Tout le monde regarde l'Amerique: this title alone speaks volumes about the almost mythological aura surrounding the Obama campaign. That Barack Obama, senator from Illinois, African-American, 47-years old, graduate of my very own Columbia University, has the power to inspire nations across the Atlantic, to bring the highest voter turnout since 1908 (about 65%--astonishing), to bring a roaring crowd at my very own Grant Park in my very own city of Chicago to tears-- yes, tears--and to become president against all odds: this is a historic moment.

And we must look upon it as such, because this might very well be the defining moment of a generation. To borrow a quote from a MGMT lyric, "the youth is starting to change." We are no longer the apathetic isolated individuals of the '80s and '90s; we are no longer the scathingly bitter, ironic and snide youth of even these past 8 years. We have become inspired.

"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."

We must consider, then, what it means to have Barack Obama as our President Elect. Obama has become less a man than a symbol, and for this very reason the 2008 presidential election was as important as it was. This is why the Vespas of Paris have Obama stickers, why even Parisians celebrated 'til dawn, when the results were announced, why journalists flooded the streets, without knowing Obama's foreign policies or the history of his political career. Obama is a symbol of, well, change, however hackneyed the phrase may be. I have seen a few of my friends (thankfully, only a few) turn questioning, apathetic, dubious. And it is for the few like them that I write this, for them to hopefully see that regardless of the kitsch (and there is a lot of kitsch), and the shouting, and the madness, there is a magic here.

At the same time, Obama is a landmark for other reasons, change regardless: he is, by all definitions of the world, a public intellectual. By being the President Elect, he has broken the boundaries separating a world that, since Reagan and especially since Eisenhower, been divided between "the people" and "the intellectuals," the "big-shots" and the "Joe Shmos." That is to say, we elected Obama regardless of his so-called "elitism," something Columbia University has found itself repeatedly attacked for by Bill O'Reilly. The United States is no longer a symbol of obesity and stupidity, of gun-toting cowboys and a fear-based society. We have evolved. We are still obese, but we have, for the first time in a while, made the right decision.

Coincidentally, and somewhat unrelatedly, Obama's success means wonders for the city of Chicago. I have lived in Chicago (Chicago proper, Chicago-the-city-not-the-suburbs, Chicago Uptown, North Side, 7 minute drive from the Loop, child of the CPS), since I was 4. Never in my life has Chicago been more in the spotlight. To see the Grant Park where I ate Rainbow Cones at the Taste, ran around the fountain, sketched and painted, moshed to Gogol Bordello at Lollapalooza--to see it illuminated on a screen in a bar in the 9th arrondissement of Paris-- that in and of itself nearly brought me to tears. Chicago is Obama's city. He taught at the University of Chicago, he *was* our senator. Even when he was just elected senator, there were virtually parades in the streets. Chicago is glowing, and it's not just the electricity. And here we also have the possibility of the Olympics arriving in our hometown in 2016 (we're crossing our fingers until October 2009!), a possibility perhaps augmented by this marvelous election.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. "

338 Electoral Votes. A lead of 7 million popular votes. Florida. Virginia. Michigan. New Mexico. One intellectual, charismatic, and inspirational President Elect.

Yes, America, we can, and we did. From the bottom of this bleeding-heart liberal's secular humanistic soul, I thank you. I have never been happier.


L.Z.H. said...


Steverino said...

Thanks for the lengthy report about it was like to be in Paris on the night of the 2008 Election. I had read a few others and yours captured the same euphoria they did as well.

I went down to Grant Park that night, even with a "pass" it was bedlam and pride. Huge police presence but no problems. The sound, the constant movement of folks and spontaneous shouting of pride is something I will never forget.

And remember, this was happening in the same general area of the 1968 Democratic Convention police riots, across from the Hilton Hotel -- where Obama is now holding his news conferences announcing his cabinet.

Oh how sweet it is in "Sweet Home Chicago!"