Convince Me. Convince Me. Convince Me.

This article comes from Mary Beth Saffo in Cambridge - abridged so read the whole thing - it's powerful.

The Cynic & Senator Obama

The cynic wants to believe. But far too much has happened, and inspiration is no longer enough. The cynic will need to be convinced. [. . . . .]

The cynic doesn’t think he’s wiser or more clever or more politically attuned than anyone else. It’s just that he fears that, every morning, he’ll discover that his country has done something to deface itself further, that something else he thought solid will tremble and quake and fall to ruin, that his fellow citizens will sell more of their birthright for some silver that they can forge into shackles. [. . . . ] He works the knobs and finds the [Obama] speech on some local public-radio station. [ . . . . ]The cynic decides that politics is better on the radio, the same way baseball is, where you have to construct the scene in your own head. Radio is for dreamers. Television is for hucksters, and it has leached from American politics all of its creative imagination.

[. . .] “Freedom,” the water tower reads. There was a time when the cynic would have read into this the hand of what the powdered-wig set in Philadelphia called “Divine Providence.” It would have been more than a landmark. It would have meant something else entirely. But politics has lost its imagination and it is dead to metaphor, and the cynic sees the water tower that says “Freedom,” and it’s only a measure of how utterly lost he is.

Convince me, he says to himself. Convince me that I’m wrong. Convince me that there’s enough left that’s worth saving. Convince me that there are enough people left who care enough to save it. Convince me. Convince me. Convince me.

And the cynic turns away from the center of town and back out onto the cold, narrow road that leads out of Freedom.
Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost.

More than anything else, the presidential election ongoing is -- or, as a right, ought to be -- about ending an era of complicity. There is no point anymore in blaming George Bush or the men he hired or the party he represented or the conservative movement that energized that party for what has happened to this country in the past seven years. They were all merely the vehicles through whom the fear and the lassitude and the neglect and the dry rot that had been afflicting the democratic structures for decades came to a dramatic and disastrous crescendo. The Bill of Rights had been rendered a nullity by degrees long before a passel of apparatchik hired lawyers found in its text enough gray space to allow a fecklessly incompetent president to command that torture be carried out in the country’s name. The war powers of the Congress had been deeded wholesale to the executive long before Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and a passel of think-tank cowboys found within them the right of a fecklessly incompetent president to make war unilaterally on anyone, anywhere, forever. The war in Iraq is the powerful bastard child of the Iran-Contra scandal, which went unpunished.

The ownership of the people over their politics -- and, therefore, over their government -- had been placed in quitclaim long before the towers fell, and the president told the people to be just afraid enough to let him take them to war and just afraid enough to reelect him, but not to be so afraid that they stayed out of the malls.

It had been happening, bit by bit, over nearly forty years. Ronald Reagan sold the idea that “government” was something alien. The notion of a political commonwealth fell into a desuetude so profound that even Bill Clinton said, “The era of Big Government is over” and was cheered across the political spectrum, so that when an American city drowned and the president didn’t care enough to leave a birthday party, and the disgraced former luxury-horse executive who’d been placed in charge of disaster relief behaved pretty much the way a disgraced former luxury-horse executive could be expected to behave in that situation, it could not have come as any kind of surprise to anyone honest enough to have watched the country steadily abandon self-government over the previous four decades. The catastrophe that is the administration of George W. Bush is not unprecedented. It was merely inevitable. The people of the United States have been accessorial in the murder of their country.

Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost.

Most of the damage was in plain sight in 2004, when Barack Obama became a political star by giving a speech in which he told America what a great country it was, and what great people were in it, and then the country went out and reelected George W. Bush anyway. Then came even further revelations -- of warrantless spying, of a Justice Department turned into little more than a political chop shop, of torture and black prisons, of the length and breadth and sheer audacity of the lies that led to a seemingly endless war. The Democrats even took over the Congress in 2006. And nothing, it seemed, changed. Nobody was held responsible. White House aides simply ignored congressional subpoenas. Documents vanished. E-mails were accidentally deleted. The sound of the shredders working in a hundred different offices in the executive branch of the government must today sound like the starting line at Daytona five seconds before they drop the flag.

Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost.

That is the election that the cynic thought we’d have in 2008, an epochal choice of wisdom over stupidity, energy over apathy, grimly serious business over shiny trivialities. He was no less a sucker than any of his countrymen for appeals to the better angels of his nature. But this time around, he wanted those angels to be carrying flaming swords. He thought he’d measured the wreckage, walked through the ruins, and counted the cost. He didn’t think he was smarter than his countrymen or shrewder about his politics or wiser in the ways of the world. The cynic simply thought he was adequate to the times, and he didn’t want to be “moving on” just yet. He didn’t want an election that offered absolution without confession, without penance.

Instead, he got an incredible collection of clowns on the Republican side; he was at one debate in which three of them, 30 percent of the Republican field, declined to state publicly that they believed in evolution. (Looking at the bunch of them on stage, the cynic began to have his own doubts.) [. . .] On the other side, an equally sizable field thinned itself down pretty quickly. Hillary Rodham Clinton was bright and enthusiastic, and her campaign seemed to be doing everything correctly, but she was engaged without being particularly engaging, her campaign something out of 1972. Barack Obama, as the tennis coaches say, wrong-footed her almost from the start.

The cynic had been in the hall for Obama’s big speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It was beautifully written, impeccably delivered, and its rhetoric was thrilling. Obama took the crowd through the incredible ethnographic stewpot of his upbringing -- Kenyan father, white Kansan mother, a brief stint living in Indonesia, high school in Hawaii, and then Columbia and Harvard Law -- and when he got to the peroration, the cynic knew that Obama had won the country as surely as he had lost the cynic himself.

“Yet, even as we speak,” Obama said, “there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spinmasters and the negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.”

(A month later, at the Republican convention, the cynic saw fat little delegates and their fat little wives wearing Purple Heart Band-Aids to mock John Kerry’s war wounds. He saw the Swift Boat ads. The country bought it. The country moved on.)
“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America, there’s the United States of America.”

(Three months later, the cynic watched black voters be systematically disenfranchised in key precincts all over the country. There was no anger. There were no demonstrations. There was no great rising in defense of a fundamental right. There was, instead, nothing. The country bought it. The country moved on.)

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans and blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. We are all of us one people, all of us defending the United States of America.”

(Over the next several months, the cynic watched as the Republicans masterfully used the threat of gay people getting married to gin up turnout where they needed it the most. It was a creepy, shabby election that wasn’t about anything that was really happening in the country. The country bought it. The country moved on.)

So when Obama caught fire in Iowa this year and then moved along through the process, bedeviling the Clintons and selling out the halls, the cynic wondered when he was finally going to measure the wreckage, walk through the ruins, or count the cost. Obama was critical enough of what had happened over the previous seven years; his early opposition to the war in Iraq gave him an unbeatable trump card against Edwards and Clinton and tremendous cachet with younger and more liberal voters. But as Obama’s campaign gathered strength, the cynic kept hearing that 2004 speech again, in bits and pieces, in every stump speech Obama gave, and he saw that what Obama was offering was exactly what the country did not need. He was offering absolution without confession, without penance. In 2007, when asked about the possibility -- just the possibility -- of impeaching George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney, Obama scoffed at the idea, not entirely because it was constitutionally unsound but also because it was impolite and a nuisance and might make many people angry at one another, and he was, after all, running to help save us from ourselves.

“We would, once again, rather than attending to the people’s business, be engaged in a tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, nonstop circus.”

He was offering a guilty country a nolo plea. Himself. Absolution without confession. The cynic declined the deal. There were not enough people in handcuffs yet.

The cynic will admit that it’s all great politics. Tell America that it is a great country that simply has lost its way for a spell. Tell the American people that they are a great people who are better than those hucksters who come to divide us. It has a marvelous anesthetic appeal. Swirl down through the clouds of memory and forget that the country allowed itself to follow George Bush over the cliff not merely because it was shocked by the attacks of September 11, 2001, but because it was too pissing-down-the-shoes scared to do anything else. Forget about how eagerly the American people cheered the brutish and the nasty, how simple it was to sell raw animal vengeance dressed up as geopolitical wisdom, and how dumbly everyone followed until well after it was revealed that the people selling it didn’t know enough about the world to throw to a cat. This was the era of complicity. Can Obama end it, thought the cynic, without admitting it ever existed?

We have not been a great country for a very long time, the cynic believes, and it does us no good to claim otherwise. We are not an honest and decent people in our politics, in the way we deal with one another as a political commonwealth. We will trade away our most precious rights in exchange for a bag of magic charms, and even when we find out that these include the black prison, the waterboard, and the secret microphone, we’ll think we got the better of the deal. We’ll swap our obligation to intelligent self-government for any huckster’s trick that makes us laugh or keeps us entertained in our cars for the evening drive-time shift. We hold this truth to be self-evident -- that all men are out to get what’s ours.

[. . ] The cynic wondered if Obama was tough enough, so he went to the far South Side of Chicago, where Obama did his community organizing. Snow was mixing with rain, and a woman stood on the sidewalk, screaming at the raw and empty air, trash blowing all around her shoes until she screamed at the trash and then ran down an alley. He stopped by the Lilydale First Baptist Church a few blocks away, where Pastor Alvin Love was finishing up Sunday service, and Pastor Love talked about the young Barack Obama, who’d come to him to do community organizing through the various churches in the area. “Barack kind of broke down those barriers for us, because it was easy for us to get into our own agenda,” Love recalled. “And it was all the neighborhoods on the South Side, and all the pastors were saying the same thing, so finding out that we had more in common than we thought was an eye-opening experience.” Obama also worked in the Altgeld Gardens, a housing development built in 1945 atop an ecological hellspout where two thousand families lived on an old landfill and hard by fifty-three different sites that had been designated as “toxic” by one study of the area. He left an impression as a stubborn, stiff-necked grinder with a gift for changing tactics on the fly. His very first meeting at Altgeld Gardens did not go well, Pastor Love recalled. An arrogant city bureaucrat got everybody’s back up. Half the people wanted to walk out, and the other half wanted to deck the guy.

“Barack wouldn’t quit,” Love said. “He pulled us off to the side and he said, Well, we messed that up. We didn’t see that coming. We need to strategize right now about how to deal with stuff like this and hold people accountable so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.” Altgeld Gardens, the cynic believed, was tough enough. The far South Side was tough enough.

The cynic wondered if Obama was smart enough, so he went to Harvard Law School, where Obama went and shone more brightly than he ever had before, thriving in a lush rain forest of towering egos in which every second person already has the Supreme Court in his eyes. Students bustled between classes, heads bowed, ambition fairly crackling from every pore. He stopped by the office of Professor Laurence Tribe, Obama’s mentor at the place and someone who is on the short list every time a Democratic president gets a chance to appoint someone to the Supreme Court. In 1989, Tribe took Obama on as a research assistant, putting him to work on a paper entitled, “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics,” which sounds like something Learned Hand wrote from Mars. “To deal with it, one had to get a reasonable command of the general theory of relativity and Heisenbergian physics,” Tribe explained. “So I got to know him in a context that really tested the qualities of his mind. It wasn’t a grinding kind of a job. It required a very wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and imagination.” Heisenbergian physics, the cynic believed, was smart enough. Harvard Law was smart enough.

He wondered if Obama was shrewd enough, so he went and he talked to Congressman Mike Capuano, a former mayor of the blue-collar town of Somerville in Massachusetts, who went to Congress in 1998 because he was a better street pol than the prettier, wealthier candidates he ran against in a massive brawl to succeed young Joe Kennedy to his uncle Jack’s old congressional seat. Capuano is no dreamer. He’s a hard-eyed, calculating man who endorsed Obama only because Obama convinced him that there was a chance he could win.

“I’m not on some sort of a mission,” Capuano said. “I’m looking to combine what I think is a good person, a good politician, with somebody who can win. And I try to figure it out. I try to figure out if the rest of America is capable of really getting over it and voting for a black man. And I realize there’s a shot that the answer might be yes.”

Convincing Mike Capuano, the cynic believed, was shrewd enough. Somerville is shrewd enough. So the cynic did due diligence, and at the end of it, he watched the campaign go on from Wisconsin and he realized that tough enough and smart enough and shrewd enough weren’t anywhere near enough. Not in the country in which the campaign was now taking place. Not in the country that made the intemperate eruptions of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright from a pulpit in Chicago more relevant to its choice of the next president than the speechifying of Moqtada al-Sadr from a balcony in Baghdad. Not in a country that didn’t care if there was an actual heart left in its politics as long as the candidate put his hand over where that heart should have been or wore a pin above it on his lapel. The cynic believed that journalism wasn’t enough. He felt like that woman he’d seen in Chicago, screaming into the sleet while the trash piled up around her shoes.

Patriotism, the cynic read. There were “questions” about Obama’s “patriotism.” (Reading the elite political press had long ago forced the cynic to think with quotation marks.) The cynic knew where the “questions” about Obama’s “patriotism” were coming from. They were coming from the “conservative America” that Obama had told the Democratic convention four years earlier didn’t really exist, from the fat little delegates and their fat little wives who thought the Purple Heart Band-Aids were oh so very clever. They were coming from the people who did their best to disqualify black people from voting and gay people from marrying, in those red states that Barack Obama had told the Democratic convention were only an imaginary construct meant to divide us, as though the country didn’t open its eyes wide and walk into the divide, skipping and whistling like the children of Hamelin.

“Patriotism?” the cynic thought. “Patriotism” to what? To the forms of democracy and not the tattered remnants of its substance? To the words of the Constitution but not its neutered spirit? [. .]

[. . ] This country has rolled back its constitutional order to a point where you’d think Thomas Jefferson had died as a child. It’s rolled back its jurisprudence to a point about a month before the Magna Carta. It has done so willingly, even eagerly.[. . ]

Obama takes the stage and the hall explodes, the way all the halls have exploded in this, the last really good week he will have. All the rest of the upcoming weeks and months will be about becoming aware that the country he imagines is not the America that is, and that it hasn’t been for a very long time. And the cynic realizes at last that he is more naive than anyone else here, particularly more than the slim, smooth candidate himself, stalking the stage in his edgeless way and looking out over the crowd at something in his private distance. The cynic believes in an old, abandoned country that’s no less illusory than the redeemed one Obama is promising to this crowd. Isn’t that something? the cynic thinks. Maybe that’s enough, that single revelation, just a flicker of the lost imagination. For the last time, in the roar of the crowd, it comes back to him again. Convince me America is not an illusion. Convince me that it never was. Convince me that you’re not a pious mirage. Convince me that we’re not. Now that you brought it up, convince me.

Convince me. Convince me. Convince me.