Sunday, January 18, 2009

Yes we can

I hadn't expected I would ever be talking about politics on this blog, much less American politics. But then again, there are many things I hadn't expected. About two years ago I read Morris Berman's Dark Ages America, and just couldn't help agreeing with his chilling analysis of the decline of even the USA's most fundamental values under the Bush administration, and his dark predictions about the future. As Berman argued, the Roman empire fell ultimately not because of contingent external factors: its fall became inevitable, because the Romans had forgotten what Rome was supposed to be all about. Likewise, the USA seemed to have forgotten what America was supposed to be all about. Berman saw no light at the end of the tunnel of paranoia, fear, arrogance and cynicism that the USA and much of the Western world seem to have entered after 9/11, and neither did I. Every time I went to the USA during the last years I came home more depressed by the mentality of blind chauvinism and egocentrism - my country, right or wrong - that I saw and felt everywhere around me. How could one do anything but give up faith in a country that had (re-)elected a president of such monumental incompetence surrounded by a bunch of obvious crooks, a people that seemed capable of confusing democracy and freedom with the "smart totalitarianism" of neocon-plus-fundamentalist ideologies, gave new legitimacy to torture, felt free to ignore international law and basic human values, or seriously considered the option of "preventive" nuclear strikes?
What made it all even much worse was the fact that - again, as rightly emphasize by Berman - the USA had no excuse, because its population should know better. A memory I will never forget is that of october 8 to 9, one day after the invasion of Afghanistan, when I was on my way back from Los Angeles to Europe, but got stuck in Washington. An official at the airport warned me not to go downtown (she seemed to think there were terrorists everywhere), and when I did anyway, I found that one could stay in the most expensive hotels for 1/3 of the price. I got one a few blocks from the white house, and made a long walk the next day. The weather was beautiful, and although I'm told it's usually crowded, that extraordinary day I seemed to have the Mall all for myself. I began at the Lincoln Memorial and spent a long time there, reading the fragments of his speeches on the walls. I've been told that every American schoolkid is raised with this heritage, but I hadn't been, and I was deeply impressed by the profound ideals, the wisdom, the hope, and the humanity expressed in those texts.
During the years that followed, as the USA and much of the rest of the Western world (including my own country) entered their steep descent into blind irrationality, fear and hatred, I was often reminded of that visit. Thinking about the tragic distance between America's core values and its actual behaviour, in my head I used to hear those enigmatic lines from American Pie (in my case, as sung by Madonna):

I met a girl who sang the blues
and I asked her for some happy news.
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
where I'd heard the music years before,
but the man there said the music wouldn't play.

That was the mood, and it lasted eight years.

And now, this evening the music was playing again. I was watching the concert organized, at the steps of that very same Lincoln Memorial, in celebration of Barack Obama's inauguration this tuesday. I saw Bruce Springsteen, U2, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé and many others singing about hope and optimism, and I saw so many expressions of deep, genuine emotion and sheer excitement at the very thought that this open and intelligent, young and dynamic african-american president has been elected as President of the USA. And I realized, not without a feeling of shame, that I had allowed myself (along with Morris Berman and many others) to give up hope: "no we can't, forget it, this country and its mentality is beyond cure or recovery". It had simply been beyond my imagination that the same people that elected Bush in 2004 would be capable of electing a black man four years later.
What I should have realized, or rather, should not have forgotten, is the real power that resides in the ideals written on the walls of the Lincoln memorial, or in similar ones as expressed by Martin Luther King on its steps: a power that is in no way inferior to those of hatred, despair and negativity, and does not grow any less because its opposite grows stronger. And I should have remembered how many people, during these past eight years, must have felt like me, and must have been thirsting for an opportunity to believe in the future again.
Of course I know that the concert was a perfectly staged event, designed to manipulate my emotions; of course I know that the myth of Obama will soon enough catch up with reality; of course I know how difficult it is for ideals to survive in the presence of power and political realities; of course I understand that no human being can live up to these expectations, and I realize that Obama was not born on Krypton.
But for now, for the first time after eight years, I'm going to allow myself to be hopeful and optimistic, not cynical and "realistic". And whatever disappointments Obama's presidency might have in store for me, I'm grateful to him for having reminded me that, yes, we can.