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Our better angels


December 2008


While President-elect Barack Obama’s inspiring election night rhetoric borrowed from Lincoln’s first inaugural address (“Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection…”) and echoed Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the mountaintop” admonition that “the road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep,” many Americans will be forgiven if the evening recalled another new president’s words upon assuming office _ those of Gerald Ford (who followed the disgraced Richard Nixon): “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”


Obama wisely did not strike an overly celebratory tone in his measured and sober remarks, for though his election marks the end of the Bush-era thuggish and bellicose incompetence, repairing the damage done at home and abroad will be difficult. And although the country’s election of its first-ever black commander-in-chief signals a welcome repudiation of its racist roots, no one can indulge the illusion that we now enjoy a post-racial society.


We must also temper our enthusiasm about the president-elect himself as we note that candidate Obama — evidently eager to demonstrate his toughness — called for executing prisoners for non-violent sex crimes, abandoned his pledge to oppose wholesale domestic spying on law-abiding citizens, and seemed all-too-willing to continue projecting US military might around the globe.


Nonetheless, Obama’s win and the manner in which he achieved it are good news, especially for gay people.


First, Obama explicitly attacked fear as a campaign tactic. Gay people well know that fearful people do not exhibit their best traits. Obama, like FDR, understands that fear itself is our enemy. After more than seven years of a steady diet of color-coded alerts and McCarthy-esque innuendo directed at anyone questioning the president’s policies, the election of Barack Hussein Obama is welcome relief.


Second, Obama rejected appeals to identity politics, choosing to emphasize the nation’s unum more than its pluribus. Gone was the notion of a “rainbow coalition” of sometimes competing tribal identities, replaced by a vision of people united by a common commitment to justice for all and equality under the law. Obama’s skillful avoidance of being boxed in as “the black candidate” served not only his political interests, but helped white America get past its own blinkered limitations. We are indeed a better people when the content of one’s character transcends the color of one’s skin — or the gender of one’s sex partners!


And third, after eight years of government catering to the Ÿber-rich, economic events conspired to allow Obama to advance the notion of progressive tax reform. Discussion of class issues has been notoriously difficult in the United States, with anyone advocating the sensible policy of “spreading the wealth” quick to be branded a communist. But Obama’s steady message of redirecting tax cuts previously aimed at the wealthy to, instead, the middle (and lower) classes resonated with voters watching their paychecks shrink and retirement savings evaporate.


And though little-discussed, gay people have a particular interest in this economic justice issue. By exploiting racism and anti-gay animus, Republicans have concocted an unnatural alliance of moneyed interests and social reactionaries. Obama’s victory has left the Republican coalition shattered, as many socially conservative white folks seem to have, at long last, realized that they’ve been played by the economic elite.


Let us hope that Obama’s win will forever make it harder for any group to be used as bogey men, meant to distract voters from their true self interests, and that we can proceed with malice toward none, and with charity for all, to bind up the nation’s many wounds.


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