Wednesday, November 5, 2008

OKLAHOMAN HISTORY X

Well, Barack Obama was elected president last night, a moment that scares, humbles, and thrills me to the core. This country has been divided by politics for too long, and maybe this is a sign that – because voters crossed both party lines and other, media-created ones – we can heal some of the fractures.

I will not hide the fact that I voted for Obama, and that a part of me felt proud to be able to do so. However, he’s not the candidate I initially supported – that’s his new VP – and, far from the evil “liberal” tag people have tried to paint him with, he’s a moderate, and moderates don’t necessarily get as much done, because they don’t push as hard. I apologize to all the moderates – 2, maybe 3 people read this thing? – out there, but I am reminded of a joke my Constitutional History professor told in class, when he explained why he flat-out hated moderates, which, strangely enough, is very similar to a “how many blanks does it take to change a light bulb” joke I invented years earlier. Here’s his joke, paraphrased, or rather, misremembered and recited to myself in an attempt to not screw the damned thing up:

A dam breaks and a wall of water is heading towards a bridge with hundreds of people on it. What does a Conservative do about it? “The wall of water is a necessary correction in the amount of humans on the planet.” What does a Liberal do about it? “We must throw an enormous amount of money in front of the water to stop it from hitting the bridge, and then build a newer, not-yet-designed-but-better bridge next to it.” What does a Moderate do about it? Nothing. All the people die and water crushes through everything while they’re trying to please everyone.

This was, of course, his reason for being a Progressive, and not a Moderate, a political position someone had inquired about.

His name was Dr. Crockett, a 70-ish year old man who taught the two-part Constitutional History class one night a week, for three hours a night. We rarely stayed past the first hour, and if we did, it was because we were giving our Supreme Court presentations in class, and, since there were about 80 of us in there, they could go all night. He also took smoke breaks every 15 minutes, and coughed up chunks of what must have been his remaining lung every five.

It was a great series of classes. One thing most people don’t know about me is that, along with my Film and TV degrees, I also have a History degree. With honors; 4.0 and shit. One of my personal favorite moments in time to study is the year 1848 and the European Revolutions that threatened to change the social order completely, spreading equal rights across a group of countries, and which were put down violently. Historians refer to it as "The Year The World Could Have Turned, But Didn't." I got my multiple degrees by stacking classes, taking history classes as Humanities classes for my Film and TV degrees and vice versa.

The “work” you did in the Const. Hist. class was research Supreme Court cases. This meant you were assigned 2 cases per semester, and you had to get up in front of the entire class and explain the case, along with historic precedence. Sometimes, this was really boring, and you might only need 5-6 minutes to explain the Interstate Commerce Clause and how it dealt with state-to-state rail transportation. Other times, and this means when I got my “randomly” assigned cases, I got Roe v. Wade, or Gideon V. Wainwright, and that meant basically teaching the class for half-an-hour while Dr. Crockett coughed and wrote notes, and giggled at whatever jokes I could make. Yup. Jokes around Roe v. Wade. I did ‘em. They mostly involved swimming vs. paddling, but one was about the Texas judicial system, which I compared to the Nuremberg Trials, only backwards. He thought that was funny as hell, and coughed and spluttered approvingly. I also stated my political position on the issue of abortion (I’m pro-choice, but that’s another couple of entries, and I’ll summarize by saying that having a choice means you don’t have to do something, either), which I thought was mighty “vaginal-sy” of me (why is it that you have to have “balls” in order to show nerve? Does that mean all women are spineless cretins?). The rest of the class looked at me like Keith Olberman into the camera during a “Special Comment”. Or an OU fan watching us lose to Texas for the third time in four years. And what the fuck is up with that?

The two of us had one extended conversation, at the end of the second class, when I had gotten my paper over Eugene V. Debs back with a nice “A” on it – earned, damn it – and a comment about my R.V.W. joke that said something along the lines of “Nice to know someone who’s willing to voice an opinion that’s not popular in a place you can’t drink in.” I decided to thank him for that, and apologize to him for using the class as a bit of a soapbox. He coughed and chuckled, possibly both at the same time (coughled?) and said not to worry about it. He asked me why I wrote the paper over Debs, since he’s a historical figure who, while once a viable presidential candidate from inside jail (for speaking out against WWI), was disappearing from America’s collective memory. I admitted that I admired the fact that he stood for what he believed in, and never traded his position of authority for anything other than results. The man walked the walk and talked the talk. I admitted I wasn’t a Socialist, and that I thought humanity would never be ready for the amount of altruism and empathy true Socialism requires; you have to know why you’re giving up certain things and agree to do so in order for it to work, which means you have to care for your neighbor, sometimes, more than yourself. We’ll never get there, I said.

Cough. Cough.

"Well, you’re probably right. But it’s nice to know that some people have enough faith in people to think they might be able to do it. Sometimes just knowing those people can make the difference.”

I also told him about my research into Oklahoma’s history, and how Socialism was once a relatively big part of Oklahoma’s initial government. We elected some real Socialists, and everything. There’s a very radical, leftist part to the early history of Oklahoma, which I thought was interesting, considering how right-wing the state had swung during my lifetime. Mmm-hmmm, he muttered. “But let me tell you about Oklahoma’s ‘radical’ nature.” He then proceeded to tell me about the one big anti-war protest held on the OU campus during the Vietnam War.

“Oh, it was big – a couple of thousand students and teachers all gathered around, with signs, bullhorns, songs and everything. Then, the police showed up and told everyone to leave.”

Cough.

“And they did.”

He laughed at this, and I did, too. He’d told the story like a great comedian, building up the size and ferocity of the crowd, which immediately gave in the moment someone in authority told them to. The punch line was both hilarious and telling, and his point was clear; no one was willing to go to jail, and no one was willing to fight back. The “protest” was all about following the crowd – everybody else is doing it, so why can’t we? (“Linger” begins to play). The leftist movement at the start of the 20th century wasn’t just a few fanatics and bath-avoiding people at the time; it was a full blown movement, and Debs was a national hero, not just “that ass-hat” who wants to get laid at a peace rally. Oklahoma, he was saying, followed trends, it never started them. When it came down to the business of implementing anything, ahhh... there’s the rub. As soon as Socialism was destroyed as a political force nationally, it died here, and never raised its head with any import again. As the country moved further to the right during the 80’s and 90’s, so did Oklahoma, up to where it is today, about as far to the right as you can get without meeting yourself on the other side – a bit less Conservative than North Korea, but not quite as far left as Jasper, TX. Eventually, the state will shift back to the left a bit, as the country always does after the turn of the century, but it will never get as far to the left as its early, radical days, because those progressive, radical days will never return to the United States. Never. Never ever ever.

(Not that those early days were some sort of leftist paradise here, oh no. But imagine trying to be elected as a Socialist candidate in Oklahoma right now. “Hi. I’m David Murphy, and I’m running for office as a member of the Socialist Party.” “Are you fucking kidding me? Officer!”)

One thing I’ve noticed about Oklahoma in the past few years is how openly hateful it’s become towards anyone who slinks past Moderate into “Liberal.” There are many reasons for that: the abundance of ultra-conservative talk radio, which more rural Oklahomans are going to listen to, since it’s the only thing out there, except for NPR, and they don’t listen to it because it’s “biased”; the continual bullshit of this being the “heartland” of America, because it’s in the middle of the country, and has all that small town blah-blah-blah-whatever, which is supposed to be what America should stand for, not those evil cities, where nothing good can ever come; and what I call the “squeezing the air out of the bag effect”.

The “squeezing the air out of the bag effect” is illustrated as follows: you want to put something in a plastic bag that seals and ship it in a box. So that the bag takes up less space, you want to get the air out of it, so you close the end and press the air inside towards the seal, so that it will eventually get pushed out, leaving you with less air in the bag, so it takes up less space in the box. Before you get the air out, though, it bulges towards the end of the bag you’re pushing towards, which gets harder and harder to squeeze out. Think of that as a group of people who refuse to turn with the tide: Racists, for example. As these people get squeezed out as society progresses and understands how bad prejudice and racism are – not to mention how fucking stupid prejudice and racism are – not to mention how incredibly stupid the justifications for prejudice and racism have become -- not to mention how embarrassing it is to remember how na├»ve and stupid you can be when you’re uninformed and don’t know what words like “jigaboo” mean, goddamn I used that word so often before I actually knew what it meant that I’m about to throw up on the keyboard as I type this – I’ll start the sentence over now. As these people get squeezed out as society progresses and understands how bad prejudice and racism are, they’ll bunch up where they can and get harder and tougher in their stance as they’re pushed out of society. That’s a decent sized portion of Oklahoma for you; pushed to the extremes as the rest of the country moves on, and, because they can’t understand why they’re wrong and are too fucking caught up in “lost lifestyles” and “lost ways of life” to understand that there’s a reason why those things are LOSING, that they become more ingrained in their ways, instead of questioning them, which all human beings should do every once in a while.

It’s easy to either dismiss these people or ridicule them, and there are perfectly good reasons to do both, but in doing so, all we do is create a “siege mentality”, where all they do is associate with people who agree with them, and have their beliefs entrenched further. This solves nothing. It proves nothing. It makes people feel even more like outsiders than they already do – earned in many ways, of course because they're fucking bigots -- but that doesn't mean you stop trying to reach them. Lead by example, and you never know what you can accomplish. I heard a quote last night that, of people who considered themselves prejudiced at one time, being regularly around the person they were prejudiced against, such as at work or school, 90 percent of the time, it eliminated the prejudice. There are dozens of real-world examples we can use to prove this, from the person Derek Vineyard (American History X) is based on, to Malcolm X, on whom the film Malcolm X is based.

Now, I've tried this before. If you read the previous blog, you remember that I dated a red-haired beauty who turned out to be a bigot. True that. She did, in fact, hide her prejudices from me because I stated up front in our relationship that I didn't like prejudiced people. I guess it's a sign that she actually cared about me that she hid it as long as she could. It finally came out after we went to see that damned Wong Foo blah-blah-blah movie, where the magic gay people who are played by stridently (vocally so) non-gay actors save a small town from itself. Afterward, I said the movie was okay. She said, "Yeah, it was okay, except for all the gay stuff." Picture me, eyes wide open, yet another revelation dropped in my lap. I decided to stick around and try to change her by example, and this turned into what the interweb peoples call an "Epic Fail". She eventually got to where she was talking about shooting Bill Clinton, and I knew I had to get out, which led to the, again, embarrassing-yet-necessary answering machine message.

I made a choice I hated but needed at the time, and something I wish I'd done earlier in my life, when I was much more tolerant about what people said about the "Others", which actually means I didn't have the vaginals to get away; I wanted them to be my friends because I hate loneliness.

Let me tell you, loneliness is much better than pettiness.

When I began grad school at OU and started teaching, I decided that it was time to make sure I walked and talked the walktalk. Conservative students? I let them talk. Liberal students? I let them talk. Bewilderingly silly sorority girls who wanted to keep midgets as pets? Yuppers. (Oh, no shit. This happened. Greatest quote ever? "It's always sad when somebody dies. Especially midgets.") The idea here was to give everyone a legitimate voice; the idiots would hang themselves, and the serious ones would get a soapbox. The rest might learn a little bit of tolerance to other points of view besides their own. I talked about Doctor Who. Every once in a while, I taught some writing. Greatest compliment I ever got was from a student who told his counselor that he felt students could talk about anything in my class, no matter how much I disagreed with them, and they would be treated fairly. I loved teaching. I miss it dearly.

(Goddamn certain people.)

So, while watching John McCain's concession speech last night, I felt sorry for him. I don't think McCain's a bigot, or anything like that. I think he allowed himself to be coached by people who felt that the "Squeezed" peoples would take the vote, and not the squeezers. They were wrong, and John McCain's reputation will never recover. He came a hell of a long way with his speech last night, where he said exactly what needed to be said in exactly the right way, making him almost Shakespearean in his tragedy; Othello never got such bad advice. What we need to do now is build on what HE said. Obviously, Barack Obama's election is a sign that things in this country have gotten better. But make no mistake, complacency will kill this event. What McCain said about this being a historical event is right, and something many of the people who voted for him will have to understand. I know some people who voted for McCain who feel very left out of this event. While Obama's victory is historical, they see that, but they also lost a presidential election, and that means that, no matter how much they may understand the importance of this election, they can't enjoy it, because they lost.

Now is not the time to throw this in their faces. Now is not the time to squeeze against those who can't see this as anything but a lost campaign. Now is the time to engage in two of the things that America seems to have lost over the past few years: Empathy and Altruism. These two things, these two unselfish parts of our psyche have been in short supply the last few years, deadened by a constant negation in the manner our politicians have acted, and also by those who used recent events to greedily take more than what they might have honestly earned. Folks, there's a difference between having money and having all the money you can get. Selfishness and greed are Un-American and "not good". The Drive to Succeed is what we learn about in the history books, and that is why we cherish those people who, upon making their fortune, use it to help others. Those jackasses who can't live with less than 200 million dollars, and who will do anything to attain it want one thing: Independence. And power. Two Things. And the status those levels of income can provide. Three things. There are three things...oh, fuck it.

Now is the time to change the way we talk to each other. Instead of referring to all Republicans as bigoted bastards, we need to understand that in doing so, we are no better than those people who saw Obama getting elected last night as a sign that the country is headed to hell in a hand basket. The key to getting people understanding how stupid prejudice is turns on one question: How many of the people you are against do you actually know? How can you say all black people are shiftless and lazy when you can't possibly know more than .000000000000000000001 percent of them? And the same with Conservatives, or Republicans, or whatever side you immediately roll your eyes about when they're mentioned?

The country's moving back to the center again, and I hope Oklahoma doesn't take too long to follow suit. The important thing is to make this more than just a fad to follow, like protesting "The War", being "Socialist", or wearing flannel. Please, don't wear flannel again unless you're cold, or you're a lumberjack. Come the fuck on, people.

What has to happen is a change in the way America sees itself. Far from the perfect, City-On-A-Hill that's always mentioned by people, and which is almost always misunderstood or misused, we are a bunch of human beings with roots from all across the planet, possibly the first country that can claim that. And, in that, it means we are literally citizens of the World. Not as in the "One World, One Government" stuff many End-Timers scream in terror about, but as in America IS the World, in a microcosm (maybe not so micro). For better and for worse, the rest of the world looks to us. What we do now with this opportunity is how the rest of the world will turn. We can come together, embrace our differences and how those differences make us better, and, thus, make the world better. This cannot be a fad -- something that's hip and cool one minute and then ridiculed on one of those fucking Vh1 (I mean, the "List Channel") "Remember the 00's?" specials.

If it is a fad, then we need to ride it as long as we can. Maybe we can get it from cool to crap to kitsch so fast we can turn it into nostalgia. Maybe then we'll remember the things we have yet to do as the time the world got to a turning point.

And it did.

Cough.

5 comments:

Christal said...

I'd like to follow that post with an Amen. Something I hadn't said out loud in years until last night during Obama's acceptance speech. Yes we fucking can! I'm usually really cynical about everything, and I was totally moved and energized by the feeling last night.

I agree with you on the balls issue as well. What is it being a total bad ass rebel makes you ballsy, but being a simpering idiot makes you a pussy. Granted I call people pussies all the time, but still it's always kind of bothered me.

Mark said...

Many comments, little time. So I'll have to enumerate them.

1) I hope you pegged Obama incorrectly; his policies certainly seem moderate, but is that a true reflection of his character? His life history indicates progressive motivations, tempered by a desire to allow the system to supplant the individual. As editor to Harvard's Law Review, he purposefully choose a team of editors with whom he disagreed so that he could publish a more inclusive journal. His speeches reflect this, as well. They all reference a state of inclusion that -- to Obama -- necessarily must take precedent over individual ideology. Like you (and me) in our classes, he sacrifices the "right" policy for the policy most reflective of the people.

This, of course, is not progressive, but its not moderate, either. I think he is the first truly postmodern president, willing to render himself a sieve for the will of the people. The great thing about Obama's philosophy is that it can create consensus. The bad thing about his philosophy is that it won't make everybody happy (more likely it will make everybody slightly disgruntled) so why not simply enact the "right" policy from the get-go? (see his health care plan vs. Hillary's). Still, I have great hope (and some faith) that he'll fix that dam.

2) Love the illustration of the bag, but I wish you had written, along with racism, about religion. Protestant leaders decried Obama and instigated fears about an Obama presidency (and not just the fears that are normally assigned to Democrats, but fears that truly tap into people's darkest psyches). I know a lot of these people, and I have had many many long conversations with them via e-mail and phone, explaining that he is not a Muslim (forget the argument that a Muslim has a legitimate right to be president), explaining that just because he supports a woman's right to choose does not mean that he believes abortion is morally correct (forget the argument that some people do not recognize a fetus as a human life, and that others respect that disposition), and explaining that his connection to Rev. Wright is no different than their connections to their own churches (except that in Wright's sermons, God is punishing America because of the dominant white class's abuse of African Americans, and that in my friends' pastors' sermons, God is punishing America because of people's acceptance of homosexuality). In the end, I flipped only one vote: the vote of my Dad, who has never voted for a Democrat in his life. And I had help: my younger brother's homosexuality served as powerful cannon fodder to wedge between my Dad and his political leanings, especially after McCain picked his VP.

3) I couldn't agree with you more about McCain; in many ways, he should have been President for the past eight years (I still would have voted for Gore in 2000, even if McCain had won the nomination); but McCain's desire to be President ruined him, like it does so many others. He defied Bush the first four years of Bush's presidency. Then, after Bush won his incumbency, McCain began licking Bush's balls (I have a theory about this: McCain strategically waited to woo the right until he knew he had to do it; secretly, he wanted Kerry to win in 2004 so he could run as the Maverick against a fairly lackluster Democratic candidate in 2008). And by tying himself to an administration as heavy as an albatross, McCain committed political suicide.

4) Isn't it weird how momentous events seem, in the immediate past, so life-altering? Then, in the not-too-distant-past, merely important? But then, in the historical past, and placed in proper context, invaluable? On the bus today, I overheard the following: "God, I'm glad this election is over so I start following football again." Complacency already is creeping in. In time, though, this event will mean more historically than it ever will mean in the short term. It will become a symbol of progress, repeated in text books and at dinner tables, and it will belong to everybody, not just those who voted for Obama.

5) Finally, you're right. We need to take the high road on this one. But the angry 25% is already on the attack, claiming Obama is going to negotiate with Iran, scoffing at his choice of cabinet members, and making derogatory comments about the images of Af. Americans celebrating in the streets. Some of us won't bite (I resisted earlier today when a friend claimed that I had voted in support of, and I quote, "a baby killer") but others of us will. Fuck. I will, eventually.

Mark said...

Oh yeah ... great piece, as always. Keep writing. The two to three of us who read it appreciate it, and hope that your audience grows.

Elisha said...

David, this is very well put and an absolute pleasure to read. I couldn't agree more with regard to unpopular opinions, the act of slinking past moderate into liberal, Shakespearean tragedy, squeezing the bag, and the Drive to Succeed (I used to refer to it as Economic Calvinism ;-)). Permission to quote a healthy chunk, properly attributed, online?

sadkingjonathan said...

I found the bag metaphor touchingly apt.