President Obama went before the cameras to deliver an unscheduled largely extemporaneous eighteen-minute talk in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal. He spoke clearly and movingly because Trayvon Martin was not some abstract murder victim. He was a token for something far larger — something very personal. Obama understands first hand the kind of racial profiling that led to Trayvon's death. As an African American man he could put himself in the victim's shoes; visualize a son in the same circumstance. The President's message was simple. For Black Americans, himself included, this killing and subsequent justice shortfall is personal.
When the fictional Michael Corleone declares "it's not personal, it's strictly business", we know he is being transparently disingenuous. In fact, much of what any of us do whether in business, public or private life is personal. Nowhere is that more evident than in today's politics, where the highly personal has become the order of every day. Interestingly, that we have an African American president has much to do with this renewed personalization, including an unspoken and oft-denied racism that is the proverbial elephant in our national habitat. And like Trayvon, Obama is just a symbol for our changed landscape. It isn't simply a matter of, what is this guy doing in our white house? It is also why are his fellow Others — Latinos, Asians, Indians, Gays, Lesbians, non-Christians and "nonbelievers" — coming to the fore and indeed seemingly on the brink of taking over? What's happened to our world, they ask.
Let's leave the specific issue of race to another (soon to come) post. What touched a chord in Obama's remarks was how close his personalizing the issue came to what I think is at the root of what we're experiencing in today's politics. It's a personal that is right out there in Washington (especially in the House) and in a number of mostly, but not exclusively, Southern states like Texas and here in North Carolina.
There is something counterintuitive about this surge of extreme conservatism, one often rooted in religious right ideology. After all, we do have Obama re-elected to his second term, a potential female front-runner to succeed him and multiple polls that show a shift to the left on public policies. Fifty-seven percent of us think same-sex marriages should be legal and even more (63%) think they should have equal federal benefits. According to Gallup, 72% of Americans favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The median age of conservative bastion Fox News viewers is 65 plus, while younger people consistently are found to embrace both change and diversity.
What's at play here, and the currently constituted Republican Party is the central character, relates to that what's happened to our world question. More to the point, the old America, the one that is majority white, male dominant and Christian (especially Protestant), see what they counted on as their way of life slipping away. Being part that select demographic, and regardless of their economic situation, they feel entitled. They see both that entitlement and their way of life slipping away. It has made them angry and desperate to stop the train from leaving the station. We're seeing it in the House, where a Tea Party dominated GOP majority is seeking to starve programs dear to the President and to stop an Affordable Care Act that would extend benefits to many of the people they see as the Other. Ironically, many of their constituents will be badly hurt by their actions.
The zeal to turn back the clock is even greater at the local level, especially where Republicans control both the governor's mansion and the state house. This is what's happening in Texas and in North Carolina where the state legislature has passed bills that will undermine voting (more on that in my post on race), cut funds from education, including teachers' pay and eliminating tenure and rewards for advanced degrees. Needless to say, abortion the long thorn in their religious sides is being attacked in an unmistakably coordinated restrictive legislative effort across many states including places like Ohio.
There is a mean-spirited element to all of this. But it is the sense of frantic urgency, which reflects an understanding that the clock is ticking and time is fast running out. It is always easier to pass legislation than to overturn it and their hope is that much of what they often claim to be "reform" will stick. With a highly politically uneducated and ill-informed electorate, they may be right in the short term. But we no longer live in their old America and the underlying changes under way are unstoppable. Indeed, while the Occupy Wall Street never really became a movement, Republican in their current extremism may ultimately be faced with counter Tea Party. Will that happen soon? Americans are so democratically lethargic (especially on the left) that it's hard to say. Even if it does, thanks to the way districts are drawn, the pain won't be eradicated overnight. Perhaps that's not so bad because we sometimes need to feel pain before we act.
Looking at the next generation and to the wonderful diversity that is emerging across the land there is reason to be hopeful long term. But given today's politics especially at some local levels and the support of a politically right Supreme Court, we're in for and are already having a rough ride. Can things be more personal than that?
On a really personal note: My late mother Hilde Goldsmith Prinz (1913-1993) was born 100 years ago today. She was a person totally engaged with her family and with the world. She would be pleased that Barack Obama is our president and equally appalled by the regressive things that are happening in this country and the divisiveness that abounds. My interest in the world comes directly from my parents and my sometimes outrage, especially in the face of injustice, echoes their own. So, too, does my hope. My mother arrived here as a 24-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany. She spoke no English, though learned it quickly and used it well. America gave her a home, one she dearly loved, and she would have wanted other immigrants to find their place too. Perhaps John F. Kennedy, with rhetorical flourish, proclaimed that he was a Berliner, her birthplace. She proudly and without fanfare said "I am an American" and that she was, not for an occasion but for a lifetime. I dedicate this post to her life.