Once Upon A Time

     Anyone who’s driven across the United States as often as I have has got to feel pretty good about the country. I’ve lived and worked in 12 states long enough to learn something about them and their people, and I’ve spent time in 36 other states. But until this week I hadn’t felt very good about my paisanos for a long time – since October 2001.
     What made me feel good then was that in the weeks after the terror attacks, sales of books about Muslim countries and culture increased tremendously across the United States. People bought dry books by professors the way they usually buy Danielle Steele.
     I was proud that after this insane carnage, my countrymen responded by trying to educate themselves.
     But I haven’t felt very good about my countrymen since then.
     Not until last Wednesday.
     The fact that Barack Obama will be Democratic nominee for president is just as big a step for this country as it is for Barack Obama.
     It’s difficult to believe that the country has come so far since the days when black men were lynched with impunity, when little black girls were murdered in church, since Bull Connor, George Wallace and Lester Mattox held office, since the days when even in the wealthiest town in the nation – Winnetka, Illinois – a rich white woman spit at a 7th grader because I was handing out leaflets announcing a speech by Martin Luther King.
     But it’s not over. We can expect the coming campaign to get pretty nasty pretty quickly. It already has, with the John McCain TV commercial that describes McCain as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”
     The racism of that slogan is pretty thinly veiled. McCain should know better, and he should act better, having been – amazingly – the target of racist attacks by George W. Bush’s campaign, because McCain had committed the grievous sin of adopting a girl from Bangladesh.
     It is no secret, and it is not tarring all Republicans as racists, to observe that that party depends heavily upon racist policies, and slogans, and acts, to appeal to the most unpleasant elements in our society.
     Already, the Republican Party is attacking Obama as a member of the “elite.” Think about that. A biracial man raised by a single mother in Kansas is too elite for the Republican Party: a guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and then worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. Elite.
     Such attacks, which will continue for months, make the word so meaningless that it no longer functions as a carrier of literal meaning, but only as a code word. Once, it meant Jewish, communist, intellectual. Now it means – whatever the Republican Party wants it to mean, I suppose. He’s not “like us:” he’s elite.
     Bill Bradley, a terrific basketball player and a decent senator, said that if you have never had a discussion about race with a person of a different race, then you have a problem with race. Now that Obama is on his way to the nomination, it will be difficult or impossible for this country to avoid that discussion.
     And it’s about time.
     Real discussion, about anything – not the dishonest spitting of code words – can’t possibly hurt, and will surely help.
     This election is about far more than race, of course. Perhaps its most important aspect is that whoever wins will probably nominate three Supreme Court justices. And of our three branches of government, the justice system has been most resistant to the corruption with which the Bush administration has disgraced itself, and our country, before the world. They tried to corrupt it – God knows they tried. And they did corrupt it. Give them four more years and imagine what they could do.
     Barack Obama will provide plenty of opportunity for the worst elements of our country to show themselves. That, too, I hope, could be for the good. It is long past time that all 300 million of us show openly whether we actually believe in the things we claim to believe, and whether we are willing to act like it, or whether we are actually, as we have demonstrated for the past seven years, cowardly, vengeful, small-minded, sycophantic, greedy and ignorant.
     Take an honest look at our country today: at Wall Street, Iraq, Washington, at, God help us, TV. Whether you call yourself a liberal or a conservative or something else, do you like what you see?
     There is enough bad in any good man that we don’t need any bad men to make things exceedingly ugly, for ourselves, for one another, for the world.
     The good men already have done that.

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