2002 Anti-War Rally - I'm in Tacoma with relief, since earlier I'd assumed I'd have to drive to Seattle to participate in any anti-war protests. I'll be honest, I'm not usually a protest sort of person, but I'm just so angry and so frustrated with this Mr. Toad's Wild Ride to war our President has put us on. It's sickeningly transparent how determined he is to invade Iraq on any pretext. We're being told that there's clear evidence Iraq has WMDs, but it's top secret and can't be shared and we're just going to have to trust them. As Shrub has given me no reason to trust him up until now, it seems a bit hopeful on his part that I would begin at this juncture, like a date rapist asking you to trust they'll have you home before curfew.
I'm nervous about going to this rally, not because I don't feel very strongly about the issue, but because I'm not sure what to expect. Will it be a chorus of voices united in opposition to a President's blatant misuse of power, or will it be a babble of people each with their own random bone to pick? Free Mumia! Support Microlending! Stop the Giant Redwood Genocide!
My generation is regularly accused of being cynical. I've certainly heard it from my mother often enough. It's hard to know how to respond. I think my generation cares deeply, but we're pragmatists. We like results but we understand the law of unintended consequences. Sure, a person can get caught up in the passion of some issue, but then what? The world unites for LiveAid and then what? Every year you can hear Do They Know It's Christmas waft from the mall speakers, and kids are still starving in Africa. Communism comes crashing down in Eastern Europe and then in the rubble we uncover centuries of genocidal hatred.
I get to the park and find that I am both completely right and totally wrong about my concerns. The crowd is amazing, much larger than I expected. It is every age, every color. We have military there and clergy there. We look like a 70s Coke ad. I'm especially moved by the number of retired military there, looking proud and angry and defiant. I am overwhelmed by a sense of patriotism. This is my country, my beautiful patchwork quilt of a country.
But the organization of the rally, perhaps unsurprisingly, lives up to my worst fear. First, let us bring on the local grizzled folk singer dude to lead us all in Country Joe and the Fish songs. I watch the younger members of the crowd getting restless. They have not come here for a nostalgia trip, a nostalgia that's not theirs, and makes about as much sense to them as a rousing chorus of The White Cliffs of Dover would mean to a protest crowd in 1967, but apparently that's the ride for today.
We have a few nice moments of rallying spirit, when members of Associated Ministries including a priest, a rabbi and an iman do not walk into a bar but instead speak to the insanity of division. Some retired military speak eloquently about the responsibility we have to keep our citizen soldiers from dying for no good goddamn reason. But now we get a lecture on NAFTA and now we get a lecture on clear cutting and by the time the man gets up to speak about how the military industrial complex is launching Air Force satellites to read our mail, I am done. What the hell are we fighting for, indeed.
The President responds to the world's largest protest rally with a resounding "meh". There's a joviality to his response which suggests "Hey, look, we're not in China, so I can't shoot you, so go 'head and protest your little hearts out. Meanwhile, I'll be over here making me some war." Later I learn that the Seattle march was officially billed as the "Stop the War on Iraq, Stop the War on Immigrants" march. I wonder what, if anything, it would take to get our protesting classes to actually join their voices on a single issue, to understand how easy it is to ignore the din of a thousand voices each chanting something else.
2004 John Kerry Rally - I'm standing in the parking lot of the Tacoma Dome waiting to hear the presumptive Democratic nominee for the 2004 election. Early on in the campaign I found myself excited by Howard Dean, but he seems to have Tarzan yelled his way out of contention. Now I'm standing here on the hot asphalt looking for...something.
The battle for President of the United States is a popularity contest from the Twilight Zone, like the Miss America pageant on crack. In the Miss America pageant, women are judged on their suitability to win an academic scholarship based on how they look walking across a stage while wearing a bikini and high heels. The President of the United States, a person who can and will impact the lives of almost every person on Earth, is elected based on whether or not they would hypothetically remember the names of your hypothetical children if they were hypothetically your neighbor while your hypothetical home burned down.
As I stand there on the hot pavement, I wonder what it is like to be truly inspired by someone. I wonder if I'm even capable of it. I hear people speak about Kennedy. I've seen film of Roosevelt and Churchill. I can appreciate objectively that these are people that could inspire a person, a nation, to reach beyond themselves to greatness. But it is not something that I personally have experienced. People call my generation cynical but Jeeeeesus what do you want from us? The first President I ever knew was Nixon. Nixon for crying out loud. You're lucky we didn't all become anarchists.
Political slogans for my generation would probably sound like X-Files tag lines. "We want to believe!" "The truth is out there!" "Stop blowing smoke up our asses and just tell us what you want from us!" In the first presidential election for which I was eligible to vote, I walked several miles along the grass median of a North Carolina highway to get to my polling place so I could cast a vote heard absolutely nowhere for Michael Dukakis. Call that naiveté, call it silly, call it whatever you like, but you can't call it cynicism.
My Michael Dukakis memories actually bring me comfort in times like these, during the 2002 battle for Florida and now in 2004 as I watch the Democrats race towards the least inspirational candidate in a sodden field, I remember that once upon a time the Democrats searched the land for the person who would best deliver the death blow to the Regan legacy and Michael Dukakis is what they delivered. In my lifetime this, apparently, is what Democrats do.
It's true I did experience a brief surge of something which might have been inspiration when the Clintons took the White House. They were something new. They were bold and brassy and didn't take no guff from those 'publicans. They had Ideas which they seemed quite confident about. And of course there was that heady rush that comes from being on the winning team. And then the rest happened. And inspiration melted away to become a slog, and we started to feel like Democrats again, the angry impotent apologetic Democrats with whom I've become so familiar.
John Kerry takes the stage to the pumping sounds of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. The crowd says Yay! Yay to Bruce Springsteen! Yay to seizing this song back from the Republicans! Yay to this guy who totally went to 'Nam yo! Say What? Firreal s'what what! John Kerry talks and I find myself pleasantly surprised. He's not totally dull. He says many things I agree with. The war is bad and he never would have voted for it if he'd known at the time what a total liar our President was. Can I get an amen in the hizzouse! People should totally have access to health care! And schools! Jobs are good! Republicans who are bad are bad! We should all totally get along! Yay!
I leave in a moderate state of excitement. I am not completely bummed by the thought of voting for this guy. When John Kerry loses the election, I take comfort in repeating statistics like the one that says more people voted FOR John Kerry in this election than ever voted for Ronald Regan, what what? Cuz that totally proves something. I recall something a friend once told me. There's absolutely nothing on earth worse than being a Democrat, except the alternative.
2008 Barack Obama Rally - It's been a challenging campaign season so far. Challenging but interesting. It seems like we have an actual horse race for the Democratic nominee, and the candidates are strong enough that the Republicans are being scared into uniting early behind a candidate that many Republicans seem to hate for strange and mysterious reasons. Apparently he doesn't hate taxes or love torture ENOUGH. But the Democratic race, it's been hard. People who are theoretically on the same side are really angry with each other. We're fighting over things like race and sex and class, you know, the really easy stuff.
Some of my colleagues are enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporters. They've been looking forward to this election ever since Hillary became a Senator. I've tried a few times to, really inarticulately, explain some of the issues that I have with Clinton, but I always end up feeling like a heel. I just don't get it. I'm choosing to be a tool of the patriarchy. I'm refusing to subvert the dominant paradigm. (This is what I tell myself, not what my colleagues tell me. They're not flakes.) But the fact of the matter is I was ambivalent about Hillary Clinton long before Barack Obama came along.
I've been a feminist ever since I learned what being a feminist meant, somewhere back in the dark ages of my childhood. I understand what the women's movement accomplished, and I've always been so irritated by women my age and younger who think that, because things are shiny now, the feminist movement was somehow pointless; the whole "feminists are stupid because I like to wear bras" school of non-thought. On the other hand, sometimes when I hear the wymynysts complaining about how this or that is sexist, I wonder if they've been out of the house recently. They seem unwilling to accept that they successfully changed society for the better.
I'd never argue that sexism is gone in our society. Idiots are idiots. But in my whole life I have never been deprived of an educational or career opportunity because of my gender. Except for the occasional encounter with a cro-magnon auto mechanic, I never feel at a disadvantage because of my gender. Several of my closest friends are male and I never get the impression that their lives are somehow easier or more blessed than mine. When it comes to the simple daily struggles of living, I feel a heck of a lot more kinship with my brother than I do with Andrea Dworkin.
So when I hear Clinton suggest that she's concerned that caucuses put women at unfair advantage I think WTF? You think that I am not equipped to walk into a room of strangers and voice my opinion because of my sex? F--- you! And when I read Gloria Steinam keen that gender, and not race, is what defines the American experience, I wonder how many incarcerated African American men she polled before making that assertion. And when someone tells me that BECAUSE I'm a woman I have to vote for Hillary or I'm betraying all woman-kind, or when someone tells me that I need to vote for Clinton because SHE is a woman and "it's about time" we had a woman in the White House, like somehow that's the problem, I get really irritated. Unless you were a big Elizabeth Dole supporter in 2000, then you need to just stop bullshitting yourself.
So that's me in the run up to this election race, conflicted about Hillary Clinton and becoming more and more irritated with everyone talking about her like she's already won the Democratic nomination. This nation is so wounded, so desperate for our long national Bush nightmare to be over, and I'm beginning to think that perhaps that will be sufficient reward. It's too much to ask for a nominee who is exciting and inspirational and has a vision for our country beyond trying to implement everything Team Clinton didn't get done 8 years ago. My whole life an exciting and inspirational candidate has been too much to ask, why should now be any different.
I view the rise of Obama with a cautious eye. When I hear him speak I start to feel something strange within, a feeling I don't really trust. I focus my attention on Edwards for a while. He doesn't do much for me, but I saw his wife on Oprah and I really liked her. I'd totally vote for her to be President. But then her cancer relapses and Edwards begins to falter, suddenly finding himself running in the worst possible year in US history to be a white man.
So I listen to Obama more, and I like what I hear. I like his politics. I like his ideas. And I like that he talks about what "we" can do, what "our country" needs from us. For going on sixteen years it feels like our country has just been fracturing apart and here is someone who wants to fix that. That feeling inside is growing, and I recognize it now. It's inspiration. God help me, it's hope.
My friend Storm sends me the email announcing that Barack Obama is coming to Seattle the very next day, which happens to be Friday, a work day. At first I'm disappointed, but then I get this crazy notion that I should go anyway. Take the day off work and go! I ask my boss, prepared for her to nix the idea, but she signs off, then tells me a story about a friend who once got to shake JFK's hand. On my way home I stop by my friend Holly's office to tell her I'm going to do this. She gets quiet for a minute, then asks me if I would mind if she tagged along. Of course not. The more the merrier!
When I get to the neighborhood of Key Arena, the hunt for parking begins. I can see crowds in front of the arena, but they actually don't look too unmanageable yet. Looking for a parking garage I turn down the main thoroughfare of Mercer, and the scales fall from my eyes. The crowd in front of the arena is apparently just those with special passes. Here is the real line. It stretches from Key Arena to Mercer, then all the way down Mercer cutting in at a little side street. It is down this side street that Holly and I end up at the end of the line, and yet people keep coming, and coming. The line stretches around the high school football stadium and out of sight. And the people keep coming.
Inside the stadium there's a mad rush to seats. Eventually the arena reaches capacity and beyond, over 18000, with 3000 more outside who couldn't get in. The crowd is young and happy. A dance war breaks out between two girls in adjoining sections. One section fills up with members of a nursing union, all dressed in purple. My union has endorsed Clinton. They sent out the newsletter with the headline on front "It's Time For Change. It's Time For Clinton." When I saw it I thought well, you can have one, or you can have the other, but you're going to have to choose. I don't want to vote against my union, but like our nation's pollsters, they didn't ask me before pronouncing their winner.
While we wait videos are shown on the big screen, including one of Michelle Obama talking about how having two young girls forces you to keep it real. They want a puppy. They don't really care how Daddy's speech went. For an expertly filmed Kodak moment, it's sweet. There's something nice about the thought of the White House having children in it. I want them to have a puppy.
Eventually, after too long a wait filled with people who shouldn't have been given a microphone, Barack Obama is there, on stage. He talks to us. A lot of it is the usual political fluffernutter, thanking this person and that person. Some of it is recycled from other speeches. But he also seems genuinely amazed that, for example, there are almost 20000 people there. He waves up to the people on the top deck and laughs with delight to see them packed. He talks about his agenda, an unashamedly liberal agenda involving health care for all and good schools for all. He speaks realistically of the challenges ahead. By the time he gets to the part about a national service plan to help kids go to college, I'm on my feet. (National service excites me. What can I say?) I want to have children just so that I can send them off to public works camp. I want to help this man win the Presidency. I'll carry him to the White House myself if I have to.
In the midst of this beautiful pandemonium I turn to Holly and say "I don't think I ever dreamed I would see this in my lifetime, a truly inspirational politician." She tells me she thinks I may have been unreasonably pessimistic. In that moment I realize perhaps the only good thing about the Bush administration. Its sheer awfulness has so surpassed anything I ever imagined, it has annihilated my cynicism. It does matter who you vote for. It does make a difference when you repeatedly settle for politicians who are less than extraordinary.
Inspiration isn't about a politician convincing you that they can change the world, it's about them reminding you that you should change the world. As part of the generation growing up in the shadow of The Boomers, it's been made pretty clear all our lives that all of the great protests and music and drugs and movements and politicians came before us. We never wanted to be the generation that looked at the world's problems and shrugged, but the bar kept being set so low. All the horror that has happened in the last 8 years and all our President has asked from us is that we go shopping.
I'm ready for a leader who will set the bar high. I'm ready to stare my cynicism down. I've actually been ready my whole life. I'm going to believe that the time has finally come.