When I was a teenager, I had a chance to spend some time in France with my family and another family we were friends with. I’ve only been back to France once since as an adult, so this time is still very strongly etched in my memory. One afternoon, we ate a slow, sleepy meal at a very pleasant restaurant that was high on a hillside about the River Lot, not too far from Cahors. As we ate, we became aware of a very large group not too far from us, and found that it was a pre-wedding dinner for the families of a young Irish woman and a young French man who were getting married over the weekend. We ended up talking with a few of the Irish family members, partly because they had a toddler who kept rolling his stroller over towards the extremely long and steep stone stairs near our table, and we kept gently preventing him from sending it (and himself) tumbling down. The old patriarch, peeled away from his new in-laws, managed to get in a few genial, bemused jabs at French culture. But he was clearly pleased not just for his daughter, but for the prospect of an unexpected connection to a place far from his own upbringing. On that sleepy afternoon, surrounded by good wine, food and company, overlooking a rugged and fertile valley, warmed by the happiness of young people, who could not feel that the world was from that moment on, a better place?
I was thinking of that afternoon this weekend while attending another wedding, this time of two Swarthmore alumni. It was a beautiful wedding, held outdoors on one of the best autumn days I can remember, the kind where the sunlight looks like burnished brass, the kind of wedding you feel fortunate to attend. It was multicultural and ecumenical in the best, most heartfelt way, with elements borrowed from the couple’s Jewish, African and African-American heritages. I remember again having this feeling that this is what we’re meant to do as human beings, that the world is being rewoven, deepened, cherished through these kinds of connections.
Most of the last century at least raises complicated questions when we talk of progress. Industrialization and technological change have created new and potentially lethal problems even as they’ve brought comfort, health and happiness to most of humanity. Nation-states and international institutions support novel forms of collective action and social organization, but those can just as easily be genocide and war as they can be positive achievements.
But the ability of individual human beings with very different histories to fall in love, make friends, live in community with one another, and for that to happen in the open, as something simple and sweet and good: that’s progress. Ever since human societies around the world began to connect and mesh together in dramatic new ways from the 13th Century onward, there have been plenty of multiracial, multicultural connections between people, but most of them that involved love or friendship took place in spite of numerous laws, strictures and sanctions, in the shadow of repression or violence. I really do think that in the last century, we’ve at least glimpsed a glimmer of light at the end of that tunnel, despite the extraordinary violence and convulsions of our times.
I understand why individuals and communities who cherish what they understand as heritage or tradition worry about transformative connections in their midst. Worried discussion is fine. What came to me as I sat watching this weekend, however, was a sudden sharp reminder of why I’ve found the nastiest attacks on Obama so gut-wrenchingly repellant. It’s not that they are in some simple, crude fashion “racist”. It’s that the ugliest talk wants to take what should be straightforwardly positive about Obama’s personal history and turn it into something definitionally and generically suspicious, as if anyone with his multiracial background or multicultural experience must be a hidden poison for the national body politic. It’s that they want to take what is in Obama’s story a pretty good advertisement for American society and for meritocratic mobility and make both aspects of his biography into a sign of subversion and danger. It’s not just some gutter element rarely seen on the political stage making these kinds of insinuations: most recently, I’ve seen them festering in the comments section coming from regular commenters at several moderate blogs that I really like, to the evident frustration of the hosts of those blogs.
I’m not saying that there are no legitimate questions about Obama’s background, but the legitimate questions are very ordinary ones. What kind of political leader will he be, given his concrete political record to date? Is he something of a political chameleon with an ear for the rhetoric of compromise, but not a strong policy vision that will let him steer the ship in a determined way? (In this sense, I think you could raise a question of whether he’s too much like Jimmy Carter, someone who could read the zeitgeist but who didn’t have a good sense of how to actually govern.) I’m fine with discussions of Obama along these lines.
I see lots of very good reasons in these concrete ways to prefer Obama very strongly to McCain, whose concrete record of leadership and accomplishment now strikes me as being unappealing even before his weaknesses were paraded forth during this campaign. I say that as someone who liked McCain in 2000, though I’ve begun to feel that what I liked is what his friends in the media helped me to imagine him to be, rather than what he is. Nothing about my negative judgment of McCain affects how I view his considerable accomplishments, his great contributions, before he became a politician. It’s all about here, about now, about what a politician does and becomes in the course of being a politician.
The other kind of talk makes me both sick and furious because it takes one of the few parts of our national and global history where we’ve seen a better kind of world come into being and tries to make that into something dirty and shameful.