milestones

Five years of war. Now 4,000 US deaths. But somehow, nobody seems to want to talk about it. Is this because of a short attention span? Are we bored? Did we change the channel? Is it that too many of us don’t have family over there and we don’t see those coffins coming home? Or do we just feel hopeless, unable to make anything change after eight years of lies and corruption?

We’ve become complacent about race, too. The election was not supposed to be about race. We’re over that, right? Apparently not, given the surprise so many people profess at hearing a sound bite of a black minister on the South Side of Chicago sounding a little angry. Where’s that coming from? And how could a politician be reckless enough to be in the same room with that man?

Admittedly, a lot of the “shock” is pretend. People who would never vote for Obama are hoping to whip up outrage. The Muslim rumor wasn’t getting too far; let’s just ask if people really want a black man for president. I mean, doesn’t that make you nervous? It’s a cynical ploy, and a lot of it is Faux News Corp. at work.

But some of it is genuine, and it comes from ignorance. Why are you so angry? I mean, the problem was fixed, right? Right?

No. And I hope – against all the cynicism that comes so naturally now – that a lot of us are ready to talk about it. Are ready to think it’s better to have a president whose loyalty isn’t to business partners and powerbrokers, or to their polished image. It really does seem like a moment when we get to choose between image and substance, between marketing and meaning. And Obama’s historic speech gives me hope.

We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country.

I hope he’s right. I hope we can talk. I hope we turn off the endless loops of soundbite-sized hate that makes us feel hopeless. It seems as if we’re at a moment when maybe, just maybe, we can break away from the mindset that the way the message is shaped is all that matters; that we can’t talk to each other, we can only shout slogans and threats.

Maybe we can. I hope so.

UPDATE: There’s an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which Martin Marty explains why he attends the same black church Obama does.

While Wright’s sermons were pastoral — my wife and I have always been awed to hear the Christian Gospel parsed for our personal lives — they were also prophetic. At the university, we used to remark, half lightheartedly, that this Jeremiah was trying to live up to his namesake, the seventh-century B.C. prophet. Though Jeremiah of old did not “curse” his people of Israel, Wright, as a biblical scholar, could point out that the prophets Hosea and Micah did. But the Book of Jeremiah, written by numbers of authors, is so full of blasts and quasi curses — what biblical scholars call “imprecatory topoi” — that New England preachers invented a sermonic form called “the jeremiad,” a style revived in some Wrightian shouts.

In the end, however, Jeremiah was the prophet of hope, and that note of hope is what attracts the multiclass membership at Trinity and significant television audiences . . . I’ve been too impressed by the way Wright preaches the Christian Gospel to break with him. Those who were part of his ministry for years — school superintendents, nurses, legislators, teachers, laborers, the unemployed, the previously shunned and shamed, the anxious — are not going to turn their backs on their pastor and prophet.

Turning this into a simple-minded “how dare you associate yourself with this man” is like saying “how dare you acknowledge there’s anger out there, how dare you mention race?” I’m even more pleased that Obama refused to dissociate himself with this church, and shame on those who tried to force him to do that.

If an election is lost over this, then we’ve lost more than an election.

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