Point Austin: We Won!
Celebrating 'the fierce urgency of now'
– The Big Lebowski
This is written on election eve, so anything I say – especially if completely wrong – should certainly be held against me. I guess I should at least climb out as far on a limb as Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury and personally but officially declare Barack Obama the winner of the presidential race. After obsessively reviewing the daily polls, consulting my few national sources, and longing to be in Grant Park, on Chicago's Michigan Ave.,* with the rest of the Obamamaniacs celebrating the victory on Tuesday night, I feel pretty damn confident in declaring that our long national nightmare is over, that Obama will win easily – and that I haven't jinxed anything because the Chronicle won't go to press until Wednesday evening.
The Grant Park venue is especially meaningful to me, first because as a kid, I used to ride the El up from Hammond and hang out around there, spend the day in the Art Institute, or just walk the city streets people-watching, eat a dog from a vendor or occasionally spring for a $3.50 steak dinner – it was a different world – and then circle around back to the park, catch a deep breath of Lake Michigan and the bustle of the city before heading on home. I still get back there every year or two. The city has spiffed up the park and dazzlingly art-ified it, but it's still the same welcoming public space aflood with a surging sea of humanity and the bracing breeze (or freezing gale) off the lake.
I was also there for the last great political moment in the park, the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Itching for a confrontation, the Chicago police rioted, and the park protesters ran inevitably from the tear gas toward Michigan Ave. There we met the Poor People's Campaign march and a saintly contingent of Eugene McCarthy voters carrying candles – upon whom a horde of Chicago's finest descended with billy clubs. "The policeman isn't there to create disorder," declared Hizzoner Richard Daley on the convention floor. "The policeman is there to preserve disorder."
The Dude Abides
Such moments are worth recalling this week, as we experience an election more historic and potentially transforming than any since John Kennedy's in 1960, a promise that was cut short. When we gathered in Grant Park in 1968, there were none of us on any side of that watershed battle who would have believed a black Chicagoan might, in our lifetimes, be elected president. In larger retrospect, that election (and the Chicago Seven trial that followed it) signified the high-water mark of the first phase of the "culture wars," in which young people of all colors and stripes declared their independence from a largely moribund political culture. That rebellion would be followed by a long counterrevolution, whose hero is Ronald Reagan; whose colors are empire, patriarchy, and war; and whose current standard-bearer is John McCain, with considerable rhetorical assistance from Sarah Palin.
That's why I began this column with one of my favorite lines from Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski, perhaps the best film portrayal of the culture wars. Neither side in the conflict comes out looking terribly well, but "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges) manages a few little victories – like commandeering the millionaire Lebowski's rug, right after receiving this lecture on the bitter end of the Sixties revolution.
We're all supposed to be talking and voting about "the issues": the war, the economy, health care, education. ... And we do. But it's also true that embodied in those issues and in this election is the latest stage in an ongoing struggle by citizens over just what the country means and what we want it to stand for. Will we continue to try to build a culture based on money, sectarianism, class division, militarism, and racism, or can we use the election of Barack Obama as another step in building a culture based on community, tolerance, diversity, peace, and justice?
In our hearts – whoever the candidates – we vote on all those things, as well.
Like a Tree Standing by the Water
I'm under no illusions that Obama can transform the universe or establish the Peaceable Kingdom. The usual D.C. suspects, Democrat and Republican, are already demanding that he "govern from the center" (by that they mean from just about where Bush & Co. have been standing for eight years), and he's threatened to replace one disastrous war in Iraq with another one in Afghanistan. I expect the elation of the election will soon be followed by the disillusionment of the appointments, as people like Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, even Robert Gates anticipate their triumphant return to the governing circles, where business as usual reigns.
Yet as the candidate has insisted, this election is not just about Obama but about whether the momentum of this campaign – as well as 40 years of generational demands for progressive change – can be maintained through a period that we can expect to be very difficult. The worldwide economic crisis has altered our immediate circumstances and will have touched most families and communities directly over the next few months.
There will be increasing political and media pressure "not to be too ambitious," not to demand too much, not to press for universal health care, for major public investment, for an end to the relentless expansion of the military in favor of massive investments in education, housing, community. We need to keep on pushing, to keep on telling the Big Lebowskis, the self-designated masters of the universe, that we won't be turned around, that we won't be denied, that we shall not be moved. ...
Celebrate today. The work begins anew, tomorrow.*This story originally confused Lake Shore Drive, on the east side of Grant Park, with Michigan Ave., on the west.