When we were growing up, the future was the 21st century, and the future was going to astonish us.
And so it has, eight years in, and not just with whiz-bang gadgets. We were astonished by the attacks of September 11. By the administration’s bungling of the Iraq War. By Hurricane Katrina’s scale of destruction and the administration’s incompetent response. By the realization that global warming is possibly out of control. By the teetering of the global financial system.
Yet none of the 21st century’s OMFG events has been any more astonishing than what happened last week. Not just a Democratic president, but one elected with the third largest majority of any Democrat in the past one hundred years; not just a resoundingly victorious Democrat who lacks (for the first time since most voters were born) a southern accent, but who nevertheless won three southern states; not just a big-city northern Democrat whose name recognition was close to zero 1,500 days ago, but an eloquent Ivy League intellectual; and, of course, not just an unknown smooth-talking pointy-headed neoliberal with an exotic upbringing, but, yes, an African-American.
For those of us born since World War II, never in our adult lifetimes (as the next First Lady undoubtedly meant to say last winter) has any single event made us prouder of our country—and for those of us who live in this city, never have we felt more completely in sync with it. We’re all Dorothy, stunned at having just stepped out—tripped out, one might even say—from a half-wrecked black-and-white reality into a strange and glorious new Technicolor world.
Moreover, for a lot of habitually skeptical, worrywartish New Yorkers, the thrill of victory is especially intense because we’d refused to indulge even a moment of premature celebration. Until late Tuesday night we couldn’t stop vividly, obsessively imagining the final (astonishing) agony of defeat. In fact, our local predisposition to faux-professional insiderism was enabled by this year’s unprecedented amount of public-polling data on the Web, all of which served to make us more nervous rather than less. Call it the anxiety of hope. And so for the last few days we have been experiencing not only the normal pleasures of virtue and our side’s triumphing, but also relief from the self-imposed pain of our variously hardwired Catholic, Jewish, African-American, or Charlie Brownian dread.
In other words, we denied ourselves irrational exuberance until the deed was finally done. And indeed, while his election will first and forever be understood as a fantastic moment in the history of racial progress—and the triumph of unity over division, the promise of change over the power of the status quo, blah-ba-de blah blah blah—it was also a rejection of ad hominem assertion, atavistic demagoguery, make-believe innuendo, and the fervently ideological. Even-keeled cool beat splenetic fear and confusion. Reason won.
Racism is irrational: also morally wrong and unseemly, sure, but what eventually moots and eradicates invidious racial prejudice is not so much a general dawning recognition of its sinfulness but of its irrationality. I was moved, of course, when a friend who works as a custodian at a polling place in a totally white Dutchess County precinct told me about parents who brought their little kids into the voting booths “to pull the lever so they can say they helped to vote for the first black president.” But the unforgettable anecdote from this election—because it is so counterintuitively, unsentimentally American—took place in the western Pennsylvania town of Washington. According to Fivethirtyeight.com, the man of the house yelled out to his wife to tell the campaign canvasser at the door that “we’re voting for the nigger.” The great-great-grandfathers of people like that also called black people niggers, even though they fought and died in the Civil War to end slavery.
Up till now, our country’s big, official civil-rights milestones had consisted of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Fourteenth Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. But compared to all of those rungs up the ladder, electing Barack Obama was by far more democratic. It was done not by presidential or judicial edict, nor by some hundreds of worthies voting in their legislative chambers, but by means of a secret ballot in a popular national referendum with a historically huge voter turnout.
Paradoxically, he was elected both because he was black and in spite of being black. A hypothetical 100 percent white Obama certainly wouldn’t have generated the same excitement among his white supporters (let alone the black ones), and probably wouldn’t have won the Democratic nomination. Yet it was precisely because Obama’s blackness came to seem so secondary to his being and his candidacy that he was able to attract a sufficient number of voters to elect him. He’s black! But he also just happens to be black. We need a new phrase for this happy converse of Catch-22.