Seldom does the world entire stop and stare, slack-jawed, at some truly historic event. What’s more, most such happenings are catastrophes–whether a Tsunami, a genocide, or the towers imploding in New York. Most rare of all are moments when the world’s people together witness a modern miracle of such symbolic importance that the meaning commands the attention of all within the reach of virtually any media’s voice.
Now, I do not think Barack Obama is the Messiah–religious, political or otherwise and I can only promise him the same four things I promise every president: my prayers, my support, my scrutiny, and, when required, my opposition.
But all of that notwithstanding, and despite the fact that we find ourselves today with the same grave challenges which were present when this week began–it nevertheless is true that each and all of us, as Americans and citizens of the world, awoke Wednesday to a different world because the people of the United States of America elected a black man–and the son of an immigrant with no prestige or money in his background–to be their president.
Not far from where I write this post lies Independence Hall, the hallowed ground where inspired men penned words that have inspired subsequent generations of men both free and captive. Paramount among those lines are the 13 words which encapsulate for me the most “just and holy” of American principles: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
But from the beginning, even as those words—that idea—shimmered with truth and potential, yet their promise was stained by the gap between the ideal and the reality. Indeed, it is difficult now for us to imagine that such men as those could pen words so beautiful and yet, at once, codify slavery in a mongrel compromise which merely postponed its real discussion and then concluded that a slave was merely “3/5″ of a man.
But in America, that ideal—that all men really are, in some deep, self-evident, and bed-rock way, equal—is persistent: it would not die. Over the years since 1776, the history of our nation and our struggle to form a more perfect union is the tale of the battle of that ideal to assert itself and eventually to flourish.
First we had to abolish slavery, the Union’s original sin. For that, we needed both our bloodiest war and our greatest President. A man, incidentally, who came, incrementally, to understand that: “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and who consequently challenged the nation to ensure: “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Eventually, the Union won that conflict and with that victory the American Ideal strode forward, having won a major battle, though not yet the war.
Next, the ideal stood toe-to-toe with Jim Crow and a segregated South. With the civil war had come a new promise of equality, but in the South, especially, such a promise stood miserably unfulfilled. But Americans of many colors and backgrounds recognized the remaining gap between who we were and who we’d promised we’d be, and they pledged themselves to the sometimes quiet and other times dramatic advancement of the nation’s promise. Whether they were sitting in, standing up, speaking out, or writing down—three generations of Americans worked to assure that a world without institutionalized slavery became also a world of equal opportunity under the law. It was the mission of those who marched in the army of the civil rights movement to assure that the promise of American opportunity opened before all children—no matter the color of their skin or the provenance of their progenitors. So it was that Martin Luther King, proclaiming his dream to America, explained:
“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash [the] check [the fore-fathers wrote], a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
The indubitable miracle of King’s movement is that, under his leadership, those who crusaded to claim that check did so largely without violence. Furthermore, Lincoln and King remind us that the greatest moral moments in the history of America all hearken back to the words written not many miles from where I sit almost 250 years ago. From Lincoln to King–and for many writers, crusaders, and leaders in between, before, and since–the question has not been whether the American Ideal is good, but how best to make reality the promise written so long ago.
And so, roughly, we arrive at 2008. In some sense, as is almost always the case, this election was prosaic, debasing, frustrating, superficial, and went on for far too long. Furthermore, I realize there is always danger inherent in seeing history in broad sweeps and strokes, as if what mattered were not the day-to-day machinations of democracy but the overall tide of history. But today, by any standards, is a day for rejoicing in the trajectory and progress of the American Idea—it is a day for marveling at the shrinking gap between who we hope to be and who we really are.
For certainly, somewhere, the spirits of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and King are looking down and—freed now from the constraints of their earthly temporal contexts—they must be smiling on the American polis. Whatever we think of Obama the candidate, it still will always be true that on November 4, 2008:
America elected a black man to be president.
And that, in view of our history, is miracle enough.