Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Generational Generalizations

Is it too much to ask that we get our fabricated generations straight? Sometimes the "Baby Boomers" are identified as those born between 1946 and 1964 while other times the latter date is 1963. A recent treatise identified Barack Obama as the first "Generation X" president, even though the above dates would indicate he is actually one of the latter day Baby Boomers. But according to yet another source, members of Generation X were born between 1961 and 1976.

Clearly, these ideas were just made up by observers to simplify discussion. All of these generational breakdowns are artificial; a person born on 31 December 1945 would probably fit best with the "Baby Boomers" even though he or she is not a member according to these arbitrary standards. For analytical purposes, it often makes sense to categorize by generation or by decade, but what gets tiresome are the generational generalizations, the efforts to lump every individual born between this date and that one as perceiving the world the same way or possessing the same ideology. This all too frequently leads to dismissiveness ("Typical Baby Boomer").

Do the people who think Barack Obama's middle name means he might behave similarly to Saddam Hussein or renders him a closet Muslim also believe that John McCain was a threat to kill his own brother or that Bob Dole would have expanded the welfare rolls? And is Mitt Romney made of leather? Sometimes it's tough to distinguish where political manipulation ends and sheer idiocy begins.

During the first 55 Presidential Elections, no candidate other than a white male possessed even a puncher's chance of winning. And the first time a woman was ever on a major ticket as a Vice Presidential candidate, an immense blowout ensued, though it had almost nothing to do with Walter Mondale's selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate and almost everything to do with the fact that Ronald Reagan was riding high at the time and was, in fact, running against Walter Mondale. Anyway, does it not seem a bit rich to hear people lament that Obama's election was buoyed by those who voted solely on the basis of race?

To imply race was the only reason Obama prevailed is fatuous. Sure there were voters on both sides who considered ethnicity as a contributing factor, but for most people it was probably not the only factor. And even if it was, it can't be stopped. People can vote for a candidate because they like his clothes. Or her accent. Or for any reason at all. If they choose to reveal this information to the rest of us, we may have the right to call them shallow and uninformed but not to negate their votes. Besides, if skin color was all he had going for him, why didn't previous black candidates--Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, L. Douglas Wilder, Alan Keyes, Al Sharpton, Carol Mosley Braun--dominate like Obama?

Obama's election is not a magic stroke that wipes racism out. As mentioned in a previous writing, his ascent is highly symbolic and impressive. Race relations may be affected by his presence in the White House but people who were racist before he was elected are not suddenly enlightened now. I don't buy into these clean declarations that the United States of America used to be a racist nation and now isn't. As a general rule, nations aren't racist or non-racist, people are. True, it's fair to say that many of the policies pursued by this country up until the mid-1960s were racist. So by that measure, America was racist. But the letter of the law has not been explicitly racist now for more than forty years, yet the bigots of this country did not all go hide in a box, though that might not be the worst idea ever.

In short, the best analogy for racism is probably a comparison to gravity. As two objects drift apart, their gravitational impact on one another declines but never quite drops to zero, no matter how much distance separates them. Similarly, as slavery and segregation recede further into the past, racism declines but will probably never disappear entirely. The difference between gravity and racism is that the former can be mathematically calculated and diminishes consistently as the bodies move away from each other. Racism moves in fits and starts and can flare up for a while, then wither away. That's because we're human, not celestial objects. But you knew that.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Surprise, Vinny Sausage Pizza Head!

The above phrase can be credited to an old acquaintance of mine who was known to utter it from time to time. I have no idea of its origins, if he made it up himself or heard someone else saying it. All I know is how funny we found it.

I expected Barack Obama to prevail in this election, but did not anticipate such Electoral one-sidedness, even though it was predicted by some pundits who clearly know more than me about politics. But Indiana? New Mexico? Winning 52 percent of the popular vote? No, I didn't foresee it. Granted, except in Virgina, Florida, and possibly North Carolina--still undeclared for either side as of 10:00am November 5--Obama did not make the kind of impact in the Deep South many speculated he might. He did not merely lose in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, he was trounced. In the scheme of the overall election, he scarcely needed them, but whites in those states, if nowhere else, apparently would not vote for him. It would be simplistic, though tempting, to blame some of it on plain old prejudice, so I am not going to. The truth is, I simply don't know. But somebody does or will claim to, I'm certain.

So yes, I'm surprised. And pleased. This is the candidate I have supported for years, before he ever threw his hat into the ring. I obviously don't believe his election signals an end to the problems in either our country or our world. Obama cannot make Israel and Palestine close friends, end the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or induce extremists around the world to lay down their arms, abandon their grudges, and all be friends. And much as I marvel at the celebratory mood of Africans in general and Kenyans in particular, I don't think life changes much for Africa, at least not in the immediate future. There is a great deal of symbolism to Obama's victory and symbolism is not unimportant, but Obama will need to build some real achievements as President, probably quickly, to shake his reputation as a charismatic lightweight.

On the other hand, I don't believe Obama is a socialist, a communist, someone who is going to transform the presidency into a dictatorship. Such hysterical claims overlook the fact that the President's domestic power, though significant, is nowhere near boundless. So even if he has designs on creating a one-party Marxist state--and I don't think he has--it is highly unlikely such a move could be executed in a society whose institutions are as entrenched as our own.

If there is one thing about Mr. Obama that concerns me, it's his clear desire and zeal to be great. Aspiring to greatness is, of course, what we want and expect in our politicians and our people. But sometimes, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison, we can be blind to realities because of our ambitions. In short, I worry that he may try to do everything himself and his reach may exceed his grasp. Many of his supporters expect this greatness and may be disappointed if he falls short, so the pressure to end wars, to fix economies, to broker peace and good will throughout the globe may ultimately prove crippling.

Still, I voted for the man and I'm optimistic. I expect good things from Obama. Why not great things? Because I tend to hedge, to be guarded, to be mitigatory. And it's hard to be great these days because the spotlights are so bright, the media attention so overwhelming, and somewhere, somehow, everyone has a flaw. All our heroes have had flaws but the sheen of history tends to obscure them among those we revere. Mr. Obama will not have that luxury for at least another generation. So I say, don't be disappointed with mere goodness.