Hope and Vision

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

I hope it’s time, if nothing else, to retire cynical bumper stickers, such as: If elections could change anything, they’d be illegal.

The air remains thick with a sense of history and change, if not mandate. People are still buying last Wednesday’s newspaper, as though to prolong a moment that has already passed. But we know the significance of this election is still to come, right? We know that the forces of business as usual are closing ranks around the rock-star president-elect, and that the young idealist from Illinois we voted for could turn into a purely pragmatic centrist in the Clinton mold, right? The Democrats, after all, have a long history of ignoring their base.

Can we prevent this from happening? Yes, we can!

“The festive scenes of liberation that Dick Cheney had once imagined for Iraq were finally taking place — in cities all over America,” Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times shortly after the election. This is the energy, released after eight years of agonizing simmer and disbelief, that swept Barack Obama into office, and it must not be allowed to dissipate. We have our country back — now we have to hold onto it.

If this energy is to manifest itself in thousands of informed, passionate citizens groups across the country, linked to one another and to the Obama administration, supporting and challenging the new president and countering the Washington political and media establishment, it will need more than vague campaign rhetoric and promises of change; and also more, I believe, than merely an agenda: a list of to-do items, necessary as they are, to undo the damage wrought by the W, the Wrecking-Ball President.

What we need is a vision: the articulation of an overarching goal that, while breath-taking and fraught with difficulty to achieve, is grounded in common sense and the politics of the possible, and immediately manifests itself by mobilizing thousands if not millions of people in bringing it into being.

That said, I don’t wish to minimize the agenda items that are proliferating in the wake of Obama’s victory. The ACLU, for instance, has put forth a transition plan titled: “Ask President-elect Obama to restore the America we believe in.” On day one, it calls on the new president to stop torture, close Guantanamo, restore the rule of law for detainees and end the practice of extraordinary rendition.

Beyond this, the organization has dozens of recommendations to be accomplished during the first 100 days and first year: stop warrantless spying; implement sensible and humane policies toward immigrants, prisoners and many other groups; ban all workplace discrimination against sexual minorities by the federal government and its contractors; and much more.

Jonathan Steele, in an article in The Guardian (U.K.) on Nov. 7, headlined “Now he must declare that the war on terror is over,” wrote: “Obama’s preference for diplomacy can help to forge new, individual relationships with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Paul Krugman, in the New York Times on Nov. 7, wrote: “Helping the neediest in a time of crisis, through expanded health and unemployment benefits, is the morally right thing to do; it’s also a far more effective form of economic stimulus than cutting the capital gains tax. Providing aid to beleaguered state and local governments, so that they can sustain essential public services, is important for those who depend on those services; it’s also a way to avoid job losses and limit the depth of the economy’s slump.”

My friend Kathy Kelly, a peace activist for decades, is part of a campaign called Camp Hope: Countdown to Change, which plans to maintain a presence in Obama’s Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park from Jan. 1 to Jan. 19 (Martin Luther King Day), urging him to make a number of actions, which are “early steps to more profound policy changes.”

These include: reduction and eventual withdrawal of military forces from Iraq and immediate cessation of offensive combat operations; a 90-day moratorium on all housing foreclosures; submitting the Kyoto Protocol to Congress for ratification; and taking all nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert and beginning negotiations with other leaders of nuclear weapon states to reduce and eliminate all nuclear weapons.

No small hopes for this new president! And to my mind, the last item on the Camp Hope list contains the seed of a vision that, were Obama to embrace and articulate it, could indeed put him in the company of Abraham Lincoln.

Commenting on the list, Barry Stevens, a documentary filmmaker, wrote to me: “I would suggest not even mentioning a reduction in nukes . . . but pushing hard for their negotiated abolition.”

Abolition of nuclear weapons? When I breathe it in, oh Lord, the world is instantly greener. Perhaps human destiny really is in human hands, and this is why Barack Obama has a global mandate for change.