A Great Day

By Rebecca Solnit

The jubilant birth of the Obama Era caps a decade of extraordinary events.
by Rebecca Solnit
Citizenship, belonging, are passionate joys at times, and this is one of those times. You can feel it. Today the world changes. It’s a great day. Yesterday it rained hard for the first time this season and today everything in San Francisco was washed clean. I went on a long run past several polling places up in the heights and saw lines of working people waiting to vote and contented-looking citizens walking around with their "I Voted" stickers in the sun and mud. People have found again one of their-our-most buried and most powerful desires, to make a better world together. I found an online collection of photographs of people crying in public, so moved by what is happening in this country, and I cried a little myself this weekend and expect to cry a lot more tonight.

You can argue against Barack Obama, and I would myself on the grounds that electoral politics are themselves inherently flawed, corrosive, disempowering. My leftist friends who are already cranky about him warn me that I will be disappointed, but I’m not sure I will, because my expectations are realistic-I love his style, but he’s not my messiah. Who he is is better than we had any right to expect in a country left to the jackals for so long, even if he’s just a pretty gifted liberal Democrat with an uncanny ability to see and describe beyond the binaries. What he is in all his hyphenated hybridity is a sign of the new world being born-not the "another world is possible" of the antiglobalization movement, perhaps, but the other world of mingling and crossing borders and making new ethnicities out of love across old divides. He is an invitation in to a lot of those who have been left out for decades and centuries. He’s my age exactly, born that same summer the Berlin Wall went up, and I recognize him, a man from the inbetween. And I recognize my country’s ability to surprise itself and the world by being great just when our awfulness seemed unshakeable.

 This day picks up from many that have come before. It is the first great lurch forward for racial justice since the era of the Civil Rights Movement. But it does not just pick up from the 1960s, but from the 1860s, the unfinished promises of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War to undo what that great president called the "original sin" of our country, slavery, a sin that goes back three centuries and more. Obama does not cancel out or heal the legacies of racism, but in becoming the most powerful man in the world he signifies that the game has changed, not ground to a halt. What he means to the inner-city kids I see in my neighborhood and to the murderous racists I’ve encountered in New Orleans. Both of them are going to think about their place in the world and their rights differently from this day forward. And this matters immensely, whatever the man being voted into power today does or does not achieve.

I am against heroes generally, and I grieved to see in 2004 how deferentially people invested their hopes in Howard Dean nationally and Matt Gonzalez in my local mayor’s race. The movements were in both cases so much better than the men. The people who made up these great populist groundswells mistook these men who were little more than hood ornaments, not the engines powering this movement. And the movements died out when the men went nowhere; had they won the crowds would have given them our power and hoped for the best, rather than keeping it and moving past them. I thought we were entering an era where we would do without heroes, but we have been given a hero, which is a bit like being given a chainsaw or a credit card: you have to be careful how you use it. This moment of joy will subside, and those who expected Obama to be flawless or to keep inspiring may be disappointed, but  his signal strength here is that he speaks the language of community organizers, of "si, se puede," and that he may give that power back or remind people that it was always theirs, not his. Though that is our responsibility, not his. His is to preside over a nation that must shrink from empire on economic as well as moral grounds, from the mad consumptive prosperity of the postwar era, and of its profligate environmental destruction; he is to be our Gorbachev, a man with the boldness to yield, surrender, and reduce. He knows it, which is why I think he’ll be okay.

This is a great day that picks up from so many moments that came before, a new star that lets us pick out all sorts of constellations of history. It has been a wild nine years. We’re just short of the ninth an_ni_ver_sary of the first of what now seem like five extraordinary moments in a decade that historians a century hence may consider far more turbulent and transformative than the 1960s (but as a post-boomer, I have a grudge against the 1960s). I was there on November 30, 1999, when a network of grassroots activists from around the world shut down the World Trade Organization ministerial and said that the future was not going to be shaped solely by corporations, capital and governments; it belonged to us. And so it did: the WTO and many of the other plans to strengthen corporate control and power have crashed and burned since then, as Latin America swing far to the left and as finally in the past few months neoliberalism and free-market religious fervor bankrupted themselves-and nearly everyone else. It was an extraordinary moment for popular power. It changed the world in ways no one expected. 2008 looks nothing like anything any of us imagined, both better and worse. And we got here on a sprint across strange milestones.

Few would include September 11, 2001 in those moments, but as most of you know I’ve been writing about disasters for the past four years and part of what prompted me to do so was the extraordinary emotion of that week. We were citizens. We felt connected, urgent, purposeful, immersed in public life, eager to do something, fully alive in the face of tragedy, as we often feel as such times. That moment came up when a bunch of the Bay Area volunteers who came to Reno with me to get out the vote this last weekend were having Sunday dinner, and we spoke of that moment when a kind of citizenship awoke in this country (along with some fear, blind patriotism and malevolent anti-Arab/Islam sentiment). That was the real threat to the Bush Administration, not Al Quada, and they did a fairly masterful job of squelching it overall, though outliers and pockets of insurrection survived. Including Tomdispatch.com, the wonderful site I’ve been writing for for the last five years, founded by Tom’s outrage over the 9/11 news and need to tell a more thoughtful version of that moment in history. Yesterday, he wrote, "When historians look back, it will be far clearer that the "commander-in-chief" of a "wartime" country and his top officials were focused, first and foremost, not on the shifting "central theaters" of the Global War on Terror, but on the theater that mattered most to them – the "home front" where they spent inordinate amounts of time selling the American people a bill of goods." Not everyone bought it, but they did smother a moment when a better nation might have been born.

That surge of idealistic passion and solidarity in 9/11 mostly failed-though the book I’ve just finished writing tries to describe how remarkable was that day in Manhattan, when tens of thousands of office workers evacuated themselves and each other-including a heavyset quadruplegic accountant carried down 69 floors by his coworkers- with almost no help from institutional authorities (the Port Authority and 911 operators advised people to stay put), and an armada of boats-pirated yachts, ferries turned around in mid-journey, tugboats, small craft-evacuated 300,000 to half a million people from lower Manhattan, a spontaneously assembled fleet that in a few hours moved far more people than the Dunkirk evacuation did in days. Hasids gave away water to those who fled across the Brooklyn Bridge. I saw in those days that people wanted to be something better, something more committed, something more altruistic, but the avenues through which to realize such possibilities were mostly blocked or invisible to most of us.

That passion arose globally against the war that 9/11 was supposed to justify, and millions marched on every continent against the invasion of Iraq on February 15, 2003. The war went forward, though with the constraints an angry citizenry was able to place on it. The Bush Administra_tion had carte blanche from their marketing of 9/11 to do pretty much what they wanted, at least as far as a docile congress and intimidated senate were concerned.

Hurricane Katrina on August 30, 2005, broke their mandate and revealed their callousness, indifference and incompetence to all those who had not yet recognized them in the conduct of a war that had already bogged down. But Hurricane Katrina revealed something else more important. Though the people of New Orleans, the mostly poor, mostly dark ones left behind in a "mandatory" evacuation that was run as laissez-faire-style as any neoliberalist’s dream, were demonized by the media and those in charge, from Mayor Ray Nagin to the Bush Administration, a lot of people responded with wounded outrage and yearning solidarity. I was so moved by hurricane.housing. org, the website on which 200,000 people offered beds, mostly in their own homes, to these people who had been portrayed as savages and criminals. The outrage over the racism and the brutality of poverty and deprivation again awoke that painful idealism, that yearning to be a better nation. Some say that Obama’s rise comes in part out of that realization by so many that the wounds of racism were still bleeding, that our country needed to change more (this, was of course, a white realization; I don’t think most people of color were soothed by what progress has been made in the past half century). Katrina was terrible, but the desires it awoke are the same ones blooming today, the desires to do the most meaningful work possible, the work of making a better world, to find common ground, to breathe in air that makes it possible to be an idealist.

I began writing about hope in the grimmest days of the millenium, after the war had broken out and all the antiwar activists around me felt utterly defeated, not just in this one endeavor, but in their sense of our power and our history. I began writing about hope to convince them that people have had the power again and again, that we have made history and will make it again. My hope came not only out of specific stories I had lived through and dug up as a historian but out of a deeper sense of the sheer unpredictability of history, the darkness out of which hope emerges. No one foresaw that five years after Bush seemed infinitely triumphant, he would be slinking off history’s stage in ignomy and an antiwar candidate would be taking his place.

I wrote to Obama last night when I decided to send him a copy of Hope in the Dark, my book that came out of the war, the despair around me, and my adventures in seeing historical patterns: "My hope resided in the countless stories I had witnessed or researched of popular power-but also resided in the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of history, politics and popular imagination, the darkness I wanted to redeem from negativity and cast as something numinous instead. Heaven knows you are as unlikely a thing as ever happened in this country, though like any great change we will come to see it or you as inevitable and reread the muddled history of the United States as leading to this moment. But right now it’s still breathtaking."

Today is a great day. Remember it. And remember whatever joy, tears, or amazement it brings you and don’t let go of them. They are the candles you get to bring with you in the darkness in which we will need to look for hope again. And to keep moving onward. There is no stopping now. History has us on her back. 

Rebecca Solnit is the author of numerous books, including "Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities" (2006). Her next book, coming out next summer, concerns the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. We at CATALYST are secretly plotting to get her to move from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on December 1, 2008.