Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Turning Point, Hopefully



I found it poignant that we spent some of last week reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in my ninth grade English class. And of course, I was asked all week who I would vote for come Tuesday, November 4th.

I did not answer the question. I am not trying to be evasive or defensive. I tell the students straight out: “It is not my job to tell you what to think, or to tell you how I think. It is my job to make you think.” So I answer the question by outlining what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate based on what I have read in newspapers, magazines and journals. I encourage students to add in their own thoughts and ideas. If they are in a listening mood, I might also tell them how the ancient Greeks considered participation in the democracy to be incumbent upon every Greek citizen. Therefore, as descendants of that classical civilization and democracy, we should be discussing the merits of the candidates, the propositions, the issues, and arguing vehemently for our opinions in coffeehouses, meeting places, and classrooms, even if we never come to a consensus.

My actions are a little idealistic, but you get the picture.

Education is about teaching people to think for themselves. That is the principle of the classroom. So who will get my vote? Senator McCain certainly has a long resume. I like that he has not always voted with his party, and that in the past, he has voted based on his beliefs and ideas, even if they differ from his fellow Republicans. I also admire his service to our country during a difficult and unpopular war. Having had three uncles involved in the Vietnam conflict, I see that war as turning point in our nation’s history. We no longer view wars and the military in the same way after the 1960s. One of my students asked me this week if I thought McCain would bring back the draft. That question is a product of the Vietnam War, and no, I do not think McCain would bring back the draft.

In the same breath, I also do not think McCain’s service to this country and his years of torture and imprisonment during the Vietnam conflict make him a good candidate to be president. His experiences are worthy of our admiration; he is definitely courageous and a true warrior. But these things are not the only characteristics of a strong candidate. A president needs diplomacy, patience, an iron will, the ability to deal with stress and remain cool and calm. In this long campaign, and even in his history in the senate, McCain has not always been able to control his temper and his emotions. He often looks as if he will explode into anger. He has engaged in some questionable behavior—I was less than enamored with his “Bomb, Bomb Iran” rendition and his reported gambling habits.

Barack Obama is a smooth and polished politician, and this might be a reason not to trust him. However, what we need in a president is a polished negotiator, someone who can present an intelligent and competent face to the world and follow up with reasonable action and discretion. What Obama lacks in experience can be remedied by the people he surrounds himself with as president. He strikes me as an intelligent man who will be a quick study. His ethnicity may also be just the thing we need to convince the world we do not hate people because of their religion or color of their skin. He represents the multi-ethnic society that is America, and that is just what we need after the disaster of George W. Bush.

But to adopt a big picture outlook, I do not think that one president in one term can change everything that is wrong with our country and our world. This mess will take years to sort out, and will involve sacrifice and hardship for every American. We will pay for the sins of the last eight years.

When we were attacked on September 11, 2001, the world was horrified. Most countries quickly registered their condemnation of those terrorist acts. Now, years later, how many of those countries still side with us? Many have distanced themselves from us, and we have alienated the world with our belligerence, our invasion of Iraq, our arrogance and dismissal of the rest of the world as somehow inferior to the great America.

So whoever wins on Tuesday, the road ahead is difficult and laced with dangerous potholes. Joe Biden was correct, I think, when he said we will be tested in the future. McCain leapt to the conclusion that Obama would be tested; I would propose that we all will be tested. The test, in fact, never ends. This is our world, and we must all find a way to live in it and get along in increasingly more dangerous times.

All of this returns me to Martin Luther King’s dream. Tuesday, we will either elect a black man as president, or a woman as vice-president. We will usher in a new age, one only King could imagine all those years ago on the mall of Washington D.C. But we know from experience that in dreams begins responsibility. We must vote, we must act, we must think, we must endeavor to do what is right and just, and always consider the rights of others in our own actions.

I think of King giving that speech all those years ago, the assassination of John Kennedy only a few months away, King’s own murder on the horizon, the Vietnam War, the hope and promise of a decade of change, the Civil Rights Movement—was there ever a more tumultuous time in our nation’s history outside of the Civil War? Arguably, the 1960s brought some of the most important changes to our Great Society, as President Johnson called it then.

We stand on the edge of another turning point this week. I do not know that Americans have the strength and character to truly change the country and the world. Some might think we lack the fortitude of previous generations, like the one that weathered the Second World War. But I hope we are, to quote Tennyson, “One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As we enter this crucial week, the most challenging week in recent history, a turning point in our life and culture, this is what I hope.