Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Odyssey of Hope


The other day at The Secret Garden Bookstore, my daughter tugged on my sleeve. "Mama, look, that book says the Odyssey of Hope and it's about Obama!"

Actually, the title was The Audacity of Hope, but it got me thinking about my own "odyssey of hope" in politics. I guess it began when I left the OALC in 1979, which might be considered political in the sense that I rejected the power of the church over my life. In pursuit of integrity, I felt obligated to act on my convictions. On its 10th anniversary, I marched against Roe V. Wade at the Federal Courthouse in Seattle. (Though persuaded that abortion was wrong, I was appalled at the marchers carrying coffins.)

Then college happened. My next foray into politics was volunteering for the Dukakis campaign in 1988. I will never forget the excitement mixed with dread that I felt while I prepared press packets in the green room before his appearance at the Pike Place Market. It was raining outside and the crowd was swelling to the tens of thousands. There were rumors of a kerfuffle about whether "labor" had supplied the fruit for the bounty display on the speaking platform. Dukakis needed a riser to be seen above the dais. As volunteers buzzed about with walkie-talkies (this was pre cell phones), I busied myself in a quiet room assembling press packets. Dukakis was behind in the polls, but I was hopeful he could still turn things around.

Busy with my task and deep in thought, I didn't notice when Governor Booth Gardner and Mayor Charlie Royer entered. We still had at least 30 minutes before the show. They chatted; I assembled, ignoring them. Eventually they came over and introduced themselves -- as each other, switching names! Apparently they thought I was an out-of-towner and were enjoying an inside joke. When I corrected them, we all laughed. I had never met a politician before, and was a surprised to discover they were so . . . ordinary.

It was an exciting rally. I stood behind the platform with other volunteers, and as Dukakis talked about exporting goods not jobs, I had a friend snap a photo. It is blurry, grainy (predigital) and just the first in a series: Me, with Loser.

Even when I sided with a winner, I felt like I lost. Years later, it was Bill Clinton at Pike Place Market, running for a second term, and I was there on the rope line, shaking his hand (my husband was faintly appalled that I said "Bill" instead of "Mr. President"). But I had mixed feelings for my candidate, which started in skepticism and ended in disgust.

I thought the election was stolen from Gore, and still do. As for Kerry, he was only better than the alternative, and I could never get excited about his candidacy.

This year feels different. Obama is different. I respect him even when I disagree, and while I am always aware that he is a politican, his character inspires confidence.

Yesterday, I joined several dozen others in a windowless, over-heated room at Seattle's Obama headquarters. My job was to call "infrequent voters" in Everett (a suburb north of Seattle) to encourage them to vote. Most of the time I reached answering machines, but when people answered the phone, they were almost unanimous in telling me that they had already voted.

For Obama. (The conversations were brief. They didn't want to chat. They didn't want to volunteer. It was just "already voted, Obama, thanks, bye!")

Across the country, this is happening wherever there is early voting. Today's Washington Post reports that more than twelve million voters have already cast ballots, breaking Democratic by a wide margin.

What's up?

The video says it better than I can.

I just want to say that this phenomenon is much bigger than Obama. And it is why even though I am confident of his victory, I will be back at headquarters tomorrow, reminding people to vote. Because it isn't democracy if you don't participate.

(English major nerdery: the Odyssey is remarkable in that its events depend as much on the choices of women and serfs as those of fighting men.)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Patriotism

I went to the clinic again this morning, steeling myself beforehand, should the angry phlebotomist be wielding the needle. She wasn't there. In her stead was a large Samoan woman who ushered me in and out in five minutes, without any comment regarding my campaign button. That was a relief.

But it got me thinking about civil discourse, and how difficult it is if either person identifies more strongly with an ideology (be it political or religious or other) than with our common humanity. Recently on this blog, I lost my cool when an anonymous poster (responding to my criticism of Bill O'Reilly), told me to "try and say," "just once," "I love America."

As if.

We all know patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, but I should not have called the poster an "ignorant imbecile," which is redundant, for starters. Four Eyes rightly scolded me. What I should have done is invite discussion on the nature of patriotism.

Is there a "real America" and by extension, a "false America"? Are there "pro-American" parts of the country? Is America blessed by God to be "exceptional" and "a city on a hill"? Are people in small towns more patriotic than people in big towns or cities? This has been the theme of Governor Palin's speeches for many weeks (rather ironic, given hers and Todd's association with the secessionist Alaska Independence Party).

Yesterday, General Colin Powell (strong Republican) responded to this divisive rhetoric in his eloquent endorsement of Barack Obama. It's worth watching.

And today at a rally in Tampa Bay, Obama said:
There are no real or fake parts of this country. We are not separated by the pro-America and anti-America parts of this nation – we all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from. There are patriots who supported this war in Iraq and patriots who opposed it; patriots who believe in Democratic policies and those who believe in Republican policies. The men and women from Florida and all across America who serve on our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America – they have served the United States of America. We have always been at our best when we’ve had leadership that called us to look past our differences and come together as one nation, as one people; leadership that rallied this entire country to a common purpose – to a higher purpose."


For those of you who are Christians, I thought this perspective worth sharing:
For the mainstream Protestant, Palin is engaging in what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “the idolatry of America.” As Niebuhr would have it, an American Christian may be patriotic and love his country, but he must also remember that his true home rests outside of these bounds fixed by geography and time and in an eternal community with Jesus Christ. The Christian’s commitment to his faith must come first, and it must transcend a commitment to the nation-state. This means that patriotism is, in the mainstream Protestant view, a fairly complicated matter. In particular, again in the Niebuhr tradition, a Christian must guard against the risk that vanity, haughtiness and hatred towards the balance of mankind enter into his heart under the guise of patriotism; he must retain a skeptical and critical attitude which recognizes the imperfection of human works. The perspective of Religious Right figures like Palin that elevates America—as their political blinders conceive her—to some sort of sacred object is therefore little short of an act of idolatry. Jesus Christ, as Charles Marsh reminds us, “comes to us from a country far from our own” and requires that believers lay their “values, traditions, and habits at the foot of the cross.” Or, as John Calvin says, “the heart is a factory of idols,” and a primitive noncritical form of patriotism can be a particularly troubling and entrenched idol.


This morning on the way to school, our 7-year old asked "What color is McCain?"

"White?" I ventured.

"No! I mean is he blue or red?"

That was a great learning moment. If there is anything Laestadianism has taught me, it is that how we view others, and how we describe them to our children, is a matter of choice and can be done with love or fear. I told her about the political color tradition (red/right and blue/left) and how it is inadequate to the task of defining our candidates or us. She understood instantly. Her "favorite color is rainbow" -- which is a pretty good motif for the founding ideals of this country: unity in plurality, and symbolic of hope.


Thanks for reading, friends.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hate = Blood

You've seen the news reports: McCain/Palin rallies are getting increasingly ugly.

"Terrorist!"
"Treason!"
"Kill him!"

There will always be whackos and haters at rallies. Speakers have a responsibility to encourage calm. Unless, of course, they are hoping for unrest.

This topic has a Laestadian connection, by the way, for those readers who prefer we keep to that topic on this blog. Laestadius was accused of hate-mongering after the riots of Kautokeino, where his followers took quite literally his words that the saloonkeeper was an agent of the devil. They killed him. Laestadius denied any connection but toned down his sermons.

Will McCain do likewise before blood is shed?

Against his previous promises and the advice of many Republican advisors (some now jumping ship), he and Palin are stoking the fires of fear and hatred. 100% of their TV ads are negative. Character assassination is now their priority, dominating their speeches. Hateful comments are not contradicted from the podium, but actually affirmed.

How dare they? Knowing the tinderbox we sit on as a nation? If blood spills, it is on their hands.

Back in June, I had my own scary encounter with a hater: the phlebotomist drawing my blood for a routine test. A young, heavily made-up woman, she took exception to the logo on my t-shirt and spent several painful minutes lambasting Obama while digging around in my arm with a needle. When I complained that it hurt, she went to work on the other arm, continuing her racist tirade. I was so appalled that I could barely speak.

This is Seattle, after all, the city of "nice." I tried some banter to lighten things up . . . but she was dead serious, and even after she withdrew the needle, more than a little frightening. On my way out the door, I called out loudly enough for the Pakistani family in the waiting room to hear:

"Get used to having a black president, miss, 'cuz it's going to happen." That cheered me up.

And it is going to happen, if Obama can survive.

(Above is a photo of a man arrested yesterday for terrorist threats. He said he needed to vote to "keep the ni**er out of office," and that he had weapons at home. Heaven help us.)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

What is Christian

Today, Norway's largest newspaper published a story about a simple act of charity by a Christian whose faith many Christians, 20 years later, would not only question but deny, even claiming -- via nasty emails distorting the Book of Revelation -- that he represents the antiChrist.


The polygots among you may read the original here.

A Google-translated English version is below.

(Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan responds to the article by saying "Christianity, unlike Christianism, doesn't mean controlling others, policing their lives and removing their rights. It can also mean just helping someone you don't know when you can.")

ÅSGÅRDSTRAND (VG): Mary was a newlywed and ready to move to Norway, but was stopped at the airport because she didn’t have enough money for the trip. Then a stranger turned up and paid for her.

Mary Menth Andersen was 31 years old at the time and had just married Norwegian Dag Andersen. She was looking forward to starting a new life in Åsgårdstrand in Vestfold with him. But first she had to get all of her belongings across to Norway. The date was November 2nd, 1988.

At the airport in Miami things were hectic as usual, with long lines at the check-in counters. When it was finally Mary’s turn and she had placed her luggage on the baggage line, she got the message that would crush her bubbling feeling of happiness.
-You’ll have to pay a 103 dollar surcharge if you want to bring both those suitcases to Norway, the man behind the counter said.

Mary had no money. Her new husband had travelled ahead of her to Norway, and she had no one else to call.

-I was completely desperate and tried to think which of my things I could manage without. But I had already made such a careful selection of my most prized possessions, says Mary.

Although she explained the situation to the man behind the counter, he showed no signs of mercy.

-I started to cry, tears were pouring down my face and I had no idea what to do. Then I heard a gentle and friendly voice behind me saying, That’s OK, I’ll pay for her.

Mary turned around to see a tall man whom she had never seen before.

-He had a gentle and kind voice that was still firm and decisive. The first thing I thought was, Who is this man?

Although this happened 20 years ago, Mary still remembers the authority that radiated from the man.

-He was nicely dressed, fashionably dressed with brown leather shoes, a cotton shirt open at the throat and khaki pants, says Mary.

She was thrilled to be able to bring both her suitcases to Norway and assured the stranger that he would get his money back. The man wrote his name and address on a piece of paper that he gave to Mary. She thanked him repeatedly. When she finally walked off towards the security checkpoint, he waved goodbye to her.

The piece of paper said ‘Barack Obama’ and his address in Kansas, which is the state where his mother comes from. Mary carried the slip of paper around in her wallet for years, before it was thrown out.

-He was my knight in shining armor, says Mary, smiling.

She paid the 103 dollars back to Obama the day after she arrived in Norway. At that time he had just finished his job as a poorly paid community worker* in Chicago, and had started his law studies at prestigious Harvard university.

In the spring of 2006 Mary’s parents had heard that Obama was considering a run for president, but that he had still not decided. They chose to write a letter in which they told him that he would receive their votes. At the same time, they thanked Obama for helping their daughter 18 years earlier.

In a letter to Mary’s parents dated May 4th, 2006 and stamped ‘United States Senate, Washington DC’, Barack Obama writes:

‘I want to thank you for the lovely things you wrote about me and for reminding me of what happened at Miami airport. I’m happy I could help back then, and I’m delighted to hear that your daughter is happy in Norway. Please send her my best wishes. Sincerely, Barack Obama, United States senator’.

The parents sent the letter on to Mary.

This week VG met her and her husband in the café that she runs with her friend Lisbeth Tollefsrud in Åsgårdstrand.

-It’s amazing to think that the man who helped me 20 years ago may now become the next US president, says Mary delightedly.

She has already voted for Obama. She recently donated 100 dollars to his campaign.
She often tells the story from Miami airport, both when race issues are raised and when the conversation turns to the presidential elections.

-I sincerely hope the Americans will see reason and understand that Obama means change, says Mary.