The End of an Era and the Start of a New One

Last night, I cried during a speech by a professional politician. I’ve never done that before, ever. Ezra Klein, I think, puts what happened last night into a larger context, in The American Prospect.

The bumper stickers say “Never Forget.” Easy enough, right? The images of September 11 are indelible. The awful film of that morning will be a mainstay in history classes. But the destruction of our most iconic cityscape was not the most lasting of the damage inflicted on America. It had been a long time since we, as a nation, had felt fear. And it did strange things to us. We simultaneously lashed out and shrunk back. We called forth spectacular shows of power from the greatest army mankind has known and we started docilely removing our shoes and bagging our liquids when we went to the airport. We yelled at our friends and ceased speaking to our enemies. We sought to prove we were very big, and instead found ourselves feeling very small.

America’s sudden sense of vulnerability was ruthlessly exploited by those who sought to dominate our politics. Max Cleland, an American hero who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War, found himself compared to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The cable news networks — led by Fox — affixed the daily terrorism alert to the corner of the screen. Love of country somehow became an arms race of accessories; flag pins and bumper stickers and car magnets became the loyalty oath of a consumerist society. Dissent was equated, both implicitly and explicitly, with treason.

In 2004, John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, actually devoted a portion of his acceptance speech to “those who question the patriotism of Americans who offer a better direction for our country.” The fact that he felt it necessary to defend the patriotism of hundreds of millions of Americans did not, by that point, seem very strange. This was the 9-11 era. And last night, it ended.

Barack Hussein Obama was, arguably, the country’s most unlikely candidate for highest office. He embodied, or at least invoked, much of what America feared. His color recalled our racist past. His name was a reminder of our anxious present. His spiritual mentor displayed a streak of radical Afro-nationalism. He knew domestic terrorists and had lived in predominantly Muslim countries. There was hardly a specter lurking in the American subconscious that he did not call forth.

And that was his great strength. He robbed fear of its ability to work through quiet insinuation. He forced America to confront its own subconscious. Obama actually is black. His middle name actually is “Hussein.” He actually does know William Ayers. He actually was married by Jeremiah Wright. He actually had lived in Indonesia. These were not smears, though they were often used as such. They were facts. And this election was fundamentally about what happened when fear collided with fact.