Wednesday, November 5, 2008
In celebration of President-Elect Obama's historic win last night, please enjoy this brilliant essay from my former Editor-in-Chief at the New Paltz Oracle, Mr. Richard F. Restaino, which will also appear in the final print issue of IRT, due out before the end of 2008.
The Audacity of Pragmatism: How Studs Terkel Helped Me Vote for Obama
By Richard F. Restaino
Election Day, 2008, Austin, TX—This day belongs to Barack Obama, but my thoughts cannot help but turn to another adopted Chicagoan, Louis “Studs” Terkel. Studs died on Halloween, four days before America elected its first black president, something I’m sure he would have liked to see. He held on as long as he could, of course. A man dying at 96 is far from a tragedy, especially when that man’s life was rich and full and never given over to despair.
Studs, best known as an oral historian chronicling the lives of the everyday heroes among us in books like The Good War, Hard Times, Division Street—America, and Working, lived through the “American Century” and got a glimpse of what seemed like the beginning of the end. A lifelong progressive, supporter of workers and civil rights, and a fearless opponent of arbitrary authority, Studs held fast his faith in the basic decency of people, even as he maintained his distrust of the institutions they served. As a child of the Great Depression, a victim of the McCarthy blacklists, and the prototypical man of the people, you could imagine that such recent turns of history like the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and the recent financial implosion probably felt familiar to Studs. He had the long view, knew the context of what we’re now experiencing, and in his writing and speeches always seemed to strike the right balance of moral outrage and faith in humanity. Reading one of his oral histories—conversations with regular people put down on paper—never failed to lift me out of the most serious of funks. Yes, Studs probably would have enjoyed talking to people on a day like today.
So many of my heroes, the people whose work has helped shape my life, have died during the Bush administration: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Joe Strummer, Warren Zevon, Molly Ivins, Johnny Cash, Joey Ramone, James Brown, George Carlin, and now Studs Terkel. These are people to whom I have turned to help make sense of the world, and when you start to look at this group in the aggregate, despite better judgment, it’s hard for me not to imagine that the brutish, oppressive, and corrupt climate under which we have lived since 2000 had something to do with it.
Not to say that I believe an Obama administration will prove the panacea for all that ails us—hardly. My own feelings for Obama soured when he distanced himself from his preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom I thought was, well, right—at least most of the time. For Obama, it was the politically expedient thing to do; it made sense. Most folks don’t want to hear about this stuff, and still others deny the essential truths behind Wright’s passionate rhetoric. Still, sometimes I wonder if I’m living in the same world as the majority of people. I simply don’t think there is anything particularly radical about any of the following statements, all of which were deemed incendiary and seditious by the mainstream press:
• “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye.” (Sept. 2001)
• “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” (Sept. 2001)
• “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” (2003)
• “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run…We [in the U.S.] believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God.”
Whenever a voice like Wright’s finds its way into the public consciousness, it is held up to ridicule and scorn—to be feared or dismissed. The system is set up so that people find it difficult to process information that does not conform to the official doctrine of this nation’s history and what we stand for. This is the “national Alzheimer’s disease” that Studs Terkel spoke of—the blow to the head that would have us believe that mass movements of everyday Americans united against an oppressive state amounts to treason, while we elevate men like Ronald Reagan to the status of latter-day saints:
“He’s perhaps the worst President until now we’ve had,” Terkel said of Reagan in a 2004 interview with The Progressive, “a man who knocked the hell out of the very thing, the New Deal, that saved his ass and that of his father in Dixon, Illinois. His father got a job on the WPA during the Depression. Ronald Reagan was the first President I know who was an acknowledged fink. He was president of the Screen Actors Guild at the same time he was informing regularly to the FBI on his own members he considered un-American or subversive. He even had a code name. That’s a fink.”
So, when Obama said that Rev. Wright’s views do not represent his own (despite him having been an active member of Wright’s church for 20 years), it was hardly a surprise. Obama, like all who believe they are suited for high office, is first and foremost an ambitious man. Ambitious people will do what they need to in order to fulfill their ambitions. His speech on race, meant to clarify his position visa vie Wright, did help restore some faith in me that Obama’s “post-racial” rhetoric was not simply stump-speech gold—that he actually did acknowledge and understand that this nation is far from achieving equity for all.
So, I voted for Obama. But I pulled the lever with a similar trepidation and joyless resignation that I voted for John Kerry in ’04, and Bill Clinton in ’96. There was a different sensation in voting for Ralph Nader in 2000 (yes, I was one of those Lefties who abandoned Gore, but I lived in Texas—Gore had no chance here anyway). Voting for Nader (as well as my past primary votes for Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean) felt more like righteous futility. All this is to say that I have never really expected to have anyone who truly represented my views make it to the White House. In America, we take what we can get—a choice that often is not really much of a choice at all—but it’s still a whole lot more than most of world gets.
I suppose this is where Studs Terkel and Barack Obama find kinship in my mind. Studs knew the score—he watched for years as America swung far away from where he stood. Yet, he still found meaning in participating in the process. A protest vote—a vote against what one finds more objectionable—is just as important, and certainly more pragmatic, than a hearty vote of affirmation, which too often is clouded by the cult of personality. Studs was a realist, yes, but he never became cynical or demoralized. Studs’ life and work represent to me the real meat behind that line Obama borrowed from his pastor before throwing him under the bus: The audacity of hope. The repetitive drilling of this line into our national consciousness aside, there still remains truth in what I sincerely hope does not turn out to be just another empty campaign slogan. But even if Obama’s historic victory turns out to be no more than a symbolic one—if none of the real problems this nation faces are handled any differently than they would be in a Hillary Clinton or John McCain presidency—there remains cause for solemn celebration. Symbolism matters.