Remembering the We in "Yes We Can"

Wednesday, January 21, 2009
My friend Veena just posted this amazing, eye-opening piece on the blog for the Asian Law Caucus, where she works. It tempers the enthusiasm so many of us feel with the pragmatism she says we need to embrace to actually facilitate promised change. It is one of the most articulate post-inaugural pieces of writing I have read so far and definitely worth your time.

Day 1: Power to the People – not just the President
Posted on January 21, 2009 by asianlawcaucus
By Veena Dubal

On a bus somewhere between Marrakech and Rabat, we were asked how we felt about Obama. “In Morocco, we are optimistic about the new American President . . .” said Zayed, our guide, unsure about our reactions and how it would impact his tip. Not wanting our multifarious politics to disrupt our family vacation, I quickly replied from the back of the bus before the arguing could begin, “We are of different views.”

My boyfriend is a Republican. My radical brother voted on the Green ticket. My dad and brother-in-law, moved by the possibility of having a black man as President, voted for the first time in their lives. When I cast my ballot in November, I felt both the pull of my familial ties and my political convictions.

Let me be clear: I was not voting for McCain (sorry, Ry). But I had trouble fathoming the Obama-mania that consumed this country. Sure, it was exciting to have a black man run for President. But the identity politics surrounding support for Obama irked me – particularly when it came from the South Asian, Arab, and Muslim communities. What did it matter if we had a black President if it would be more of the same disastrous U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East? More slaughtering, more strangling, more empire-building?

Just a year ago, Obama spoke of strengthening the military and protecting “national interests,” using the phrase in order to move ambiguously between the interest of stopping terrorism against American citizens and the interests of big capital. Although he has called for withdrawal in Iraq, he has also expressed desire for a continued military presence in the region and refuses to rule out military action against Iran. Obama was the first and only presidential candidate to suggest an all out war in Pakistan. He, like candidates before him, bowed to the power of the Israeli Lobby (AIPAC) instead of taking a firm stance against colonialism and genocide in Palestine.

As a South Asian American – a postcolonial subject now part of the colonizing world – I wanted to vote for change – not for symbolism. I was crestfallen every time I heard a fellow community organizer and activist jokingly lament that little work would be left for us if Obama won the Presidency. I couldn’t believe my ears – if Obama was elected did that mean that racism, classism, and xenophobia were things of the past? Did that mean that I wouldn’t be called a “home grown terrorist” in the streets, that the police would never again kill an Oscar Grant, and that family would be legally defined by choice instead of by heterosexuality?

Weeks after I cast my ballot and just days after I silenced the broiling family debate in North Africa (a debate that aptly arose in a place that would be more affected by the new American President than I would be), I listened to Obama give his inaugural speech among fellow San Franciscans in front of City Hall. I – like many in the crowd – was blown away. He spoke to the need for multi-lateralism and increased social services; he pledged to work alongside the developing world and to stop this country from using the world’s resources. He promised to work with “old foes” and rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The roar of the crowd and my own rising hopes confirmed my suspicions: never has an elected official been so loved by people who are so innately critical.

Today, the morning after the inauguration, I sit at work and nurse the hangover of withered optimism. The speech was beautiful, but words are easy. If we the people don’t maintain a critical eye – a skill that became second nature during the Bush regime – the light of hope that Obama’s inaugural words put in each of us will flicker and die. We must remember the “we” in “Yes, we can.” As Americans, as Natives, as Immigrants, as Workers, we must step out from beneath the shadow of this man and once again embody our own convictions. We must remember how to be critics, how to protest, how to boycott, how to hold this President and this Empire accountable to the people of this country and the world.
Sara said...

That photo of the child with the poster is heartbreaking. This is a very good piece and I like that it deals with the seemingly irrational hope so many Obama-supporters are feeling in the face of many hopeless situatons. The message that the work is just beginning cannot be stated too many times or loudly enough.

TKS said...

I agree that now it is time to leave the style and get to the substance and I agree that words are easy, but I think the President needed the words and his skill with them to get us all so amped, I don't think anybody I know has felt this way about a politician in our lifetimes so while I am cautious I think that he won't let us down and this is not a symbolic victory, it's the real deal.

Anonymous said...

I understand where you're coming from--in terms of the "hangover" of your withered optimism. But--is it possible, could it be--maybe, this time we won't be disappointed? Yes it's naive but can so many of us be so swept up in something that is really just smoke and mirrors? I don't agree that the contagious energy the President has aroused was solely identity politics. I think he tapped into a need many of us didn't know we had or had forgotten about. A need to feel included and necessary.

Have To Ask said...

I have to ask: What is it like dating a Republican at this particular moment?? I was thinking that, living in the Bay Area, I don't know one person anymore who is a Republican (I am originally from Ohio where the opposite was true).

Anonymous said...

Is that true? About Pakistan? I didn't know that.

TH said...

Great piece and I couldn't agree more. When I talk with friends outside the U.S., while they are happy that we now have a reasonably intelligent leader of our country, they can't really understand our obsession with the man. I try to explain to them how weary we are after the last 8 years but somehow this rings hollow to them. Luckily, it seems like Obama agrees that we need to maintain a "critical eye" we need to maintain--one of his first actions today was to revamp the ethical code of conduct, and look at how transparent his administration is being in terms of decision making. So while I agree that now is not the time to blindly follow and that the man is obviously not infallible, I think the signs are good for real change.

Veena said...

This is great that so many people are thinking about what this Presidency means, whether you agree with me or not. And thanks very much to Deepa for posting this.

Yes, it is true about Pakistan:

About dating a Republican . . .it is great . . . and has really resulted in personal growth on my part. People are so much more than how they define themselves through category.

I've learned to understand the people closest to me not by their politics but by how they treat those that they love. And for me, there is something deeply political in that. I've dated guys who share my political values -- but who don't necessarily live their lives by them.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that token representation is meaningless. But I disagree that Obama is, or ever was, just token...

As for dating a republican: This always intrigues me! Tell me, everything else equal, wouldn't you rather he be a Democrat? I know it's not a fair question but I am always so intrigued by couples who have such divergent viewpoints.

Impressed said...

What came through to me in your post is your commitment to those who are less fortunate. The photo of the little Palestinian kid is absolutely heartbreaking, as are scenes of Gaza after the butchery there. We need people like you out there to speak up against the tide--against the wave of pro-Israel support that dominates this country. Obama may not be the person who will make a difference, but the fact that he is president is a symbol of what is possible. Again, thank you for your amazing post.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what exactly convinces you that Israel is the "bad guy" here. If a terrorist organization (that has outlined the destruction of your state as one of the primary goals in its charter) fires 10,000 rockets at you over the last 8 years, don't you have the right to strike back? Are you supposed to wait till they finally kill you?

Yes...the loss of human life is horrific. But you have to realize that the situation that Israel faces in Gaza is not that different than the situation between India and Pakistan.

Anonymous said...

Just to give you a sense of the brutal terrorist mentality:

Palestinian Mickey Mouse:

Pakistani Public Schools:

Hindu girls in Bagladesh

Post a Comment