Watching Blue America Celebrate

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published November 20, 2008, issue of November 28, 2008.
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These days of Obamamania are dusting off the memory chips of my childhood. It is late fall, and the holidays of Christendom are upon us. There is great anticipation — and for the children in particular, great hope. In a few weeks, there will be joy and celebration, song and dance, drink and good cheer. Not for me, of course. For them.

And if it snowed on Christmas morning, my mother would say: “Snow! How nice for the goyim.”

Watching my many Democratic friends celebrate the election victory of Barack Obama, I am reminded of that feeling of waking up on a snowy Christmas morning, a Jew in America, and thinking, well, at least the goyim are happy.

Republicans — Republican Jews, no less — living in dark-blue states must console themselves with this. We can’t begrudge our neighbors and friends their chance to celebrate what makes them happy. To them, the victory of Obama was not just a political moment. It was a religious one. The victory of a young black man, a man of impeccable academic credentials, a man who spoke beautifully and has a beautiful family, a man who seems both serious and cosmopolitan at the same time — this victory redeems the political religion of blue-state America.

I don’t share this religion, but I can recognize why someone would celebrate this moment. America just elected its first nonwhite president, a man whose father was not born on the American continent.

Every religion has its own narrative, the story it tells to make sense of the world, and in the blue-state liberal narrative, the Obama victory is as significant as a divine revelation.

In the blue-state narrative, America was always a broken nation because of its first 300 years of legalized slavery. Through that historical prism, everything that follows — lynchings, segregation, racism, bigotry and even Hurricane Katrina — was America’s natural story, an inevitable series of self-inflicted losses. No matter the victory or achievement, whether it was in the emancipation of the slaves, the liberation of Europe and Asia, the industrial and cultural achievements of our greatest minds, the impact of race was always there.

As with any theological narrative, this one would often overshoot, and force historical events into a box where they did not belong. Or, the high priests of this faith would ignore events that didn’t accord with their narrative; for example, they would never acknowledge that George W. Bush’s school reform helped close the black-white achievement gap, or that Bush was the first president to ever fully confront AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and hunger in Africa.

A few days after the election, a friend of mine sent me a photo essay he described as affecting and meaningful. It depicted two children at an Obama rally, one white and one black, perched on their respective father’s shoulders. The white one hands to the black one an Obama sign, and then they both hold it aloft together.

To my friend, who happens to be black, this represented the best hope of America — an end to the racial conflicts that separated generations of Americans. It was like that Coca-Cola commercial with the kids on the mountaintop.

Don’t take this for cynicism. Like a Jew on a snowy Christmas morning, I am touched by this belief in a new historical era even though I do not subscribe to the theology behind it. I think it’s beautiful that my neighbors believe God’s grace is revealed to us by the story of a quiet birth on the outer edges of the Roman Empire. I marvel at the majesty of the Christmas mass held in the dark of winter, and enjoy the spirit of giving and charity that fills the hearts of the believers and nonbelievers alike. And yes, if it snows, I can be happy for the goyim.

But I still think the theology is wrong, the narrative is wrong, and, ultimately, that my neighbors are fooling themselves. Yes, America’s history has been shaped inexorably by race. But America is not a racist nation — it gave that up many years ago. Let’s face reality: Obama’s race didn’t hurt him. It helped him. A white candidate of similar background never would have received a chance against John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton or Joe Biden, for that matter. Obama wasn’t just given a chance. He was given the benefit of the doubt.

That doesn’t mean America doesn’t have a problem with race. America’s problems with race remain, and they are deeply challenging. They will outlast the inaugural and its rhetoric, the first 100 days — even the first 1,000 days — of an Obama administration. If another Category Four were to hit New Orleans tomorrow, the city would still flood, and its largely black citizens would still be left devastated and homeless, president-elect Obama notwithstanding.

Blue-state Americans may have trouble with this. Their political theology has held that racism explains a lot of America’s history — particularly all problems that are somehow race related. They are about to find out that that’s not really true — and not even Barack Obama can solve those problems.


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