Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Obama Abroad

Two Saturdays ago Robbyn and I were waiting to order our Fairtrade coffee at the Borough Market and saw a street canvasser holding a sign that said “Searching for Americans.” Damn, are we that predictable? The canvasser was from Democrats Abroad, and they were… get this… doing get-out-the-vote work here in London.

Well, why not? There are a quarter of a million Americans living in the UK – no small number – and surely a fair few of them are from swing states. It is significant enough that the DNC actually has a full-time staffer working here.

As it turns out, these people found me at precisely the right moment in the campaign. You see, although I am a 30-something, liberal, East Coast, passport-owning American, I am not ENTIRELY predictable. Specifically, I am not a Democrat.

If you are reading this blog then you are probably one of my close friends or family members and therefore you probably already know that for the past few presidential elections I have voted Green. You may have even briefly stopped talking to me because of it.

But the Obama UK folks found me about 12 hours after I finally got fed up enough with the Republican campaign tactics (Karl Rove, is there any chance you are reading this…) that I was inspired to CHANGE MY VOTE to Obama.

As a Massachusetts voter (in absentia), my Democratic vote is either entirely meaningless or entirely symbolic depending on where you fall on the cynicism/idealism spectrum because the Dems could nominate an actual donkey and still carry my home state. This is why I have always felt free to vote my conscience (which remains Green) in the past.

My reasons for choosing Obama this time around may be different than some other former Green voters who will also be falling back into line this year. Yes, the world is more screwed up than anyone could have ever predicted Bush would make it, and this certainly makes some people more willing to buy into the lesser-of-two-evils approach to voting. And yes, though Obama is basically another centrist Democrat he is somehow qualitatively more palatable to many people on the Left than Gore or Kerry ever were. These factors are not insignificant to me, but they are not what changed my thinking.

What changed my thinking is fear. Or more specifically, the politics and the language of fear. By now we are all so familiar with the eye-rollingly transparent Republican talking points that attempt to depict Obama as “The Other.” A terrorist sympathizer. A foreigner. A Communist. A person who just doesn't feel the same way about America that YOU AND I do.

The worst thing is that some people seem to be buying into it; we keep hearing about ugly scenes at campaign events, hearing it on the radio, and reading it on the internet. It’s getting nasty. But is it really so hard to understand those who lash out? Of course they are responding to the language of fear – they are afraid! Afraid for their jobs, and their houses, and their security – all of the things that have (ironically) been put in jeopardy by the policies of the past eight years. And now they have been given a platform and practically invited to act on those fears. These actions may be desperate and irrational, but they are there and they need to be stopped.

In my day job I try to teach young people to recognize the roots of intolerance and challenge them on a personal level. History teaches us that prejudice does not just magically appear in societies. It is planted and cultivated and nurtured. And it is accepted because it is subtle and people don't even realize they are accepting it.

I feel like this election has been turned into a referendum on fear and xenophobia. Are you willing to tolerate a campaign of whispers and suggestion against a man simply because he is outwardly different looking, or are you not? Rarely does the act of challenging prejudice come in such a tidy package. Normally it's an awkward conversation stopper. Normally you risk getting your ass kicked. In this instance, it is as simple as punching a chad. Thank you, Republicans, for making it so easy on me.

So, yes, I’ll say it: I suppose I am voting for Obama because he is black. Not in the affirmative-action sense, or in the “wouldn't it be nice to elect an ethnic president” sense (although it would be), but in the sense that I have become a single issue voter. I hate racism, and voting for Obama is precisely the thing that racists hope that I will not do.

And even though I would like to see the Green Party reach the 5% threshold needed to qualify for Federal matching funds, (which I have a much more direct impact on than I do on Obama’s election) this ultimately is not as important to me as sending a message to all of the people screaming racist insults at campaign events and posting them online. I want Obama not just to win, I want him to win big, so that no one can question his legitimacy and so that it is as clear as utterly possible to the racists that their views are on the fringe. That they lost, and that their ideas about what is “American” and what is not are not ones that are actually shared by… Americans.

Put simply, I am voting Obama to say, “f—k you” to racism.

When Obama wins, he is going to have a lot to answer for. Some of his policies suck, and I look forward to joining in criticizing him when it is needed. He seems like he’ll be more receptive to it than Bush was anyway.

Symbolism and sympathies aside, his election will have a positive impact on my quality of life as well. I’m not talking about taxes or the economy here. I am talking about being able to live and travel as an American abroad, and not be embarrassed about it. I don’t want to have to explain any more that I am American, but not THAT KIND of American, every time some one says to me in broken English “America… George Bush… very bad.” I actually think people might even begin, after a period of some serious image repair, to start thinking favorably about our country again.

I read in Time magazine that here in the UK, only 53% of people polled say they like America, compared to 83% in 2000. This brings me back to campaigning for Obama. We’ve been hitting the American hotspots ourselves lately with our Obama gear and absentee voting information. The Americans we’ve met have generally been tickled to see us out there. But more noteworthy has been the reactions of British people once they get over their initial confusion. It is so un-British! They smile. They give the thumbs up. They… don’t… pretend not to notice you. They SPEAK! “I hope your man wins,” they say.

Man, so do I.

1 comment:

Alex McKenzie said...


Hey, your brother Tony directed me to your blog after a recent roundtable discussion where I tried to get the entire CSB staff to consider a vote for Nader. Everything in your 10/21 blog resonates with me pretty deeply, but I'll still be voting for Nader, and here's why:

"And even though I would like to see the Green Party reach the 5% threshold needed to qualify for Federal matching funds, (which I have a much more direct impact on than I do on Obama’s election) this ultimately is not as important to me as sending a message to all of the people screaming racist insults at campaign events and posting them online..."

I can dig it, but that sounds to me to be an emotional reaction to the situation. I've got to approach my vote logically, and like you, I'm a forward-thinking MA resident, who could vote for whomever I want. Nader has such an amazing grasp on the logistics of the modern government, from the WTO and NATO, down to my local Kiwanis club. I think that to have an emotional reaction would, for me, be ignorant of the fact that our current two-party voting system is a disgrace to the original notion of a public-elected office.

Have you seen some of the ridiculously minute ballot rules and red tape that have been slipped in to seemingly unrelated bills? Nader's current run for presidency is essentially an effort to highlight the fact that the two parties have effectively locked out any potential third parties from having a legitimate shot at public office.

Obama is symbolic of many things, and he strikes a chord with so many Americans who want change, but he doesn't get specific enough (and I'm paraphrasing Ralph here) with regard to a number of policies, from campaign finance, to Israel-Palestine relations.

Obama will win, and my vote for Nader will say to him, "Hey Barack, what Nader says REALLY resonates with me, so don't get too comfortable." That's the hope, anyway.

Last night was our final night at CSB. Lots of fun, and Tony got a bucket of ice dumped over his head at about 1:30am.


Alex McKenzie