Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The day after Super Tuesday in Kansas... A letter to Senator Barack Obama...

Dear Senator Barack Obama,

It was Norman Rockwell material. We were gathered on the lawn of our county's courthouse square. You could see the splinters of sleet (later snow) hurtling through the yellow glow of the streetlights. The statues and the gazebo were snowcapped. The flags audibly snapped and rustled in the stiff north wind.

It was quintessential Kansas winter weather in a quintessential Kansas location.

It was Super Tuesday.

Originally, we were to be herded into a church. The overwhelmed Democratic party officials eventually realized that church would never hold the thousands of people in attendance. They toyed with the idea of using a separate chapel for overflow, but correctly assessed that wouldn't solve the problem. A change of venue was announced, primarily by word of mouth, that we'd gather at the courthouse.

It was already chilly and everyone could sense that the foreboding weather forecasts we'd heard all day had a very good chance at being accurate for a change. The winds were picking up and what had once been mist was now something between rain and sleet. I suddenly wanted to be inside a cramped, too-hot church. Subjecting myself, my wife, and my little kid to inclement weather during what was obviously going to be a confused and long affair wasn't attractive.

I don't think anyone liked the idea. They grumbled. They wondered about the lack of preparation. They questioned the level of organization. This, I thought, was the ugly underbelly of high voter turnout. Some folks were mildly perturbed. Some were downright angry. Others worried and few seemed amused by the situation.

I met a few people at the Kansas caucus last night. The John Brown family was in the sign up line near Anthony, Bob, Christi, Dave, and Ellen (names changed, of course).

Anthony was still wearing his work uniform. He was young, black, and carrying an Obama sign. Bob was white, in his sixties, and wore a ball cap celebrating his status as a retiree. Christi was young and quiet. You could see her college sweatshirt under the sleeping bag she draped over her head and shoulders. Dave was well-dressed white overachiever. He drove a Mercedes. I know that because the car was parked close to our line. When he noticed my wife and daughter shivering, he offered them the keys. "Get in there and warm up for awhile," he told them, "when we get closer to the front you can hop back in line." (Thanks, Dave). Ellen looked like one of our neighbors and one of her comments indirectly inspired this letter.

Ellen made a remark a few minutes before my wife and daughter sought temporary refuge in Dave's car. I was looking down at my little girl, who was looking up into the purplish threatening skies with a wide smile. A few minutes before, she had joined a chant of "Yes, we can", not knowing it was in support of a candidate and not even thinking about what she "can" or "cannot" do. She yelled along, even though I was silent (I'm not a big cheerleader) because the affirmation resonated with her. Yes, she can. She's convinced of that, regardless of the task in question. Yes, she can.

That's when Ellen said, "You really gotta believe in your candidate to suffer through this!" "Anyone who makes it through the night is a real Democrat!"

Ellen's comment was jarring because it was clear that her interpretation of events was radically different than my own. I started to look at the faces around me, wondering if the stamina displayed by those standing in the cold was a byproduct of party affiliation.

Some may have been there because of party affiliation, but that didn't explain the massive turnout. Christi, shivering under her makeshift poncho didn't seem like a party hack. She seemed like a kid who believed strongly in something that went beyond party affiliation.

Anthony worked all day and barely made it into our first line before the required 7:00 deadline. He was visibly tired. Nothing about him or his comments led me to believe he was a partisan suffering through a mess of a caucus out of organizational dedication.

Bob had to fill out a change of registration form when we made it to the tables. He was flipping from Republican to Democrat as a retiree. He doesn't sound like part of "the base" to me.

Suffering through the Kansas Democratic caucus in Olathe last night didn't prove you were a good Democrat. No, it had very little to do with that.

The record turnout and the unwavering desire to see the caucus process through to the bitter end wasn't a politics-as-usual moment. This was about the running themes of the Democratic nomination process. It was about hope and change.

Mobilizing thousands of people to freeze their asses off for a Democratic caucus in a red part of a very red state can only happen when those people believe they are doing something truly important.

College girls don't sludge through a long muddy line with sleeping bags over their heads unless they feel "it" in their hearts.

People don't offer their expensive cars as ass-warmers to strangers because of political affiliation.

The most diverse crowd in Johnson County history doesn't run back and forth between churches and courthouse grounds unless something bigger than usual is at stake.

Barack, you've started something and it's probably a little bigger than what you may have originally expected. I haven't seen it with my own eyes elsewhere, but I saw it in Kansas and the Super Tuesday returns lead me to believe it's happening from Georgia to Minnesota. You've fired up voters. You've motivated them to skip Simon Cowell for a caucus in what they all know is a mere "flyover state". You've given old guys a reason to cross party lines, tired working people a reason to stand in long cold lines, and college kids a chant they really believe.

You've handed out a great deal of something very dangerous. Bill Clinton mythologized his hometown of Hope, making it Everytown, USA. Last night, Barack, you brought serious hope to a place called Hope.

That hope and that belief in you and your message has created a spectacular opportunity for you to become the President of the United States of America. You may be able to ride the wave all the way to the White House. I wish you well and I'll be voting for you.

However, this excitement has also created a massive responsibility for you.

You've brought new people into the process and have re-energized many who have never bothered with involvement before. You led them to believing that yes, they can. You tore them away from televisions and fireplaces and out into the cold. You convinced them to line up for blocks and to gather in support of your vision of change.

I know you'd never want to claim it was "all about you". The story is, of course, that it's all about us. That's even a tagline, I believe, for one of your ads. It may be about all of us as a nation, but you're the messenger for many of "us". You're the one who now holds something very precious in your hands--the hopes of countless Americans.

I certainly hope you are up to the task of handling that precious commodity. I have one request: Don't fuck these people over, Barack. You brought them to the dance. Don't let them down.

That means it's time for you to stay on your message--your real message while avoiding those little temporary opportunities to score points at the expense of integrity.

That means it's time for you to run hard--you aren't just the novelty candidate anymore and you're not just the standard "outsider" story the press loves every four years. I saw these people, Barack Obama, they believe in you. They believe in your message. You owe it to them to run like hell.

That means you have a responsibility to them if you don't prevail. Don't leave them in second place with one "farewell until next time" speech. Take care of their hopes. Help them to direct their positive energies.

We talk a lot about winning and losing in America. We reduce politics to the level of the 6th race at Santa Anita. Wolf Blitzer stops just short of doing the bugle call every time they open the gates/open the polls. Culturally, we seem to love the game and the competitive aspect of the process. There are just as many Wednesday morning campaign managers in February as there are Monday morning quarterbacks in December.

Some of us, however, believe that there is more to it than that. We really do hold hope for the democratic process and that government can be better. Even a relatively bitter cynic like me has a tiny spark of belief left in him.

I wasn't out in the snow because I'm a Democrat. I wasn't out there because of you, either. I would've been out there no matter what. Based on what I saw, though, I'm not in the majority. Most of the 75% of our caucus who stood for you in the cold were out there because of you and your message.

Don't take them for granted. Remember them and why they showed up to participate in a process many cynically dismiss as utter bullshit. Think of them standing out in the snow chanting "Yes, we can" whenever you're tempted to abandon the good fight in favor of the expedient one.

Unless you're willing to tell Bob that he was a sucker for switching parties, you have an obligation.

Unless you're willing to tell Anthony that it wasn't worth skipping a night with his kids after a full day of arduous labor, you have an obligation.

Unless you're willing to look shivering Christi in the eyes and tell her that her attendance was a mere folly of youth, you have an obligation.

You have an obligation to my wife, Barack. She's voted in general elections before, but she's never felt motivated to turn out for a primary or a caucus before. She was there last night because of you. You have an obligation.

On the off-chance my daughter remembers last night, I want it to be as a precursor to a better country. I don't want her to smirk at the idea of people chanting "Yes, we can" because the world may later teach her otherwise. If you win, you'll be the first President she remembers. Don't screw that up.

You started this thing. Don't let it end with broken hearts, broken promises, broken spirits and a sentiment that the system itself is broken beyond all repair.

Yes, you can, Barack. We'll do our best to help.

Yours truly,

John Brown of Kansas


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1 comment:

  1. True dat. It's totally true, too, dude. Even if Barack loses the nomination, he needs to use this opportunity to do something real for the process. He'd be a great spokesman for all of the million citizen engagement projects all over the country and talking them up. He'd be in a better position as President. But he should do something with what he's started here in this primary.

    I'm learning that with my kids, actually, right now, John.

    I've been talking openly with kids about quitting (I've actually talked about it openly since about the first day I started, because this job has so been so fuckin' tough, I can't tell you; it has easily been the toughest fuckin' job I have ever had in my entire life). But this last week, I was sounding and feeling more like that might be real because I had a couple of students, one in particular, who kept articulating loudly, openly, mean-spiritedly, and often all of the cynicism that people have about teachers.

    "You must be pretty fuckin' stupid to do this job if you think you could go do something else (with the implication, of course, that I couldn't and that I was just a loser who had fallen into this job)" or "Why do you work so fuckin' hard for us when it should be totally clear to you that I could give two fuckin' shits about school" or some variation on those themes daily for long enough that I had finally decided that he was right and that this job was a waste of my fucking time.

    I've never had students articulate that kind of cynicism so openly and clearly meant to be hurtful and mocking my every commitment to their welfare. And then have to go listen to some well-meaning liberal colleague tell me that it's because s/he has aspergers or a learning disability or some other excuse-of-the-week for why this shithead is being such a shithead to me and it's not this poor little baby's fault that he's such a shithead.

    The incredible and overwhelming bullshit of the whole thing was just getting too much for me and I had decided that if I couldn't persuade people that they were looking at the situation wrong or persuade the kids that school mattered or persuade anyone anything beyond their commitments to dysfunctional principles that just made my job harder, constantly, and then - in the case of NCLB - blaming me and other teachers for why their fucked up approach to the matter didn't work rather than taking responsibility for it themselves, that I had to fuckin' leave the profession. I just couldn't take it anymore.
    I was learning how I could invest and make a shitload of money and have minimal dealings with arrogant lawmakers and bureaucrats and live quietly underneath the radar and I wanted to take it.

    But, somehow, this week, I got figured out several things. One, I really like my job. For all of the bullshit of NCLB, I work with some of the most dedicated teachers and decent folks that I've ever worked with in my life and they all have the same "Fuck this shit" attitude about that stupid law no matter what Teddy Kennedy or George W. say about their signature and foolish education policy. And, as Dr. Wirtz has said a million times, what the fuck are they going to do? If they fired Tim Wirtz, my principal, who is one of the most decent people I have ever worked for in my entire life, because our kids, who resist school like it was a invading army, there would be an outcry the size of Indianapolis in our tinier town of Topeka and most certainly in our school that, if it didn't doom that terrible law, would certainly figure as one of its greater and most unnecessary tragedies (firing of Administration is one of the consequences after a certain number of years - I think 4 - that a school is on an improvement plan; we're on one, right now, but the inanity of firing any of our fine administrators would so boggle the mind, given that they are the best administrators I've ever worked with in my entire life, that I would, personally, make it my mission in life to make sure that someone knew in no uncertain terms what a jackass they were for such an incomparably arrogant and stupid decision).

    I was tired of all of this, was the truth, John. All of the pressure that our faculty has just done amazing things to deal with effectively while dealing with some pretty extraordinarily difficult situations with kids - I could not name a Senator or Representative or member of the Executive or Judiciary who I could say, with confidence, could teach at my school; though Dick Lugar and Bill Bradley I would give a shot, though they would probably have a lot to learn to do an effective job, as well - and I wanted out. I saw a investment path that looked both lucrative, relatively simple, given my abilities, and one that finally gave me a way out of this mess of political commitment that I felt I had made of my life, given just how stubbornly people clung to their thinking, no matter how dysfunctional or counterproductive.

    But word got around among the kids that I was talking about quitting and that I was sounding more serious, these days. A mom told me in a conversation that her son was concerned and was perhaps, she thought, reticent to invest emotionally because he didn't know if I was going to be around next year (a half truth; this kid, like most of my kids, was also just kind of shitty, often, and self-centered enough that he was a pain in my ass as much as being a kid I cared about who I wanted to learn to be nicer to everyone, including me, so I could do my job and teach him something). Anyway, strange stuff started happening. Kids are behaving better, this semester. They're getting work done. Even my colleagues, who are cautious about giving me credit, both because I have kids saying outrageous things to me and doing outrageous things like threatening to fight me and with some concern that, when things are going well, as they have been this week, that they might have to acknowledge that perhaps it might be better to nicely and with higher expectations than with low expectations so that noone has to feel disappointed when things don't work out, and they don't have to deal with the heartache of wanting more for the kids but having it all go to shit because the kids, and their parents, and even the teachers, can be real shitheads in combination with one another in such a combination that life turns out just as fucked up as you might predict it would.

    I don't know all the dynamics. All I know is that kids started working. They started taking discussions seriously. I had some kid write that he appreciated folks like Voltaire standing up for free speech and free thought, even as he was imprisoned and exiled from France for doing so. And he wrote a half-decent essay saying that very thing, as well as referencing the world of Baron von Montesquieu and his ideas for separation of powers that we take for granted today.

    And I realized, I really care about this job and these kids. I just don't like having people mock me to my face because they want to prove that they can, that there's nothing I can do about it, that they're going to make more money than me with far less education, that I'm a sucker for doing this godforesaken job, that I'm sweet and naive but I don't get as much pussy as they do at 15 or 16 and I just don't really understand the value of money and fast cars and fast women. You know what I mean. All of the arguments that every fucking half-witted hedge fund manager makes implicitly with his lavish lifestyle right before he fucks it all away in the tech bubble or whatever stupid fuckin' enormous gamble he takes with his and other peoples' money.

    I wanted to give up this job in a bad way, until I realized that this kid was wrong. And the teachers are too. The kids can be taught to care about the work, if they have an example from someone who gives enough of a shit sitting in front of them. And that if I care more than they do, by long strides, they'll start to care too. And, eventually, things kind of open up where cynicism filled a vaccum that real hope can only fill.

    People hunger for it. I had no clue because I it's so ingrained in who I am. But many people just don't feel it the same way. I try to share it with them, but noone seems to be a taker.

    But I have to say, John, that this election is teaching me that people really do yearn for it. They may swat it away as they did with Bill Bradley before Obama in 2000 - who was the last great Presidential candidate, as far as I am concerned. But even if they do, there's a role for Obama to play in opening up some genuine space for honest discussion and honest concern for others than themselves that none of the other candidates offer as well, right now, and few enough people do in the public space, generally.

    Genuine hope comes when people figure out what they need to figure out to live their own dreams for themselves and not necessarily have to turn to an Obama to offer them hope. We need hope in the political process. But it's one of the darker corners of American life to be looking for hope. That's a longer term commitment to clean that process up and offer some more honest debate and discussion. Your commitments on this blog seemed oriented in that direction, John. Doing that will mean putting the honest discussion first and the winning second. But we can work on that, over time.

    What Obama offers, I think, is a shot at some of that in the short term. It's not really because I agree with him on every issue. I very much disagree with him on many issues, the war, first and foremost.

    But what I like about Obama is that he seems to offer a better shot to have more genuine discussions about the things we agree or disagree about without all the cynicism that power so often engenders. I'm sure there will still be some of that. But not nearly as much as with the Clinton machine. I still give the edge the John McCain over Hillary Clinton in this regard. But there is no doubt that Obama offers something endearing in terms of genuine commitment to something bigger than just a Presidential campaign.

    And that is something that I agree I hope extends far past the 2008 election.

    I better get to bed. I always have something more to say, John, and limited time to say everything I would love to say.