Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Two Brilliant Opinion Pieces

Read two brilliant opinion pieces over the weekend. The first was by Randall Kennedy, a professor of law at Harvard University, who speculated on the possibility of Barack Obama losing to John McCain in the November election. “If that happens,” wonders Kennedy, “then what? How will I feel? How will other black Americans feel? How should people like me feel?”

The writer plumbs his soul to answer these questions, having fled the Jim Crow South of the ‘60s with his parents to escape racial abuses. The answers are poignant but also uplifting. Kennedy finds in Obama a potential president who could do wonders for the United States both at home and abroad. But his hope is tempered by reality. What is that reality? Race, which continues to plays a significant role in 21st century America, “not the hateful, snarling open bigotry that terrorized my parents in their youth, but rather a vague, sophisticated, low-key prejudice that is chameleonlike in its ability to adapt to new surroundings and to hide even from those firmly in its grip.” If Obama were to lose, “I’ll conclude that a fabulous opportunity has been lost. I’ll believe that American voters have made a huge mistake.” Kennedy speaks for many Americans across the racial divide. They yearn for a new dawn after the perpetual darkness of the Bush administration but if the republicans return, then after the initial heartbreak and anger, “I will find solace and encouragement in contemplating this … a major political party nominated a black man for the highest office in the land … he (Obama) will have bequeathed to all America something that should bring comfort and pride to even the most disappointed of his followers. He has reached the edge of the pinnacle. And shown that we can stand atop it.”

The other piece was by Paul Theroux, the renowned travel writer. What has really “electrified” republicans about Sarah Palin is not the quality of her Alaskan governorship (non-existent) but her image as a fearless hunter of … moose. The big bad moose has made Palin big too, at least in the minds of diehard republicans grasping at anything to excite their flagging spirit. Theroux puts all this in perspective: “It is as though, because of the animal’s enormous size and imposing antlers, bringing one down is a heroic feat of marksmanship. Nothing could be further from the truth.” This is where Henry David Thoreau steps in. Thoreau (1817-1862) observed the moose closely in Maine. Killing these myopic creatures was more “like going out by night to some woodside pasture and shooting your neighbor’s horses.” He found these gentle creatures to be like “great frightened rabbits.” Felling them, he felt, was no less than a tragedy.

Thoreau was a subversive fellow, intolerant of pretensions and hypocrisy and “business as usual.” (It is “business as usual” that is at the root of the current Wall Street meltdown). Theroux writes a telling sentence: “American politicians seldom take notice of American writers, especially the boldest one, such as Thoreau, whose every word is at odds with their groveling and grandstanding and their sanctimonious cant.” This is as incisive a summary of the majority of our politicians as you will ever read. Theroux points out that in Thoreau’s mind, the moose and the pine tree were linked. “Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve life than destroy it.” Sarah Palin notwithstanding, can a majority of Americans take Thoreau’s message to heart and vote with their conscience in November?

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