Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Coming Home

Why was I in tears last night? It wasn't because I think Obama's policies will save the country, or the world. We are dug into a hole so deep that maybe we will never get out: and I made my peace with that a long time ago. We may stand at the end of humanity's little run on this planet: we learned sorcery before we learned wisdom, and we're more likely to destroy ourselves than not. That hasn't changed. Presidents come and go. Some will be better and some will be worse.

No. I was in tears for personal and very American reasons. I learned in the late sixties that I belonged to a treasonous family. President Richard Nixon told me so himself, in so many words. We didn't support his war: therefore we were traitors.

Well. You tell a person he's a traitor, at the age of fourteen, and he believes you. It's not like telling a forty year old that. At forty, a person just recognizes the hyperbole and shrugs. But at fourteen, if your president tells you you're a traitor, it sinks into your heart. You will never feel the same way about your country again.

So ever since, I've wandered in America as a traitor. And all the narratives that got built into my life as an American child -- about freedom, about opportunity, about government of the people, by the people, and for the people -- all turned into bitter parodies. They were all stolen from me. I was American; I couldn't help it; but none of the American stories belonged to me any more.

Last night I got my stories back. It was McCain's concession speech, even more than Obama's speech, or Obama's election, that did it. McCain said -- and I think he believed it, though many in his audience didn't -- that Obama loved his country. He said that the fact that he and Obama disagreed didn't mean that one of them wasn't American. McCain told me, after more than forty years in exile, that I wasn't a traitor any more. I could come home.

It's not that I can believe the stories in the simplistic way I could when I was a child. Nothing can erase, and I wouldn't want anything to erase, my knowledge of Sand Creek and My Lai and Abu Ghraib. Americans have done evil and they will do it again. They don't live up to their stories. (So who does?) Lincoln, the man Obama quoted last night, the man on the penny and the five dollar bill, suspended Habeas Corpus and jailed the opposition press. I know all that, and much more, to my nation's discredit. But no one sensible expects their childhood stories to be literally true, any more than sensible People of the Book believe that God made the world in seven days, or that Noah's flood covered more than a local patch of the Middle East. These stories aren't history. They're stories of the heart. They're stories about who we are. They're stories about what we want to be true. And as of last night, the American stories are stories about me again.

No comments: