It was an unforgettable moment in American film, its quintessential quality derived from its foresight.
On the night of November 4, 2008, America had its Network moment, when, across the land, people poured out of their houses, celebrating the end of tyranny and the dawn of a new era. In Harlem and Atlanta and Peoria, the young and the old partied in public arenas, hailing a communal dream.
I, too, danced in the streets of Berkeley, where a bunch of students were riding a pick-up truck, carrying huge American flags and shouting “President-elect Barack Obama,” into a megaphone.
We were experiencing the dawn of history, when, in Nehru’s words, “people step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
In the midst of the ruckus, a friend turned to me and said, “Now, we finally have a future, and alas, I am too old.”
I understood what she meant.
I, too, have regretted not having witnessed many historic moments in my lifetime. I was born after Gandhi’s marches, after India’s freedom from British rule. Unlike my American classmates, I missed the ’60s revolution and the march on Washington with Martin Luther King.
When I arrived on these shores as a student of Energy and Resources in Berkeley, there were few moments of hope. I was a young woman, determined to transform the planet with solar energy, wind power, biofuels, and energy efficiency. As a research student, I worked on a project on energy efficient windows at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs. After graduation, I got a phone call from Dennis Hayes, founder of Earth Day, offering me a job in Washington.
I refused the opportunity but later traveled around Thailand and India researching energy and rural development.
Then Reagan happened. The oil industry sabotaged our future. Funding for alternative energy was cut. An entire generation saw its dream shattered.
My ambition to change the world faded away. Cynicism replaced excitement.
Then, on November 4, 2008, a magical thing happened.
We made a tryst with destiny.
Unlike other historic moments, we were lucky to know this moment’s import even as it was happening.
For the first time in a generation, we felt patriotic again. Free of the shackles of some of the darkest eight years in American history, we once again joined the world, which shared our joy on this remarkable night, as if the entire planet had come together for once to chart a common fate, to walk along converging paths. Lost souls pouring over their “how to suicide bomb” brochures in the caves of Pakistan and Afghanistan, too, we sensed, were reassessing their hatred toward a country which had just elected a dark man with the name of Barack Hussein Obama as its leader. We pondered the fact that the word “Obama” means “the blessed one” in Arabic, and wondered if providence had had a hand in this, too.
But most of all, we felt victorious. Obama made us feel that way by continual use of the word “we” in his acceptance speech, instead of the word “I.”
The morning after, many woke up to assess what they could do for their country.
“You know, it would be great to work on Obama’s energy plan,” a colleague said.
“I don’t think I can abandon my obligations here to go to Washington,” I said.
“But what if Obama called you to duty?”
I had to admit I would have to consider it very seriously. My cynical view of politics had just started to melt away.
Even in my totally euphoric moments in the hours and days after the victory, I couldn’t resist contemplating how close we had come once again to compromising the dignity and credibility of the White House. I envisioned Hillary in the Oval Office, and Bill once again engaging in his favorite extracurricular activities there. I visualized McCain waging a 100-year war with Iraq, or worse yet, Palin occupying that esteemed office after McCain’s demise, and asking her aides why India and Pakistan were fighting over a sweater.
But most of all, I thought of the torture at Gitmo, the manipulation of the Supreme Court, and the usurpation of habeas corpus and privacy at the hands of Bush and Cheney, and I felt like a liberated prisoner.
Obama is the first president I have intensely longed to know personally—his literary sensibility, philosophical bent, altruistic world view, and sensitivity to the human condition, so clearly depicted in Dreams from my Father would be lovely to be around, I think. I sense he knows an immigrant’s plight, that if he were to meet my children, whose circumstances are not too dissimilar to his own, he would empathize with their struggle for identity.
I was criticized for comparing Obama to Nehru in a column a few months ago, but after listening to his words and watching his actions, many in the intelligentsia have concluded that Obama is made of the stuff that great leaders like Lincoln and Jefferson were made of.
He rose above the fray despite great temptation to hit back; he showed wisdom in a culture where loud talk is valued; he inspired when manipulation is the norm. But most of all, Obama displayed humility, a much undervalued quality in American life, when pride and arrogance would have been natural.
That is why, on November 4, I could not forget Nehru’s famous speech, delivered at midnight on August 15, 1947.
“A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of the nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of [our nation] and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”
If all of us, even the Wall Street hacks, the GOP mud-slingers, the perpetual victims, and the eternal victimizers, can take such a pledge, I am certain we will discover America’s greatness again.
|Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found atwww.saritasarvate.com|