Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Making history - 1/26/08

[Obama's winning the nomination and the choice of Palin as the Republican running mate have intensified this trend, to the point where commentators believe that people will vote simply to "make history." If that's true, it's sad, and shows me that we may never escape identity politics.]

I've written before about the misuse of the word historic, a word that, for a variety of reasons, is applied to almost any event of whatever significance. It's an inflationary word, one that is used to pump up all manner of fairly trivial events. The vast majority of events described as historic will not be noted by history (except as stored on various servers on the Internet, preserved for all time, the Domesday Book of our time), because they offer no insight on the flows of history.

Now the word has come full force into the presidential campaign. It has become commonplace for commentators to throw around the word in every story reported or written. That a black man, or a woman, might become the president of the dominant world power is treated as the story, and is seen as justification by some voters to throw their vote one way or another.

There have been 43 presidents. Given the importance of the United States on the world stage, every president has found himself prominent in the mix of world events. Some have risen to the challenge, some have not. Some changed the direction not only of the U.S., but of the globe. Every single one, yes, even Millard Fillmore, can be considered historic.

It is interesting that the country may be ready to elect either an African-American or a woman. I don't know that I fully buy into the vast significance, because this country still has race and gender issues, issues that will not disappear simply because one person has been elected to one office. It certainly does not denote the kind of self-congratulatory back-patting that we will go through if one of these people does become president.

But the issues that confront this nation transcend identity politics. There are so many challenges facing anyone that would take the job of president, and those are not black challenges, or female challenges (what constitutes a women's or black issue, anyway? I well understand the legal and moral hurdles that an earlier generation of activist had to overcome, and I'm not suggesting that we are precisely where we should be on gender or race, but do we want a president who will see redressing past wrongs as a big priority?).

Even if a president didn't want to be historic, world events would prevent that. The office, by its very nature, is historic, and it's very hard, especially in real time, to decide what will be more or less historic. I'm hoping the next president will make history, not because of the color of skin or the presence of certain chromosomes, but by helping this country deal with its internal divisiveness, uniting us in taking a path back to where we should, and can, be.

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