History and Hope

I’d meant to talk in this week’s Archdruid Report post about the peak oil conference I attended last weekend in suburban Detroit. Still, that will have to wait for next time, as last night’s election results deserve a comment of their own.

Mind you, I intend to leave the political implications for others to discuss. The separation of church and state has been denounced by far too many people, on the left as well as the right, who have forgotten that it was originally put there to protect churches from political interference, not vice versa. It is nonetheless one of the essential foundations of the religious liberty that enables me to practice my Druid faith; one of the lessons I draw from this is that, as the head of a religious organization, I have the civic duty to keep my mouth shut about matters of partisan politics. There will no doubt be a banquet of political discussion in the months ahead of us lavish enough to satisfy even the most eager palate.

What I want to discuss just now, though, has less to do with the candidates in the presidential election now ended, than with the millions of ordinary people who filed into polling places yesterday and decided between them. All through the last two years or so, since Barack Obama began what seemed at the time like an improbable quest for the US presidency, one concern expressed repeatedly by the media and ordinary people alike was the possibility that the election would end up being about the issue of race. In a certain sense, that was indeed what happened – but in a very unexpected sense.

Some four decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the American people had the chance to judge an African-American candidate, in King’s words, not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character – and by and large, they rose to that not inconsiderable challenge. There may well have been some who voted for Obama because of his ethnic background, just as there were doubtless some who voted against him for that reason; but even among those who voted for his opponent, there were many who did so not because of Obama’s race, but simply because they disagreed with his policy proposals, just as if he were any other candidate.

That is an achievement of immense scope. It may just turn out that this nation has at long last begun to heal the old wound of racial hatred that has riven America right down to its core since the first days of European settlement. So deep a wound will not close at once; as Wendell Berry pointed out some years ago in a book too rarely read, the scar tissue of the racial divide reaches all through our national psyche, on all sides of the various color lines that still wall us away from each other – and from ourselves. Still, it’s no little thing that a majority of voters in Virginia, the heart of the old Confederacy; in Indiana, where a quarter of all adult males belonged to the Ku Klux Klan a mere seventy years ago; and in this nation as a whole, voted for the first time in history to send a black man to the White House.

We have no way of knowing in advance what kind of president Barack Obama will turn out to be, or how history will regard his tenure. He’s proven himself in a difficult campaign to be resourceful, energetic, thoughtful, and almost superhumanly cool under pressure, but many people have arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with abilities like these, and some of them have crashed and burned. Many of the cards in the hand he’ll have to play will be dealt him by decisions made months and years beforehand, or by circumstances nobody can control.

Still, a door has been opened, and I can’t help but think that America will be better off from the simple fact that the highest levels of its political system are no longer exclusively reserved to the fraction of its population that happens to be white. Nor is yesterday’s impact limited to issues of race; I think it almost certain that America’s first woman president will be inaugurated within a decade, and it’s even odds which of the two major parties will nominate her.

The broadening of the pool of potential talent this implies will be desperately needed in the years to come. It’s unfortunate, though it was probably inevitable, that the major issues of this moment in history were barely mentioned by any party, major or minor, in the presidential campaign. Over the next decade or so, the United States will have to work out a way to stand down from a global military-economic empire it can no longer afford to maintain; it will have to find the money and the means to replace a mostly fictive economy based on the manipulation of baroque financial instruments with a real economy based on the production of goods and services for people; it will have to make good on decades of malign neglect inflicted on the national infrastructure on nearly every level, even as it struggles to convert a suburban landcape viable only in an age of cheap abundant fossil fuels to something that makes sense in the world of scarce and expensive energy ahead of us.

Few of the changes that will be imposed by these necessities will be popular. Many, in fact, will be bitterly resented, and none of them will come cheaply. We have wasted so many opportunities and poured so many of our once-abundant resources into a decades-long joyride that the next few years will almost certainly impose one wrenching challenge after another on a society that the recent past has left very poorly equipped to face them. Our history is among the heaviest burdens we face, because the habits we learned during America’s imperial zenith are among the things that are most necessary to unlearn in the new and far more multipolar world dawning around us.

Still, I find myself feeling a bit more hopeful than before, for the burden of racial hatred was also profoundly rooted in American history and identity, and the verdict of last night’s election suggests that it has turned out to be subject to change. I think of the difference forty years has made, from 1968, when an assassin’s bullet cut down Martin Luther King and inner cities across America exploded in violence, to 2008, when a nation’s ballot sent Barack Obama to the presidency and many of those same inner cities celebrated straight through the night. We live in a different country now, and the possibility that Americans might be able to rise to the massive challenge of the deindustrial transition has become just slightly harder for me to dismiss out of hand. Still, that turn of history’s wheel is still ahead of us, and we will have to wait and see.