Obama 2008I cannot tell a lie: I was not always a supporter of Barack Obama, our new president elect. Early on in what has proven to be one of the longest presidential campaigns in American history, I didn’t think a candidate could run on a platform of hope. I argued that “hope” contained little content; it was simply a word attempting to capture a feeling.

Well, as I watched our nation elect Barack Obama last night, I was awed by the efficacy of his words. I would be remiss to not mention that as his campaign wore on, Obama added content to round out his platforms of “change” and “hope.” He put forward ideas that are substantive and responsive to the crises of the American people.

Obama has a remarkable ability to use words to encapsulate a swell of emotion. Just think of his inspirational rallying call, “Yes We Can.” Is the populace hungry for words, or are they hungry for passion? And can those two desires run concurrently and successfully?

Other words were tossed around during this campaign: elite, terrorist, socialist, Marxist, communist. Watching Barack Obama become our president elect gives me hope that the populace actually listened to what was being said. Our nation takes its citizenship and civic duty seriously, and that, to me, seems like change. 

Within the Riggio: Writing and Democracy Program, we are confronted with varying interpretations of the word democracy, and it is often said that writing in itself is a political act. It has been said that today, half of the country will wake up disappointed. But I would argue that as Americans, we can find common ground in the execution of choice that took place yesterday. The American people listened, processed, and exercised their freedom, and that is an edifying end to this election. It’s a success for everyone, and even those who today find themselves disappointed, can attempt to find hope in that.

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It was only last Spring that Senator Obama enlightened us about the characteristics of Pennsylvanians, saying, “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them, and they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration, has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

And over this past weekend it would appear we, as a nation, acquired a 51st State in the Union, the state of North Virginia. In defending the idea John McCain would lose the state of Virginia, with polls leaning towards Obama, Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior adviser to McCain, stated, “as a proud resident of Oakton, Va., I can tell you that the Democrats have just come in from the District of Columbia and moved into northern Virginia, and that’s really what you see there. But the rest of the state, real Virginia, if you will, I think will be very responsive to Senator McCain’s message.”

We live in a world with internet, 24-hour news channels, and live blogging, which accounts for a lot of words being spoken and written, at a rapid pace, and what we seem to lose in the fray is the ability to step back, think before we speak, and choose the words that say what we actually mean. In an effort to get sound bites out quickly, words and intent seem to become opposed, and I would argue the result is that dangerous, divisive sentiments are being put before the American people.

In two weeks we elect one man to be our leader. The executive branch of government is an office in which we allow just one of our citizens to give the entire population a public voice for the world. And as I weigh my decision the word I consider most often is “American,” as in; which man does actually speak for and represent the majority of this nation’s population?

The media is certainly participating in the devolution of language as evidenced above. Perhaps the Republicans were not wrong to criticize the way the media pounced upon Sarah Palin’s nomination for Vice President. Initially, instead of impartial journalistic reporting, the first few weeks following Palin’s nomination were filled with cruel rumor-mongering, going so far as to attack her children, and even question the parentage of Palin’s youngest son.

As I write, as I claim to want to write, to participate in a public discourse, be it journalistically, poetically or fictitiously, what I see around me leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. In an essay on moral vision, Norman Mailer wrote:

“Democracy is the throbbing embodiment of the dialectic— thesis, antithesis, and synthesis ready to become the new thesis.

You cannot have a great democracy without great writers. If great novels disappear, as they are in danger of doing, and our storytelling is co-opted by television and journalism, then I think we will be that much farther away from a free society. Novels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy. Americans were affected for decades by The Grapes of Wrath. Some good Southerners even developed a sense of the tragic by reading Faulkner…

I’m right and I’m wrong so often that I have no interest in convincing others to think the way I do. I’m interested, rather, that we all get better at thinking. If a book is good enough, you cannot predict how your readers are going to react. You shouldn’t be able to. If it is good, it is not manipulative, and everyone, therefore, can voyage off in a different direction.”

So I return to the word that I believe is the heart of the matter: American. Each citizen has their own personal interpretation of what that word means, and are also entitled to their interpretation. The diversity of thought and belief in this country are a direct result of the freedoms we enjoy, and are privileged to employ as citizens of this nation. The two men running for President have already been given great opportunity to have their voices heard around the globe. The writers who create the space for that voice, enjoy an opportunity that is a mere fantasy to other nation’s populations. And these privileges are largely taken advantage of, as they come with a great responsibility no one seems to uphold anymore. Take a minute, take a breath, and say what you mean, because lately no one seems to mean what they say.