On a cold and brisk November night in 2008, I rushed from the CTA train to Grant Park in Chicago. More specifically, I sprinted across the city, jaywalking and dodging cars. I somehow managed to find my friends to chant “Yes we did!” on the night of Barack Obama’s first presidential victory. It was a message of hope that over the past eight years we have gotten a taste of.
Tonight was a vivid reminder of that November evening eight years ago. Now a somewhat more aged (and hopefully mature) man, I sat in my Denver apartment and watched the farewell speech from President Obama. It was a night of recollections and memories – tellings of shared accomplishments and a vivid reminder that while much progress has been made, that progress does not stop when President Obama leaves office next week.
Yet tonight was also torment. While I said goodbye to a great and kind man – a man who loves his wife and daughters in a way that shows the respect that all women everywhere deserve – the threat of a self-absorbed sexist looms large. And on this same night, major news outlets report that President-Elect Trump faces daunting and harrowing claims that a foreign country has compromising information on him. There are almost no words to describe the level of risk this situation could bring about.
We are at a crossroad.
On this random January night, ten days before Trump’s inauguration, we see two oppositional and radically different visions for both America and the world. One is a message of hope and progressivism – where all people everywhere are equal regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or nationality – and the other a message of fear and supremacy.
President Obama’s longstanding message of hope took a new form in his final days in office. Hope now takes the form of opposition, specifically to fear. Obama directly confronted the fear that drives our speech and actions far too often. It is a fear that has divided our communities and families. It is a fear that has isolated us from anything different than us. Obama said, “For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste — all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”
President Obama is an embodied example of what the next four years need to be: a voice that engages those to whom we disagree while still confronting that which causes fear. And there is much to fear with the impending Age of Trump. While Obama tears up while giving thanks to his wife and daughters, Trump criticizes women who use their platform to condemn his treatment of women and the disabled. Frankly, saying goodbye to a president who has worked towards good, despite his many faults, on the same night the incoming president calls reports of his own moral failures “fake” is a bit much to take in. I want to give up. Yet if I do, I turn my back on the work of the past eight years.
President Obama reminded us that his vision is not his – it’s ours. It’s a shared vision for humanity. The progress that we have seen in the last eight years does not stop or die on January 20 unless we let it die. Obama has been a leader and our voice – yet we are the movement. America is torn between two visions, one of hope and one of fear. The latter will only triumph if the former is allowed to die. Trump can’t kill that vision; Only we can choose to let it die.
We must not allow the fear that has threatened to tear us apart continue to fracture our communities. We cannot allow the fear of the constructed “other” to create barriers to communication and dialogue. For far too long we have only permitted our eyes to see and our ears to hear that to which we agree. In doing so, fear is discreetly taking hold of our hearts and fostering anger and hostility towards others. Tonight, President Obama reminded us how critical it is to resist fear.
I leave with only the words from the outgoing president, for they are far better than mine could ever be:
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire”