Monday, March 29, 2010

That Hopey-Changey Stuff

I move onward, the only direction.
Can't be scared to fail, searchin' perfection.
- Shawn Carter

Today, mainstream American politics no longer seems framed as a struggle between two competing visions of change. Rather, due at least in part to the battle lines that were drawn in the healthcare debate, it has become a struggle between the proponents of change and the defenders of the status quo. The dialogue, such as it is, has not been about what form change should take, but whether things ought to change at all. John McCain announced that the Democrats should not expect cooperation on anything after healthcare. Seriously - no cooperation, at all, on anything? That is a bold statement, and it reflects a huge amount of apparently unconditional attachment to the status quo.

But America has never been about accepting the status quo. Generation after generation, this country has been built by ambitious immigrants and visionaries, enabled by a social and political system that eschewed rigid class and heredity privilege in favor of socioeconomic mobility and meritocracy. The dead hand of the past can only hold us back as much as we allow it to. By and large, our historical narrative is one of choosing positive change over the status quo, of believing that we, collectively, have the power, the wisdom, and the resources to build a better future, rather than accept a flawed present. It is an optimistic vision of the future, and I would argue that it has driven much of American history.

Westward expansion, the commitments we've made to maintaining global security in the past century, the space race, the struggles for civil rights at home - the United States of America has accomplished some truly great things. And we've done so by moving forward, even when doing so presented immense challenges, confident that collectively we've had the power to build the better world that we envision. In the past, we haven't shirked our responsibility to each other, to ourselves, and to future generations of Americans when faced with these challenges. It's imperative that we not to do so now.

Sarah Palin has been rallying her supporters to "take back our country." To her, I would say that this is not, nor has this ever been "your" country, at least not in the sense that the statement implies. America has never chosen fear over hope, intolerance over acceptance, complacency over action, nor anger over compassion. America has always harnessed its collective energies to move forward, not back.

If you want to pretend you're living in the early 19th century, that is of course your right as an American. But if you think you're going to take the entire country there with you, I suspect you're in for an unpleasant surprise. History shows that Americans are remarkably attached to "that hopey-changey stuff" for which you've shown such contempt - except we call it "optimism." And, to answer your question, history shows that it tends to work out pretty well for us.

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