Katy Burns: From Obama, hope and change
Barack Obama – that is, President Obama, both for the past four years and, now, for the next four – sent the unhappy warriors at Fox News into paroxysms of despairing outrage over his inauguration speech. And perhaps none was more indignant than some guy named Peter Johnson Jr., who was beside himself about how dreadful it had been.
“Where was the debt?” he howled. “Where was the unemployment . . . Where is the hopelessness? . . . Where is the fear . . . ?”
Ah, yes, those time-honored touchstones in generations of inaugural speeches, hopelessness and fear. Think of FDR: “We have nothing to fear but
. . . Oh, lordie, we have everything to fear! Run, hide!”
Fox News, it appears, has turned into an Onion-like parody of itself.
Obama’s speech was, rightfully, a paean to hope – the very word that he has been mercilessly mocked for using in his campaign four years ago. And to change, the kind of change that has been an enduring quality of life in these United States for close to 250 years as we have pursued the notion, beautifully expressed if not fulfilled, in the declaration that we are all “created equal . . . with certain unalienable rights.”
As Obama observed, while Americans’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” may be “self-evident, they are not self-executing.” Nonetheless, Americans over countless generations have been struggling to live up to those words.
Hope and change are what this country has always been about, even if that wasn’t immediately achieved. We started, after all, half free and half slave, and it took a shatteringly bloody war, with casualties beyond imagination, to correct that terrible mistake. And we have been pursuing progress, if imperfectly, since.
The president referred to more recent (and conveniently alliterative) history when he evoked “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” milestones in the history of women, black people and gays in this country. As many have noted, this tribute to inclusion was a stunning moment in an inaugural speech.
We have not always, even in relatively recent years, been so inclusive. As a woman of a certain age, as they say, I grew up in an all-white world. The most exotic “others” I knew were recent refugees from post-war Europe. “Displaced persons,” they were, or, more slightingly, “DPs.” And some “real” Americans – ironically descendants of Irish and German immigrants who had themselves been disparaged by the children and grandchildren of yet earlier settlers – looked with scorn on the
Eastern European newcomers.
I didn’t know any black people until I had finished college – small Catholic women’s schools in northern Ohio weren’t exactly outposts of diversity – and went to work for a big city daily newspaper. And even there, the few black reporters were confined to the police beat or the “community” pages.
For that matter, almost all the women, up until around the time I arrived, were confined to the so-called women’s pages, although a few had escaped that ghetto to cover the schools or the newly established “teen beat.” They all wore hats and gloves and teetered around on high heels – as, of course, I did, even as a lowly copyboy.
At least those women had escaped being pigeonholed as teachers, secretaries or nurses. (Not, I hasten to add, that there’s anything wrong with being teachers, secretaries or nurses.)
Handicapped people? For the most part, people with serious physical or mental disabilities simply didn’t exist. Not that anyone acknowledged, anyway.
Gay people? They didn’t exist either in my world. My parents’ dear friends Virginia and Mary were just two nice spinster librarians who had spent years sharing. . . . Well, what? Friendship? Living costs?
The civil rights movement of the 1960s was an astounding eye-opener. The savage attacks on the black and white marchers and Freedom Riders in the South were captured for the world on the amazing new medium of television. The shame of John Lewis’s bloody beating by Alabama state troopers at Selma was captured forever by an AP photographer’s camera.
But more quietly the movement made its mark as it challenged the less dramatic de facto segregation that existed in much of the North, including where I lived, where people of color were by unspoken tradition confined to well-marked neighborhoods and decidedly inferior public schools.
And as black people stood up for their rights, so did gays and lesbians. As they came, at first slowly, out of their closets, we in the straight world saw them suddenly as friends, teachers, friendly shopkeepers and even aunts and uncles – or, as I did, a beloved sibling.
And so, sometimes haltingly and sometimes swiftly, our American society has evolved. Our offices and even boardrooms became multi-hued. Women advanced, often quickly, into business and academe, even politics. Look at New Hampshire’s all-female delegation to Congress, or at our second woman governor. Think of the message they send to today’s children, both boys and girls.
Most recently we learned that women – who already make up a significant percentage of our armed forces – will be able, if they qualify, to serve in combat. Pretty impressive progress for people who, at the time our soaring Declaration of Independence was signed, were little more than chattel themselves, in many instances not even allowed to own property and certainly not to vote.
We have a black family in our White House, and they will be there for four more years. Such a thing would have been beyond comprehension when I was younger.
We can look at this brave new 21st-century world with fear of the future, as I think a surprisingly and sadly large number of my contemporaries do. I can understand, almost. And I feel sorry for them.
Or we can realize, on reflection, that those good old days so many yearn for weren’t really very good at all. We can welcome the expansion of liberties and opportunities that make this country a beacon of hope and change to people around the world.
I think I’ll take the latter. So, in his lofty inaugural speech, does President Obama.
Hopelessness, indeed, Peter Johnson!
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)