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Monday, January 19, 2009

Not an End, but a Beginning

Obama speaks with MLK poster in background
Like anyone who followed the 2008 election closely, the inauguration of Barack Obama tomorrow seems as much like the end as it does the beginning. If this were a movie, the audience attending the inauguration would applaud wildly as the new president takes the oath of office -- hugs and tears and hats in the air and swelling music -- Barack would look at Michelle and say, "We did it," she'd cry and laugh, and the credits would roll. If it were an especially bad movie, a frustrated John McCain would get tangled up in the bunting and fall off something.

But this isn't Hollywood. History continues endlessly, the credits never roll, the audience never shuffles out of the theater, inspired and made wiser by schmaltzy lessons learned. We're in for four years at least where Barack Obama will both disappoint us and give us reason to celebrate. The movie would end where the presidency begins because the promise of perfection is plausible, depictions of perfection are not. Barack Obama will disappoint -- that's an absolute guarantee -- but it's not unreasonable to hope that the balance of his presidency will lean toward wisdom.

Today, Obama is still "the future president" and all that promise is already showing a ding or two. The choice of Rick Warren to give the convocation is disappointing to many -- myself included. There are some aisles which you shouldn't reach across. Getting this particular wizard to shake the medicine rattle over the proceedings can't be seen as anything other than a mistake. He's homophobic now and he'll always be a homophobe. I always say that meeting someone who's crazy halfway is halfway crazy. There are some compromises you should never make and some prejudices you should never forgive. While you pull them up in prominence, they drag you down with their idiocy.

Then again, I suppose those prejudices are hard to kill. Like racism, homophobia is illogical and irrational. As a result, it's more a matter of faith than a matter of fact. When the best argument you have for your position is "God doesn't like it," you don't actually have an argument. And weak arguments eventually die.

This is the case with the Mississippi paper, the Meridian Star. Yesterday -- two days before Obama's inaugural and on the eve of the Martin Luther King jr. holiday -- the paper apologized for serving the prejudices of the region more than truth during King's campaign for equality.

There was a time when this newspaper -- and many others across the south -- acted with gross neglect by largely ignoring the unfairness of segregated schools, buses, restaurants, washrooms, theaters and other public places.

We did it through omission, by not recording for our readers many of the most important civil rights activities that happened in our midst, including protests and sit-ins. That was wrong. We should have loudly protested segregation and the efforts to block voter registration of black East Mississippians.

Current management understands while we can't go back and undo some past wrongs, we can offer our sincere apology -- and promise never again to neglect our responsibility to inform you, our readers, about the human rights and dignity every individual is entitled to in America -- no matter their religion, their ethnic background or the color of their skin.

Change has come.

The election of Barack Obama was never really about race for me. He was just the best person for the job. While the fact that he'd be the first African-American president hasn't come as a surprise for me, it was always just gravy. But that distinction is significant and "looking beyond race" in this situation would mean overlooking the tremendous accomplishment -- at one time in our recent history unthinkable -- this inaugural represents. It'll be a black hand on that Bible tomorrow and that means something all on its own.

Today we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Martin Luther King jr's birth. It's no more or less significant that the 79th or 81st, but humans seem to like nice, round numbers. 80 seems more important, so it is. That Obama will be sworn in tomorrow after this nice, round number is celebrated is coincidental. But no one could've planned it better.

But it's there that coincidence ends. You have to believe that this was something King foresaw and that this was something he worked for. Not the election of Barack Obama specifically, of course, but a nation where someone like him could be elected. Racism is by no means dead, but it has been mortally wounded. History moves, as it always does, away from superstition (and racism, like homophobia, is superstition) and toward reason. The move from hatred toward tolerance is as much a triumph for rationality as it is for equality. If wisdom could be measured, then the sum total of wisdom in America would be increased. Tomorrow, we'll all -- as a whole -- become a little bit saner.

But, since "a little bit saner" doesn't necessarily mean "fully sane," we're not done. Racism still exists and, as Rick Warren demonstrates, other foolish prejudices exist as well. We're not done because we're never done. The world is constantly changing and with each new change comes new decisions. Some will always take the wrong road. American society and -- for that matter -- humanity, is a work in constant progress, never finished before it's changed forever.

This isn't the end of the Barack Obama movie, but the beginning. Change -- the word of the day -- has come.