Wednesday, July 02, 2008

An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Dear Barack,

The chances are you’ll never see this blog. And so I write this knowing that it’s largely for my own soul that I say these things and the few souls who might intentionally come to my blog or those who accidentally stumble across it in cyberspace.

I want you to know first of all that until last week, I was a pretty solid supporter. I happened to hear your speech the day you entered the race. I was headed to the store on a Saturday listening to NPR and suddenly I heard this voice that sounded vaguely like Martin Luther King, Jr. talking about justice and the need for change. I found myself so taken that I pulled into a parking lot to listen to the whole thing. I found myself with shortened breath and tears in my eyes as I thought to myself, “This is what America needs – a voice in the wilderness crying out for change” adding quickly “And that’s precisely why this man doesn’t have a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning.”

But I was wrong. You did win the Democratic nomination, riding a tide of young voters and middle aged voters like myself sick to our very souls of the direction America has taken under the conservative right Bush regime and its conservative-lite predecessors. In all honesty, you weren’t my first choice in the Florida primary. Given my strong opposition to Iraq and my concern for civil liberties within America, I had planned to vote for Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Fortunately for you, he withdrew the day before the Florida primary and so, despite the fact you had not campaigned here, my partner and I voted for you. Hillary had lost her shot at our votes when she supported Iraq. But I felt good about my second choice. And I thought, maybe this guy actually does have a shot at winning.

Over the campaign, I began to feel I had made the right choice regardless of its circumstances. Your mantra of change, coupled with the fact that regardless of who the Democrats nominated – a black man or a woman - it would be a departure from business as usual, gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, change was coming. The Republicans’ nomination of John McCain, a doddering, duplicitous, self-serving man who paints himself as a POW hero and political moderate, gave me even more hope that maybe change could come. I began to allow myself to feel more hopeful than I had felt in a long time.

This past week I came crashing down to reality. First there was your rejection of public funding. If there is any key to political corruption in the farce we call American democracy today it is the observation of the Proverbs writer that money is the root of all evil. Barack, it takes no particularly brilliant insight to recognize that politicians who must constantly raise campaign funding sell their very souls to those who hold their purse strings. That means that most Americans, including the family in which you grew up, are effectively cut out of the political process in America. The status quo is a good deal for somebody, but it simply isn’t most of America.

Then there was the child rape death sentence ruling by the SCOTUS. Frankly, I was amazed that Kennedy swung against the Great American Killing Machine in the name of “evolving standards of decency.” As his decision noted, America’s practices are largely neither evolved nor decent. And this was one small step in the right direction, the direction against state killing that the majority of the world’s nation-states now embrace (why have they evolved and we haven’t?).

Your response was chilling: I have always felt that communities have the right to express their outrage by killing such offenders. Barack, that’s a pretty low level of moral reasoning. It’s the same utilitarian reasoning a killer uses when he chooses to kill witnesses – their deaths serve as a means to the killer’s ends. That people are outraged is understandable, expectable. But outrage does not produce a “Kill One Human Being Free” card, regardless of who they are. You should know better. And you should be ashamed of your response.

Then there was the gun decision. Kennedy swung right this time and the gun lobby won its greatest victory. America is inundated with guns that are used with impunity on anyone their possessor chooses. While Americans respond with maudlin candle lit rallies and yet one more magnetic ribbon to affix to the rear of their SUVs, the reality is that most of us accept this status quo as normal if not normative. We even pass laws like my own bone-headed state of Florida just passed protecting a supposed "right" to take your guns to work, but only if they stay locked up in your vehicle, right up to the point the disgruntled worker goes postal.

Now, the Supremes legitimate that understanding by telling Americans they have a right to own and use guns, not in the context of collective security that the Framers intentionally wrote into the amendment but simply because individuals want to own and use guns. As Justice Scalia (now there’s an oxymoron for you!) said in the previously mentioned state killing case, “More people will die because of this decision.”

This decision is the fruit of the long term GOP project of packing of the courts with far right ideologue jurists - perhaps the primary reason I still plan to vote for you in hopes that even a slight deviation from this current far right trajectory is essential to retaining anything that even remotely resembles democracy in America. The SCOTUS’ current focus on the vindication of force, power, corporate privilege and the deprivation of individual rights has a name – in the 1930s it was called fascism.

Barack, your response, which the local newspaper rightly described as “tepid,” was simply, “I’ve always believed in an individual right to own handguns” although, in all fairness, you do then state your support of the very kinds of efforts to regulate them that the SCOTUS just struck down. A tepid - and conflicted - response to a sea change victory for America’s killing industry is hardly inspiring.

Yesterday, the press reported that you intend to actually expand Mr. Bush’s “faith based” funding of social services. And it reports that as a part of this program you would agree with religious organizations’ discriminatory hiring practices. Now, Barack, we all know what that means: institutionalized homophobia legitimized by religion. Your support among the LBGT population in America has been very high. In all honesty, I feel you have betrayed us with this move and I suspect that many of my fellow LBGT people do as well.

The reality is that I am in favor of change, not necessarily your candidacy. And my willingness to hold my nose and pull your lever becomes increasingly attenuated as you reveal yourself as a centrist politician who will do anything to get elected. But you have a bit of a problem now. Your change mantra has come back to haunt you, hasn’t it?

Explain to the American people how business as usual in campaign funding by the wealthy and thus business as usual in American politics constitutes “change.” Explain to the thousands of people on America’s Death Rows who did not get fair trials or, worse yet, are innocent like those with whom you are personally familiar in your home state of Illinois, how your position on killing offenders to express community outrage constitutes “change.” Explain to the thousands of victims each year of gun violence – the highest rate in the world – how your tepid support of “individual rights” to guns constitutes “change.” And finally, explain how support of homophobic hiring practices in a country with a history of institutionalized homophobia constitutes “change.”

In all honesty, I feel used, Barack. I feel that your smooth rhetoric has been hiding a mediocre spirited, self-serving politician, just as your Hillary supporting opponents said all along. More than that, I am heart-broken over the appearance of this political Mr. Hyde. I have been so disillusioned about my country for so long. I had truly allowed myself to hope that maybe you would actually lead the move to change things. Today, rid of any self-delusions, I am back to survival mode – doing whatever I can to resist the seemingly inexorable life-denying aspects of a culture that values money above human beings, uses force as a matter of course for conflict resolution and which allows an uncritical tyranny of the majority to continue denying all of America’s citizens their birthright as Americans.

Fortunately for you, the alternative in this election is untenable for folks like me. Increasingly it appears we have a centrist Clinton Democrat clothed in the garb of “change” versus a doddering, unprincipled Republican clothed in the garb of “POW hero” even as he assents to Americans torturing our own POWs. So, my vote for you in November is secure simply due to circumstances. And I suspect that is probably true for many Americans who will pull the lever next to your name with resignation. So, not to worry, Barack. Except, perhaps, for your own integrity, assuming that was ever particularly important to you.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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