What Change Will Come
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
In the passage from which Barack Obama often quotes the words, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” the speaker, thought to have been a Hopi elder, also said,
There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.
I take the river as a metaphor for change, and it is now coming very fast. From the February 2007 day on which he declared his intention to run for the presidency, Barack has always spoken of the necessity and desirability of change. That day, addressing the shivering crowd, he said,
It’s humbling, but in my heart I know you didn’t come here just for me, you came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that’s shut you out, that’s told you to settle, that’s divided us for too long, you believe we can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building that more perfect union.
Later in the speech he said,
[T]hat is our unyielding faith – that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.
Barack was being modest when he spoke about changing Washington and, later, the country. The politicians who mocked him thought he was talking about nothing more than political change.
In her stump speech Hillary Clinton claimed she was the real candidate of change, saying that one candidate believed you achieve change by demanding it, another thought you hope for it, while she alone knew how to work for it.
John McCain interpreted “change” to mean an end to earmarks – the Congressional practice of hanging off of every important piece of legislation amendments granting huge sums of money to constituents’ pet projects, such as Ted Stevens’ $389 million bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska (population 8,900) to the island of Gravina (population 50) and its airport, currently reached by ferry for a $6 fee.
The two candidates’ interpretation of Obama’s change betrayed their shallowness. Only at the most mundane level was Obama talking changing Washington, and there he addressed the culture in which industry lobbyists write legislation for Congress members to introduce, such as energy legislation drafted by the oil industry and the infamous Medicare Part D (for dumb) law drafted by the pharmaceutical industry that prohibits the government from negotiating drug prices – both features of the Bush 2 legacy.
The deeper meaning of Barack’s promise of change was not lost on those who crave it. The scope of the change he will bring – is already bringing – is greater than cleaning out the sump that is Washington politics. It’s a change in world views, a change in the way we see ourselves and each other. It’s a change the vast majority of Americans – the 80% who approve of how he’s handling the transition and who believe things will be better with him in the White House – have hungered for these many years, most of us unaware of our longing until we heard Barack ask us to believe. It’s a change the world desires, which is why 180,000 people – almost none of whom could vote for him – flocked to see him speak in Berlin.
Since Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980, the nation’s view of the world has been that in it are evil, dangerous men who would take over our country and enslave us if they could. For safety, we needed a strong, strict father figure to tell us what to do and how to think. Reagan, Bush the First, Bush the Second, and even Clinton between the Bushes, filled that role. Secrecy was paramount, as far as the law allowed and even beyond that. We were not to be trusted with real knowledge of what the government was up to. We were to content ourselves with being protected. Safety above all, freedom and the Constitution be damned.
Concurrent with this has been the attitude brought to this country by the Puritans who founded it: wealth is virtue; poverty is a sign of weakness, of low moral values.
It follows from this view that the way to a good life is to gain power over others, and to gather as much money and what it can buy as possible. In the movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas epitomizes the spirit of the times. “Greed …is good,” he tells people at a shareholders’ meeting, “Greed is right. Greed works.” Greed, he concludes, will save “that … malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”
Just look how well that’s worked for us.
It didn’t start in 1980. I quit teaching in public schools in 1968, when I realized I was expected to acculturate children in kindergarten so they would grow up to be suitable for employment at IBM or in the US Army. Not that they would grow up to love learning, to experience joy and love, but to work, to fit in, to “succeed,” to get and spend money. I’d come to realize that the children I taught in kindergarten and first grade were hungry learners, eyes glistening as they learned about shapes and colors and numbers and words, and I wanted to feed their excitement.
The only joy I know of that rivals giving birth is teaching a child to read. But in the city where I taught, faculty was judged not by how well the children learned, but by how well they behaved. I taught my pupils to walk through the halls in a group, silently, so as not to disturb others in their classrooms. I did not teach them to walk in a straight line, with uniform spaces between them. That’s IBM/military-think, and I couldn’t be part of it. One day the principal saw us on the way to the library and put a memo in my personnel file.
I’d noticed, too, that by the time the children I was teaching reached fourth grade, they would become experts in avoiding learning, work would be hardship, and the only things that mattered would be dominance on the playground and having the best toys. They were already thinking like little executives.
The people who heard Obama most clearly – and there were far more who heard him than who voted for him – are the same age now as are the people I taught in public school. They flocked to Obama because, though they may not have been able to put their longing into words, they craved meaning in their lives, the kind of meaning found in the world view that Barack represents.
In the Obama world view, people want to be the best they can be – not the richest or the most powerful, but the kindest, most useful, most competent, most loved and loving. They want to nurture each other and the Earth. They want peace. They are not afraid of life, or of living.
When Obama quotes the elder who said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” he’s saying that we already have the power to heal the world, to make it a place of nurturance and health.
This is the real change Barack will bring about. It won’t be perfect. Nothing is. There will always be people too afraid of losing their power who will try to stifle his efforts. There will also be people afraid of change, pure and simple. These are the people who will try to cling to the shore. “They will feel torn apart and will suffer greatly,” as the elder said.
We should feel sorry for them. We should try to reassure them that the future will not leave them behind unless they choose to be left behind. We should let them feel our love.
But we must not let them drag us down. We should support Barack to the extent that we can, nudging him gently if we think he is drifting off course (as some are now doing with regard to his invitation to Rick Warren, the anti-gay, anti-semitic, anti-religious-freedom minister of a megachurch in the richest county in the USA) but we should not doubt that he can lead us where we want and need to go.
We are the ones we have been waiting for. Let us see who is with us, and celebrate.