Saturday, 4 July 2009

Self Evident?

Happy 4th of July!

Having just returned from the most amazing Democrats Abroad 4th of July picnic, I think I'm in the usual holiday spirit - stuffed full of barbecue, drowsy from sunshine, and grateful to see so many good friends today (hundreds of you came out to celebrate with us - a thousand thanks, especially to Karen, Lesly, and Michelle for the phenomenal job they did in organising it.

This year, the 4th feels a little different - for obvious reasons, and some not quite so obviously.

Obviously, it feels different to celebrate American independence abroad at a time when our reputation has so dramatically improved. Obama's popularity overseas makes it... if not exactly cool than at least a hell of a lot less UNcool to be seen out sporting American flag lapel pins. Heck, I even met some British people today who were happy to wear them.

Also, it feels different to celebrate the country now that it's led by someone who I not only agree with, but feel partly responsible for helping to get there in the first place. It's still my country even when it's run by Bush et. al, but I can't pretend I was proud of it when (in my view) it was violating it's own most profound principles. Now that we are getting back on track, and now that I feel like I had some part, however, tiny, to play in making that happen, the Fourth feels... different.

But there's something else as well - something I've been thinking a lot about lately. It's the bravery, the clarity, the willingness to put everything on the line of those who signed the Declaration of Independence all those years ago (not on July 4, by the way, but never mind). And it's the events in Iran that have made me think a lot more than usual about that lately.

The Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

But the Declaration is wrong. Clearly, there is nothing at all self-evident about these truths (though they are, I think, truths) or it wouldn't have taken so many millenia of struggle for anyone anywhere to start living up to them.

I remember in 5th grade learning about the American revolution, and as part of the lesson my teacher asked us to hold a debate - she told us that at the time of the revolution only about a third of the population supported the revolutionaries. Another third were loyal to the king, and a final third of the population were "fence sitters" essentially dithering between rebellion and the status quo. She asked us to decide which side we'd have been on and to argue out position.

The trouble was that these were patriotic American kids. Massachusetts kids, no less, raised on the spirit of the Boston Tea Parties - not one of them would admit to the possibility they might have supported the British, or even that they might have been fence sitters. Except for me. So it wound up being a debate between every other kid in my class... and me. My teacher (I think realising that I was paying the price for a mistake in her own lesson plan) was very grateful to me for sticking by my position against... well, everyone. She even sent me home with a special sticker of commendation. But if felt kind of odd to get such lavish praise for, basically, refusing to decide.

But the thing is, when I thought about what the situation would have been like for American colonists at the time, I couldn't honestly say that I would have sided with the rebels. Would I have been upset about the whole taxation without representation thing? Sure. Would I have wanted to live under a Democracy rather than as a colony? No doubt. Would I have been sympathetic to the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Naturally.

But the British government was at that time the most powerful military force in the world. What's more, they represented a continuous, functioning government that was by no means alien to the colonists - that was, indeed, philosophically related from the cultural foundations of the very ideals that the revolution proclaimed. The British would have recently been our protection in the French and Indian wars, they were the source of most of our luxury goods, many colonists would have had family and close friends still living over there.

And we were asked to surrender all of this - cut those ties - for what? For a government who's shape and structure were not yet envisioned, for the possibility of cutting off all our important trade and commerce, and the likelihood that ultimately we would lose - and our families and friends would be punished severely for it.

I thought in the 5th grade, and I think now, that those of us who confidently declare we would have been rebels in that time and place are drastically understanding the bravery and sacrifice of the folks who were.

Similarly, when I look at the protestors on the streets in Tehran, who went out there with modest, simple demands ("count my vote") I wish that I could be certain I would be as brave as they are in a similar situation.

The American founding fathers didn't know that their revolution would succeed - that hundreds of years later their great-great grandchildren would grill meat and drink beer in the sunshine every year in their honor. Their remarkable bravery hinges upon the fact that they fought anyway, because they believed in themselves and their vision of what was right.

On this 4th of July, I raise my glass to everyone, everywhere, who rises to that challenge. May all in the world today who are brave enough to stand up for Democracy without knowing the outcome live to see it come true.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Showing Them Some Love

Here's Obama at a White House reception for the LGBT community last week - the first time any President has given a white house address on LGBT issues, let alone an address in the White House to that audience.

I loved the deadpan understatement of this bit:

"We have made progress and we will make more. And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps... We've been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."
Obviously, there are some noteworthy policy statements in this - his confirmation that he has instructed the Secretary of Defence to begin working on a plan implement the repeal of DADT. A repeated promise to overturn DOMA and to abolish the ban on HIV positive individuals entering the country.

But what I was struck by more than anything else was the body language. In recent weeks we've been hearing a lot about the tensions between the Obama White House and the Gay community, but in this speech even the preternaturally self assured President seemed really relaxed - comfortable, at home, and like he is genuinely in the company of some of his favorite people. Of course, to a large extent this is true - as he reminded us in the series of shout outs at the beginning, folks like campaigner Steve Hildebrand and John Berry at the Office of Personnel are quite literally and not just politically "old friends".

But notice the casual banter, for example at about 4 minutes 30 seconds in when he cracks up at someone's cell phone ring tone.

He seems here, dare I say it, a bit like how George W. Bush seemed when he spent time with the pro-life folks. There's a sense of, "These are my people."

Or maybe, to be cynical, he's adopting that attitude precisely because of the reported tensions from the community - a way of cooling them off. But if it were merely a performance, it would be masterful.

Either way, I believe him when he promises action. Any day now would be good.