SO, Brandt and I begin. I actually began my Dispatches investigation with my mother-in-law and stepfather-in-law, Holly and Jim. I should probably remove the "in-law" from their monikers here, because they treat me as one of their own. I love them dearly. However, just saying they are my wife's mother and stepfather seems so detached so.... In any case, they were kind enough to agree to be interviewed. One of the things that's been interesting as Brandt and I have embarked on this is that most people -- well, most U.S. citizens, feel like someone else would be more interesting to interview. The very people who have given the most to this project in terms of contacts, funding, and ideas -- when I say to them, "You do realize I want to interview you too," they say "Anything to help, but I don't know that I would have anything that interesting to say." There seems to be a fundamental humbleness to the people we are interviewing -- is that a North American trait?
In any case, Holly and Jim, who live in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech University, gave fascinating interviews despite any protestations to the contrary. At any given time during the school year, Virginia Tech students make up half of the city's population. And yet, neither of them consider Blacksburg truly "The South." Mostly, they see it as a college town and it's hard to argue with them. Much of Blacksburg apparently voted for Obama. I don't get the sense they feel like a political minority there.
Many of our questions deal with notions of what is America(n) and what Obama's election means to the US and its citizens. In separate interviews, Holly and Jim both focused on the idea of equal opportunity as being a bedrock of what is American (or at least the United States version of American -- I've never been to South America). There was a sense, particularly to Jim (born during the FDR administration), that Obama's election was America finally living up to the ideal of equal opportunity. It just felt like Obama was the right person for the job and US citizens recognized that. We've been hearing that a lot from people. It has made me think more about the nature of equal opportunity and what that really means. Does it mean that if someone else that has my race/religion/economic condition in common with me accomplishes something that yes I and my children have that opportunity too? Or does it mean that no matter what, I can achieve whatever I want as long as I have an opportunity to achieve it? It's interesting, because on the surface I believe, well yes I could have done that too -- be a black man raised by a single white mother, then transfer from a metropolitan LA college to an Ivy League school, become a grassroots organizer in Chicago, go to Harvard Law School, go back to Chicago grassroots organizing, process the death of my long-lost father, run for a former Black Panther's congressional seat and lose, then win every election thereafter...wait a minute. I couldn't do that. No way in hell I could do that. I don't have his eloquence, I don't have his equanimity, I don't have his...see I can't even come up with another appropriate word that starts with the letter "e"! I guess I could say I didn't have the equal opportunity because I'm not him. I was not the one. But if I were the one that had all of those Obama-esque qualities, I could have done what he's done, right? Which led to Jim's next point -- we don't all have equal abilities. I have no more business running a country than Obama has being an actor (although he'd probably be a brilliant actor and would be one of those charismatic guys who win Tonys and Oscars but WHATEVER!). But if I could run a country, maybe I could have an equal shot at it.
I agree with Jim on this point about the idea of America -- it should be about equal opportunity and on so many levels Obama seemed so capable, that we as a nation were finally able to sift through our racial nightmare and, all else being equal, elect an intelligent person president. But if Obama is the poster child for equal opportunity, what does that make George Bush, a man who by many accounts seemed so INcapable of so many things for much of his life? What does that say about the idea of America? Have we turned a proverbial corner from just 8 and 4 years ago? I suppose one could say that George Bush was a poster child for affirmative action -- a record of academic futility and commercial failure should not keep any one from becoming the Chief Executive of the United States.
Jim's astute observation about opportunity has given me a quandary. What does equal opportunity mean? Lemme know what you think.
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