Saturday, November 8, 2008

Election 2008: The Victory of Idealism Over Issues

My Libyan born Pakistani-Canadian brother who lives in the United States now shares his name with the American President.

As residents of the border city of Buffalo, New York, we frequently drive home into Canada, and on returning, US border officials will sometimes joke with him when they read the name on his passport.

"Hussain Rizvi. Hmmm. So, are you related to Saddam?" they chuckle.

Now he finally has a response.

"No, sir - I'm related to Barack Hussein Obama."

The optimism about America's new president-elect is still cautious and reserved. Will he be able to fix an economy in recession, two major wars, and the country's damaged alliances overseas? Will he bring the change he promised? The expectations are high, the tasks daunting, every word under scrutiny, and every action under a microscope.

In the short term, when it comes to policy issues, he'll likely make mistakes like any other president. He'll come through on some of his promises, and may not on others. He'll change his mind on some things. He'll be praised at times and criticized at others.

However, the long term implications of this election aren't as much about the world's issues as its ideals. Barack Obama hasn't just brought change and hope with him - he represents it. He is the living, breathing personification of what Gandhi was talking about when he said, "Be the change you want to see in this world." There are many firsts here, and being the first black president is only one of them.

Obama is the only son of a first-generation immigrant to be elected to the presidency in modern history. He is the product of an interracial marriage, which was illegal in many states until he was six years old. He is also the first anti-war candidate to be elected at a time of war.

As a black man with a last name that rhymes with Osama, the middle name Hussein, and less than two years as a junior US senator, Barack Obama went up against virtually impossible odds when he decided to run for president. He ran against the royal establishment of the Democratic party, the Clintons - not just one, but two of them, one being a wildly popular ex-president. He earned the endorsements of the both the brother and the daughter of President John F. Kennedy along the way. After defeating the Clintons, he ran against an a celebrated American war hero, John McCain - and won again. In doing so, he defeated not just his opponents, but a set of seemingly insurmountable odds that had statistically and historically been stacked against him.

He also defeated an ideology. Richmond, Virginia was the most permanent capital of the Confederacy. The state hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1964, when Obama was three years old. Neither had Indiana. For the first time in 44 years, Barack Obama turned both of those states blue. Although Obama is the first northern-state liberal to be elected to the presidency since Kennedy (Clinton, Carter, and Johnson were all from southern states), he is, unlike Kennedy, an almost entirely self-made man who did not come from a wealthy, politically well-connected family.

Even if Barack Obama was a white man, these achievements would be historic and monumental. He had to have known the odds and the enormity of his ambition, but he seems to have gone for it anyway, simply because, well, he thought he could.

Sure this is about the economy, about Iraq, health care, taxes, Social Security, immigration, and foreign policy. And at any other time, it wouldn't feel like anything could ever be more pressing than these issues, especially how they are all in crisis together at the same time.

But the impact of what happened on Tuesday stretches far beyond even what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the "fierce urgency of now." It goes beyond race and beyond policy issues. It's about overcoming improbable odds and going against the grain, shattering that "real world" myth, and redefining - or de-defining - reality.

This is a big win for that kind of stick-it-out-no-matter-what-they-say idealism, for being daring and not being afraid to question age-old established ideas and perceptions as long as your conscience tells you it's the right thing to do. And it's a very blatantly visible confirmation of all those cliches that don't seem so hollow anymore - that anything is possible and nothing is certain.

This is a return to the celebration of intelligence and education over ignorance and mediocrity; science, reason, and rationality over superstition and dogma; creativity and innovation over tradition; and hope and trust over fear.

My brother Hussain's circumstances aren't of his own making. My parents were professors with a penchant for traveling the world. I have never lived in the same country for more than nine years, and at thirty three, I have lived and gone to school in South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Canada, and the United States. Among the six members of my family, we have three different countries of birth.

I never really developed any emotional or patriotic affiliation to any one country or region. As a consequence, the ties I formed with the people and the places I've encountered aren't rooted in geography or culture, but in ideology.

Barack Obama was elected at least partly because almost everyone is able to see part of their own story in his story. This phenomenon isn't just restricted to the blue-collar worker who relates to his middle class roots, the Ivy League professor, or the first-generation immigrant. It permeates into a much more intricate demographic that includes the tiny group of us that are third-culture, identity-challenged, foreign non-foreigners like my brother and myself.

This is about how not having a cultural, geographic, religious, or racial identity is an identity in itself.

It's about defying categorization and shedding labels.

It's about how non-American does not always mean un-American.

Maybe the wars will end, maybe we'll all have jobs, and maybe not. For now, this isn't about what will happen, but what already has: this year has revealed an America and a world that has grown up, yet at the same time, regained its innocence.