Today my dear friend Jake and I set out early from our politically-taken-for-granted New York City for Philadelphia, two hours away (well, three with our incompetent Greyhound driver). By late morning we arrived at a canvass-a-thon in south Philly hosted by Terry McAuliffe, a Democratic operative who ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The idea was to go after Clinton supporters who haven’t yet taken up the Obama torch. But we mainly ignored the assignment and knocked on doors at whim and stopped everyone we passed on the sidewalk.
Last night, in a cynical mood, Jake insisted we not do this without complaining. Obama’s refusal of public money, his failure to indict the military-industrial complex, and his apparent support for entrenched interests like coal and corn—these are shortcomings we cannot ignore. We’ll support him, but Jake was right to make sure that we not do so quietly.
On the whole, the people we met were kind and genuinely interested in conversation. Some were unaware of key policy differences between Obama and McCain, so what we could tell them was of use. We registered one lady to vote and probably a couple guys our age too. Some of the most stalwart intransigence came from people focused on abortion—it was an old Italian neighborhood, after all, and the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to the Republicans has hit hard. Saying I’m Catholic too and believe the Democrats represent a broader message for “life” didn’t help much with these folk, except for earning a kind “God bless you” when we parted.
There was an incredibly ugly side too. We encountered a self-described Skinhead and a crew of construction workers who (despite being Catholics and Jews) joked about having KKK robes at home. A handful of others were more subtle, letting us into their racism like privileged confidants: “To tell you the truth,” or “Between us” (between us white people, they meant), or other such prefaces to prejudice. They couldn’t vote for a black man.
Our hearts sunk to hear those convictions, which are hushed almost entirely by the political correctness of our usual worlds. The reasons these people had were clearly visceral—several of them gestured to the black neighborhood just north of theirs, where we were told we’d be in danger of being shot if we went. They couldn’t vote for Obama because it would mean vindicating those people up there.
“There’s a reason it’s called the White House,” one of the construction workers added.
I’ve said again and again on The Row Boat that we’ve got to be wary of Obama-mania, tempted as I am to embrace it. But caution for this surely false messiah is no reason to keep off the streets. In fact, I recommend it to anyone, even if you’re not a die-hard Obama-ite. We can’t vouch for what he might do in office, but we can for the reasons we support him. Our deepest concerns are ours, but, except for those of us with enough money, the politicians are not. And as one woman said, you haven’t earned the right to complain until you’ve done something about it.
The conversations Jake and I shared with strangers today—about bringing the troops home, about the desire for hope from a leader, about the troubled economy, and about health care (with a woman, holding an infant in her arms, who will soon lose her insurance)—were what made the day worthwhile. In all that, we could forget about ol’ Barack and even charmin’ Sarah Palin. Strangers became neighbors. Politics will always be politics, but we’re stuck with each other, the good as well as the repugnant.