A New World
Finished up On Beauty this week, a Dickensian novel, by Zadie Smith, that features a whole score of central characters from two families linked by both the fathers' careers art historians and their widely divergent political and religious views. On Beauty is set in suburban Boston mostly, also in England, and features a whole syllabus of sweet derision about academia, where, as someone long ago said, the fights are always so absurdly viscious because the turf is always so incredibly small. Much of the novel is really a romp, a satire.
Somehow, on my suggestion, it became the read-of-the-month for our department's little book club--before I'd read it (I'd seen a front page review in the NY Times that was more than gracious), which is to say before I'd waded through a couple of vivid sex scenes that left my glasses thoroughly steamed. I was thrilled when just two kids showed up at the book club last week; some parent could have had me burned at the stake for suggesting their children witness that level of explicitness.
I may yet escape with my life.
Anyway, I liked the novel for a bunch of reasons, but one of them--maybe the most significant--is that while the book is all about the racial tensions that exist in this country, it's take is really brand new. I took courses in African-American literature, one in a college where there were no blacks in the class, the other at an urban university where I was one of only two whites. What linked both classes and the reading lists was the racial narrative that we've used to undergird the dialogue about race for more than a century now. The story is slavery and its legacy.
I grew up in a provincial culture of Dutch Calvinist people, most of whom didn't know a black person. Yet, my own God-fearing grandfather, who spent some good time weeping for his sins, was a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies because they were the last team to integrate. I have no idea where racism ever entered the hearts and souls of ordinary people in Oostburg, Wisconsin, but it did, my family also.
What most surveys illustrate about the Millennials, Generation Y, is that they somehow don't have it. Something, somehow, got explunged from the DNA--I don't know how. One can speculate, however--is it the fact that the media has made Oprah into the most well-known woman in the world? Does the color-blindness younger people grow from tolerance lessons they've been given in school and on TV for all of their lives? Who knows? Read the surveys yourself. Try Pew, for instance: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?PageID=754 .
On Beauty is a novel that Jesse Jackson just wouldn't get--and even if he would, he wouldn't want to. It's a novel without the earmarks of the civil rights struggles of the Sixties. It's a novel about identity, not identity politics, and that's a significant part of its energy. Zadie Smith, like Barack Obama, is bi-racial, of mixed racial heritage.
Last night, after Obama's thumping of what people call "Billary," MSNBC featured two pundits I really appreciate--and there are many these days, and many I appreciate. On one hand, Eugene Robinson, of the Washington Post, and the other, Pat Buchanan, himself an ex-candidate. In the post-primary analysis, and for reasons of his own, I'm sure, Buchanan insisted that Bill and Hillary wouldn't stop the way rough-and-tumble way they campaigned in South Carolina, that they would continue to bait the race with race because, he insisted, ultimately that kind of divisiveness will win. And Billary knows how to win and will do anything get there.
Eugene Robinson took issue because, he said, Obama is something new. The exit polls--if they can be believed--made it very clear that among the young, who voted in droves, the racial lines that separated their parents and more specifically their grandparents, were simply gone. Obama's race, to the young, makes no difference. They live in a different world.
Pat just shook his head, as if Mr. Robinson was tilting at windmills.
I think Robinson is right. We're moving into a new era and leaving behind the most significant grand narratives that have been at the heart of our thinking and posturing--the whole Sixties' thing. Bill and Hillary, like me, a products of that turbulent era; they're stamped with it, as I am. They carry its whole load of triumphs and losses; their identities are tied up with pounding the pavement to a different drummer, telling their own parents they were dead wrong about Vietnam.
When our former President says, as he did yesterday, that Obama could be expected to win South Carolina because Jesse Jackson did, he's not lying; but he's spinning the truth with ideas and divisions manifest in the old civil rights paradigm, a paradigm slowly exiting the stage. What he and Hillary and Pat Buchanan have trouble understanding, I think, is that we live in a new world.
It's not nirvana, but Obama represents, right now, a significant generational shift. He's black--or is he? Amazingly, just two short months ago, he wasn't black enough, as he said this week. Now it seems, to some he's too black. But not to young people, and they're voting. Interestingly enough, there are actually more Millennials than Boomers. It's time to reprise Dylan because once again the times are a changin'.
In this morning's NY Times, Caroline Kennedy says she believes she sees in Obama something of the charisma so many people saw claim they saw in her own father. Okay. The man is inspiring. To hear that victory speech last night--as in Iowa--was to hear poetry, really. But lots of people can give good speeches. Hitler could pack the house.
He's not a messiah, and there's no question about his having to put his boots on the ground from here on in, if he hasn't already. But I like him. He got my vote in the Iowa caucuses, and, should Billary go down in defeat, I'll vote for him again.
But what's even more interesting to me is what's happening before our eyes. He's leading a charge from a younger generation who've grown up in the shadow of anti-war protests and are now asserting the inevitability of a new way. The race problems in this country are not going away--racial divides are not gone from the world Zadie Smith creates in On Beauty.
But they're different. And I think that's a good thing.