Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Audacity of Defiance

After I watched the third night of the Democratic Convention, I saw the film The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer’s 1958 classic tale of racism and redemption starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. For those of you under 50 or just not a fan of old movies: The Defiant Ones tells the story of two prisoners escaped from a chain gang, one black, one white, neither enamored of the other, forced to work together to survive because they’re chained together. Animosity gives way to cooperation, but they are ultimately overwhelmed by the powers that be, and betrayed by someone who could have been an ally but is corrupted by a desperate need to escape her circumstances, too. In the end, by the time the men are caught, they’re unchained, but united by friendship. It occurred to me that the movie could be viewed as an interesting and disturbing metaphor for the 2008 election.

Those who believe that racial prejudice and social division in America – still the unconfronted elephant in the room of this campaign – have been largely overcome by law and time, are (a) mistaken and (b) not understanding the true process of unity. Whites and non-whites will never band together because of social dictates to do so, but rather, because everyone will finally recognize that our mutual survival depends on our ability to cooperate. And our ability to cooperate will inevitably arise out of our capacity for dealing with confrontation, then rising above it. Both our unspoken woundedness and our politeness are keeping us apart.

I’ve long believed that our country would never unite unless there was some massive calamity, like California breaking off and floating out to sea, or we were visited by aliens from another world; not until we were faced with the little green men would we be able to accept the black, white, brown, yellow and red of our shared humanity. The task ahead for the Obama/Biden team is to effectively convince White America that the Iraq War and the national debt are a massive calamity and we’ve already been visited by aliens: the Bush Administration and its neo-con devotees who live in a rarified other world and are green with greed and self-interest.

During his acceptance speech tonight, I hope Barack Obama can find a compelling and appealing way to explain that we are indeed chained together by recession, inflation, oil-dependency, corporate outsourcing, the cost of war mongering, the burden of debt and the stress of insecurity. I hope he’ll say that if we unite to survive, we can overcome the powers that be before they destroy us. I hope that argument can convince enough white people to vote for a black man. Otherwise, it’s back to the chain gang for us all.

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