I got into a bit of a tiff down at the local burrito joint earlier this evening. A group of us were discussing the election campaign and the guy sitting next to me - I'd never met him before, but he knew other people at the table - said, "I've got no use for those people out in Middle America. They're ignorant, racist, narrow-minded..."
Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, but at that point I couldn't help interrupting him to ask, "Aren't you being just as prejudiced as you're accusing them of being?"
He looked startled for a minute, but then shot back, "If that makes me prejudiced, then so be it. Those people voted Republican, and there's no excuse for that."
I tried pointing out that no one party or faction had a monopoly on virtue or integrity, that people from all over the ideological spectrum wanted more or less the same things for their families and their country even though they disagreed drastically on the best way to achieve those goals, and that as annoying as the two (or more) party political system could be, trying to simplify things by doing away with annoying opposition parties hadn't worked too well in places like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
But he wasn't in the mood to hear it. "I'm outta here," he grunted, and headed for the door with his friend who, moments earlier, had been telling us how a Jew (we had also been talking about Bloomberg) or a black would never stand a chance of being elected President because of those same supposedly small-minded Middle Americans.
"Don't the polls show Barack Obama leading in Iowa?" I called after them. "How much more Middle American do you want?" Shortly afterward, I came home to find out that the polls had, if anything, underestimated Obama's strength and that he had won a resounding victory in that 95% white state.
I wasn't surprised. I've maintained for a long time that Americans are far less bigoted and far more open-minded than they're generally given credit for. During my time in London I had to endure a constant stream of Englishmen and Irishmen queuing up to tell me exactly what was wrong with a country they'd never visited and knew little about apart from what they'd heard in a Michael Moore "documentary." I find, sadly, the same to be true of much of the alleged intelligentsia here in New York City.
Yes, they may be a little better read and slightly more sophisticated than their kneejerk counterparts out on the Left Coast, but that old New Yorker cover showing the world ending at the Hudson River remains as valid an observation as ever, and, ironically or not, it seems to be the most educated and cosmopolitan who cling most devoutly to that viewpoint.
Or maybe not; the guy I was arguing, er, discussing things with tonight was not exactly part of New York's ruling class; in fact, he more or less bragged of being "homeless" in a way that suggested those of us who lived in houses or apartments were hopelessly bourgeois (Janelle Blarg told me the other day about being derided as a "housepunk" for locking her doors in an attempt to discourage random travelers and street people from walking in and crashing there).
The "homeless" guy did have a new cellphone and had just flown in from the West Coast (well, you didn't expect him to travel through the hateful heartland, did you?), but more than anything else, he reminded me of myself in the 80s, half-hippie, half-punk, and seething with rage toward anyone who dared contradict my oft-stated opinion that Ronald Reagan was the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. Let's just say he was pretty grumpy.
I don't know what he'll make of it when he hears that those Iowa rednecks had rewritten history by making a black man the frontrunner to be the next president of the United States. Probably go off on a new rant about how Obama is not "really" black or is controlled by the "corporate interests" (which he may well be, but, as I tried to point out, who did he think would prop up the economy of the United States if at least some corporations didn't flourish?
For me, though, Obama's victory provided a satisfying "in your face" for all those pinheaded Brits and New Yorkers and San Franciscans who've been telling me for years that Americans are "too racist" to vote for a black man. Give them a respectable, competent candidate (i.e., not a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton), I replied, and they'll come out in droves to vote for him, and what do you know, for once I was right.
I still have my own doubts about Obama, although I'm more favorably inclined toward him than most of the candidates. Given that one of the president's main jobs is to look and sound convincing, he's got a big head start over the hectoring Clinton or the oleaginous Edwards. But even though TV commentators raved about his victory speech tonight, calling it Kennedy-esque (though usually referencing the wrong Kennedy, Bobby, who himself always struck me as a bit of an empty suit), it was still a case of lots of style and not nearly as much substance. He reminds me more of Carter or (Bill) Clinton - themselves both only semi-convincing JFK-bots - than of either Kennedy.
Obama as president would send a powerful message to the world, and by that I mean more than a well-deserved "Shut up" to all the America-bashers whose own countries have yet to provide a fraction of the opportunities that America has to citizens of African descent. As some have observed, he's very nearly a post-racial candidate, and better yet, as close to a post-baby boomer as we're likely to get. I'd just like to know a little more about what he actually thinks and what he plans to do as president, something more specific than the "It's time for a change" mantra beloved of every non-incumbent since elections began.
But even with those fairly substantial reservations, I'm very pleased with tonight's result, and even more pleased to see the message emanating from what I genuinely believe is America's heartland: that we're growing up as a country, that the old clichés and old prejudices and fears are fading away. The rubes and the hicks out there in the sticks may be ahead of the curve on you oh-so-sophisticated New Yorkers.