I spent the last few days with people whose work in the world combines art and social justice, mostly the community-based and collaborative work I’ve written about for decades. As a group, we tend to be simultaneously weary and hardy. The theme that comes to mind is from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:21: “It is not given to you to complete the task, but neither may you desist from it.”
If you could have seen us jumping up and down as the prospect of an Obama presidency came into ever-sharper focus, you wouldn’t have believed your eyes.
Many of us travel abroad for our work from time to time, and all of us collaborate with colleagues based in other countries. No matter how much we may have seen ourselves as exceptions to the excesses of our government, we’ve all had the experience of being mistaken for its representatives. I remember being introduced in Britain more than twenty years ago to a fellow activist-artist, extending my hand to shake, and receiving instead a coolly polite question: “Are you aware that what your government is doing in Nicaragua is really very bad?” When it comes to foreign policy, things have gone downhill from there. When I close my eyes and imagine President Obama as our national representative to the rest of the planet, my heart warms, my spirits rise, my lips curve into a semi-permanent smile. I want it so much I can taste it.
You’ve probably heard by now how key members of the Kennedy clan have come forward to invoke the spirit of JFK in endorsing Obama, a thrilling development. Let me introduce you to something you probably haven’t heard about, an opportunity to learn about the candidate’s art policy. (If you want a PDF of the policy, email me and I’ll send it to you as an attachment.) It was drafted with the advice of folks in Illinois who know Obama well, people whose integrity and commitment I absolutely trust.
I have a friend on the energy and environment team who is similarly knowledgeable and principled. This past weekend, when my colleagues and I got through exclaiming on the South Carolina victory, we asked each other to name the last time people we respected without reservation had committed themselves so completely to a candidate who might win, the last time we, ourselves, had felt so wholehearted and optimistic about a candidate for national office. Some of the younger people hadn’t even been born the last time many of us could proclaim such feelings without mental reservation.
Everyone I know would vote for a just about any animate object to start the process of healing from the epidemic of corruption and destruction George Bush has unleashed on this country—and to avoid licensing four more years of the same, no matter how expertly McCain, Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani pretend to distinguish themselves from Bush’s movement conservatism. But to have this rarest of rare opportunities, to vote for someone who (as Teddy Kennedy said today) “inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes and renew our belief that our country’s best days are still to come”—I don’t want to let that opportunity slip away.
The political rumor mill says that the Clinton machine will choose this week, before Super Tuesday, to scrape together any whispers, scraps of gossip and hints of scandal that can somehow be attached to the Obama campaign, and to dump it on the electorate. I fervently hope not, wanting to believe that people who have been so plagued by scandal and gossip as the Clintons will forbear to inflict it on others. But if they do, the persistence of supportable hope will depend on the rest of us paying it no mind and acting decisively to counter it.
In gematria, a sort of Jewish numerology, the number 18 has the same value as the word “chai,” which means life. That’s why some Jews make gifts in multiples of 18: in addition to the value of the sum itself, the gift confers a blessing for vibrant life. It is also taught that one of ways to attract prosperity when resources are slim is to give tzedakah, the Hebrew word that means “justice,” although it is sometimes translated as “charity.” Things are stretched pretty thin here, so both reasons for giving sound strong. While it can do the most good, please join me today in sending $18, $36, $54, $72, $90, $108…. to the Obama campaign. May this new feeling become more and more familiar each day!