I, like most of the United States and much of the rest of the world, took 20 minutes out of my day to listen to Obama’s inaugural speech this morning. From Huajuapan. I tuned in via a fuzzy connection to NPR’s internet site that rebuffered continuously throughout the address, often at the most critical parts (argh!). I was unable to connect to anything that would provide video, so I didn’t get to see the visuals that everyone’s been talking about -– Michelle’s dress, Sasha’s cute thumbs-up to her dad, the monstrous crowd that had gathered in Washington DC. And I was interrupted a couple of times by passing students and noise in our office.
But I got the message anyway.
For the most part, I liked what I heard -- Obama’s message of change and hope and national and global solidarity certainly resonated with me. I got chills (or, ‘my skin freaked out like a chicken,’ as an ESL student once described the phenomenon of goosebumps to me) at various intervals throughout his address. But even I, enamored with Obama as I am, raised an eyebrow at one part of his speech. It was when he said: “We will not apologize for our way of life.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to join the scores of detractors who have already posted negative critiques of Obama’s speech all over the internet (haters). To me, the address wasn’t “lackluster,” “fluffy,” or “pie-in-the-sky.” I thought it was inspirational.
But I’d like to make a point on his point: I think we do need to take a long, hard, critical look at our way of life. If not to apologize for it, at least to make some serious changes -- there's that word again -- to it.
Now, I’m not going to try to take Obama’s remark out of context. At this particular point in the speech, Obama was referring to terrorism, and saying we’d defend our nation against it. Right on.
But, the picky linguist that I am, I didn’t like the wording. Our way of life. What exactly does that mean? Freedom? Baseball? Apple Pie? All things worth defending, for sure. But the other side of our way of life, the dark underbelly -- the consumerism, the disproportionate wealth, the strip malls, the SUVs, the Wal-Marts, the obscenely huge carbon footprint -- is causing serious problems across the planet.
I’ve seen the effects of our way of life here in Oaxaca with my own eyes. Local farmers who have lived -- for generations and generations -- on their corn crops are forced out of work because NAFTA has flooded the market with cheap, US-grown, heavily-subsidized, genetically-modified corn. Lands inhabited by Oaxaca’s indigenous communities are drying up and eroding because of global warming. Scores of little pueblos throughout the state are left without fathers, sons, brothers –- any able-bodied man of working age –- because they’ve all gone to El Norte in search of decent-paying jobs. And the Wal-Mart here in Huajuapan (thinly veiled with a different name -- Bodega Aurerra -- it’s still owned by Sam Walton’s folks) is putting the local mom-n-pops out of business while sending the profits back up to Arkansas.
Now, most folks I know back home (e.g. most of the folks reading this blog) are at least vaguely aware of these goings-on. I don’t want to rant, and I certainly don’t want to preach (to the choir, as it were). We are all, slowly, as a nation, becoming aware of the fact that America’s proverbial piece of the pie (apple or not) is too damn big –- we’re taking more than our share.
And I know that Obama agrees. He's a fairly intelligent guy, after all. Later in his speech, he said:
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
(My skin freaked out like a chicken here.)
Obama’s whole campaign platform was about change. (See the last sentence taken from his speech above – Hey! Change! There it is again.) He managed to get a lot of Americans -- more than ever I’ve seen in my short 28 years -- talking about change. And his election means that, now, the whole world is expecting change.
But, despite the clichés, one man cannot change the world. Let me rephrase that -- one man cannot change the world alone. He needs some help. And we, as a nation, are individually responsible for making the small changes that will, cumulatively, create the big change we all seek.
It was easy to wear the cool “Yes We Can!” campaign buttons in the months leading up to the election. It was easy to check the “Obama/Biden” box on November 4. It easy to talk about how glad we are that Bush is finally out of office today. But how many of us, when faced with the prospect of rolling up our sleeves and actually CHANGING our way of life, will actually do it?
Are we willing to swap our gas-guzzling cars for a bicycle or public transportation? Are we willing to stop supporting monstrous global US-based corporations until they get their corporate social responsibility policies in order? Are we willing to spend a little bit more to buy fair trade (careful –- that’s NOT the same as free trade) products? Are we willing to stop consuming so much -– buying so much damn stuff –- and invest our money elsewhere?
If we say we want change, then -- gasp! -- we have to change.
Even if it hurts a little bit. As the clichés go, the best medicine tastes bitter. The best things in life aren’t easy. Change is a good thing.
But I think we can do it -- I think we can change. Wait -- one more cliché: Yes We Can!