The Guardian Saturday Poem
Our work (so far) this year

Tilt into the future

So many reasons to be gloomy as we slide into 2009, but I’m with Eno in refusing to go down that route. I’m buoyed up by what so many friends are doing, by the inspiration students give me and by my 92 year-old mother getting up in the night to watch the US election results (“after the 60s and the civil unrest, I just had to see this through”).

Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama and his family on election night in Chicago, IL on Wednesday, November 5, 2008. (David Katz/Obama for America)
Flickr, Creative Commons licensed, Barack Obama

Barack Obama with his family on election night in Chicago, IL on Wednesday, November 5, 2008L
David Katz/Obama for America (Flickr)

I first came across Obama in 2005 and quoted him that summer in a farewell speech I gave for a close friend (alter ipse amicus) as he stood down from his pastoral post in a boarding school. I think the Economist had reported on a speech to graduating students that Obama had made that June, where he had invited them to ask of themselves, "What will be my place in history?":

In other eras, across distant lands, this is a question that could be answered with relative ease and certainty. As a servant of Rome, you knew you would spend your life forced to build somebody else's Empire. As a peasant in 11th Century China, you knew that no matter how hard you worked, the local warlord might take everything you had - and that famine might come knocking on your door any day. As a subject of King George, you knew that your freedom to worship and speak and build your own life would be ultimately limited by the throne. And then, America happened. A place where destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped and remade by people who had the gall, the temerity to believe that, against all odds, they could form "a more perfect union" on this new frontier.

I quoted another bit (shorn it of its specifically American references), made right for the occasion because it expresses perfectly my friend’s own wise, kind and optimistic humanity (expended tirelessly in his work with the young):

Have we failed at times? Absolutely. Will you occasionally fail when you embark on your own … journey? Surely. But the test is not perfection. The true test … is whether we are able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time.

Go and read this 2005 speech: it’s often fine (Obama and rhetoric!) and prescient, attuned to the challenges of technology and globalisation, to what an inter-connected world means — and to the significance of education. It is youthful and attentive to youth, inspired by hope and looking to the future:

So let's dream. Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let's imagine what we can do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.

Back in March of last year, Marc Andreessen wrote about Obama (“We asked him directly, how concerned should we be that you haven't had meaningful experience as an executive -- as a manager and leader of people? He said, watch how I run my campaign -- you'll see my leadership skills in action.”):

It's very clear when interacting with Senator Obama that he's totally focused on the world as it has existed since after the 1960's -- as am I, and as is practically everyone I know who's younger than 50.

Well, Palin and the plumber are just a memory and we’ll soon be seeing how it goes. My 01.20.09 t-shirts now have a whole new life ahead of them.

(My non-Obama take-away from last year’s campaign: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power” — Bill Clinton.)

As Warren Ellis wrote in another context:

Tilt into the future. Or get the eternal past you deserve.

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