Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Barack Obama Is My New Bicycle

Way back in June 1999, Indonesia had its first "free and fair" parliamentary election, after forty years of sham democracy under Golkar and the Suharto regime. Jakarta, where we were living, pulsed with excitement that summer, with obvious political energy. The city was draped in colors: red for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, gold for the People’s Working Party, green for the United Development Party, blue and white for the National Mandate Party. With forty-eight parties in the election, almost every color imaginable was in use, and we couldn't go anywhere without being caught up in a political demonstration of some kind. We kept flags for each of the major parties in our car, and I was never shy about joining in whatever rally I passed, shouting slogans with the best of them: Ingat! Perjuangan kita sudah bulat! Remember! Our struggle is already complete!

For election day itself, my family and I hung out in a small village in Lombok, watching as the paper ballots were, one by one, held up in front of the gathered crowd, who cheered or booed at every vote, or, in some cases, evaluated its validity: one voter had mistakenly punched the nail through the ballot card while it was folded, and four parties had been selected. “Buang! Buang!” the women shouted, “Throw it out!” and the men nodded their agreement. Small children played around at the feet of the adults, and those my age, like me, alternated between paying attention and clustering in small groups for idle chit-chat.

This scene stays with me in memory, and years afterwards, as a freshman in college, I wrote about it like this:
Every Indonesian was proud of an ink mark on their thumb, proof that they had voted. Every Indonesian was proud to declare that they had something to do with choosing the leader of their country. Every Indonesian was proud that they finally had a democracy.

And then one day, as supporters of the winning party poured out onto the streets for celebration, it hit me: democracy is something to be proud of! For the first time in the Indonesians’ lives, their opinions were worthwhile...I realized that America really has given the world a great gift, better even than our Old Navy castoffs. However, we cannot think that because we are such great benefactors we cannot receive a gift. Indonesia can’t give us the money we give to them...but they can give us enthusiasm. Our problem is not democracy itself, but rather our own apathetic attitudes towards it. Fewer and fewer young people vote in each election, and many of those who do view it as just a duty, an unpleasant task. In Lombok, even the children cheered. If all our young people could have seen the June 1999 elections in Indonesia, they would realize, as I did, that voting is not a duty but a wonderful privilege, that even if democracy doesn’t work all the time for every problem, the joy it can bring in some way compensates for the problems it can’t solve.
Young and irritating in many ways, I know, but this still rang true for me last week, when, for the first time in my memory, I saw an election bring joy, sheer joy, on the scale of Indonesia in 1999. Berkeley was a grand place to be on November 4: everyone, and I mean everyone, proudly displayed an "I Voted!" sticker, and when CNN called the election for Obama, people shouted and cheered and poured out into the streets to celebrate. This only echoed what CNN was showing: clips of the streets of Atlanta (everyone out in droves, dancing and cheering), Philadelphia (people marching down the streets shouting happily), and Washington, D.C., outside the gates of the White House (about a thousand people cheering "Obama!" and "Yes we can!"). The celebrations were still happening when I finally started biking home, around midnight; I passed at least four huge groups in the streets, shouting, cheering, dancing. One group had brought out a huge boom box and was having an impromptu dance party. Another group had crowded into the road and was slowing traffic down so they could give high fives to each passing car, and so, of course, we turned our bikes around and rode through the crowd giving high fives too. (As a mildly hilarious side note, apparently I can't give a high five and stay on a bicycle at the same time, and I have the scraped, swollen, and bruised knee to prove it; moreover, according to a friend of mine, there is somewhere local news footage to prove it!) And, even at midnight, there were about 500 people gathered on Telegraph, right near campus, climbing up on street signs and traffic lights, marching through the side streets, setting off fireworks, waving American flags, and, most amazingly to me, breaking into chants of "USA! USA! USA!" and singing the national anthem.

That's right: a crowd of students in Berkeley, California, spontaneously waving flags and singing the national anthem. This seems like a good time to use one of my recent favorite catchphrases: take that, mainstream America!

I don't even know how to finish this. I mean, it's obvious that I've drunk, and enjoyed, the Obama Kool-Aid, but, really, I'm not trying to just write another Gobama piece: I'm fully aware that our struggle isn't already complete, that this is barely the beginning, that Obama doesn't have much experience, and maybe he'll screw it all up, and that, in all likelihood, the president doesn't even matter that much. I tell you all about Indonesia, though, to express some of what last week meant to me: a return to enthusiasm, enthusiasm for the privilege of voting and the joy of democracy. That, my friends, is worth all the skinned knees in the world.


Diane said...

But did your Berkeley celebration include a naked toddler pooping at your feet with the mother nonchalantly kicking a coconut shell over it so no one would step in it?

Connie said...

i like this.

mysh said...

Great post! I feel comfortable speaking for most of your readers when I say that we love hearing about the myriads of unique experiences you've already had in your short life. Those of us who weren't blessed with such diversity thank you for sharing.

And yes, whatever political persuasion one adheres to--and you know mine well--it's undeniably heartening to see such enthusiasm and excitement about democracy!