Flying away

On a college campus, talk of Obama and fleeting hopes.

click to enlarge FALSE PERMANENCE: The towering facade of Wilson Hall at Converse College in South Carolina. - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
FALSE PERMANENCE: The towering facade of Wilson Hall at Converse College in South Carolina.

Man's life, O King, appears to be more or less like this [the brief flight of a sparrow through the rooms and out the windows of the Great Hall]; and of what may follow it, or what preceded it, we are absolutely ignorant.

—The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735)

"I don't know," the student said. "I still love Obama, but I'm just disappointed in him." A few others nodded. They agreed that Barack Obama was the exact antithesis of their sleazy self-serving governor, Mark Sanford. We were sitting with them and a few faculty members in the massive dining room of Wilson Hall. Its formal entrance and high ceilings made me feel exposed, like Beowulf in Hrothgar's court. I picked up my leg of lamb.

"Democracy's still an experiment," the historian whispered.

Wilson Hall's imposing five-towered façade dominates the front campus of Converse College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, implying a perhaps false sense of permanence, as flocks of its young all-female students fly out of its Romanesque windows like the sparrows described by the Venerable Bede 14 centuries ago.

"Benjamin Harrison was president when this was built," the historian continued. "He lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland and signed the Sherman Antitrust Law — the first try at restraining business excesses."

Those days are gone forever, I thought, thinking of the recent Supreme Court decision ending the ban on unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns. I'm disappointed, too.

But I agree with the student. I'm still with Obama for the long run. He's like the bookish kid who gets beaten up by a pack of bullies in the schoolyard: he's not only cornered; he doesn't fight like them. In the end, our positive-thinking American tradition holds that the good one, the smart one, will triumph, either through muscling up like Charles Atlas, or with the intervention of someone who throws the bullies' tactics back on them, but harder — like Shane, riding to the Western town's rescue from the greedy cattle barons; or more recently, Jake, the paraplegic ex-Marine who saves the "innocent" Na'vi humanoids on the planet Pandora in Avatar. (Avatar deserves to win all the visual Oscars, but the story's old and predictable.)

Americans still believe in the eventual victory of right over wrong, despite various sorry examples to the contrary — Gore vs. Bush comes to mind, not to mention Charlie Brown vs. Lucy. I think Obama will triumph, though not necessarily on his own watch. Someday America will get its version of single payer/public option health care, gays will serve openly in the armed services, Guantanamo will close down and we'll give up "preemptive" strikes, etc. These values have wide support, but getting them enacted into law is almost impossible with the perverse antiquated rules of the U. S. Senate, and other formidable roadblocks.

One roadblock could be the aforementioned bill brought about by the Court's 5-4 vote to dismantle McCain-Feingold. This is an exact parallel in the political arena to the decision — led by Senator Phil Gramm, John McCain's financial advisor — to deregulate the banks in the financial arena. A fair number of Cassandras foresaw the disaster with the banks, and many also foresee the effect that unlimited corporate spending will have on elections. Think how bad the last few have been; then imagine 10 times worse. But the Court has a narrow conservative majority, and Congress has enough passionate conservatives blowing smoke until this actually hits at election time. In the meantime, Gramm and his ilk have fattened on donations from the oil and banking companies.

Obama understands these problems, and has spoken movingly and convincingly about them. He knows that everyone wants him to create new jobs. He also knows that to do so will take a very expensive stimulus (the first one was too small, but helped; it was as large as he could get against the Republican opposition). At the same time, the Tea Partiers are shouting, Fix this! Fix that! Shrink that deficit! But no new taxes!

Sure we can. At our noisy table, my head was swimming, contradictory ideas circling like hawks. Far above, a bell was ringing in the tower.

We got up and left the great hall, weighed down with heavy thoughts, wounded hopes and a few chocolate chip cookies that we, as always, scooped up on our way out. Unseen in the huge magnolia tree out front, the sparrows were warbling their little heads off.

Where does it go, go, that high rhetoric,

When it skims over the heads and soars to the balcony,

And flaps at the stained-glass windows, verily?

—Reed Whittemore, "Where Does It Go?" (1970)

Peter & Jeanne Meinke have just returned from Converse College. Their latest collaboration is Lines from Neuchâtel: 35th Anniversary Edition (U. of Tampa Press 2009). His website is