I was there. Nearly a thousand Yalies reveling on the grass of Old Campus, hugging, singing, jumping, weeping. Roar after ecstatic roar welled up against the old brick walls, and there was a collective feeling of rejuvenation and, yes, hope.
We are the generation that grew up in the shadow of September 11, as well as George W. Bush’s ’68 globally divisive belligerence. We are the generation that will inherit the mistakes of our parents. We will breathe the air they polluted. We will pay for their wars. We may yet be scorned by the world for blunders that weren’t our making.
But the air was electric last Tuesday night because we finally felt that, in electing Barack Obama, we had begun to take control of our future.
Still, the question remains: What exactly have we done? Have we finally put someone in the White House other than President Bush? Yes, but we would have done that with or without Obama. Have we finally put a Democrat in office? Yes, but this hardly seems like the pinnacle of youthful idealism that Obama’s campaign has stoked.
One of the chief sayings of Obama’s campaign, celebrated by supporters and scorned by opponents, has been “Yes we can.” And that Tuesday night on Old Campus, the air was filled with cries of “Yes we did!”
More than anything, the saying “Yes we can” symbolizes our generation’s potential — and long-overdue desire — to make the world our own. But when we chant “Yes we did,” when we wear T-shirts and buttons that say the same, we sell ourselves short.
What we have done is elect an intelligent, thoughtful, capable, progressive president, and in doing so we have garnered the hope and support of the global community. But this is as yet an unfulfilled promise, to the world and to ourselves.
Yes we did? We haven’t done anything yet.
It is easy to forget, in the post-election euphoria, that the United States still has serious problems. Jobless rates are skyrocketing, the environment is in peril, and our military is overstretched in two foreign wars. These issues will not evaporate on Inauguration Day. In order for our generation to make the world a better place for ourselves and for our children, we cannot afford to fall back on platitudes like “Yes we did.” If we want a new, more domestically egalitarian and globally respected America, we will have to work to make it so. Last week marked the beginning, not the end, of this challenge.
The significance of Obama’s race has not been lost on me. He is in many ways the quintessential American, with an African father and a Midwestern mother, and I believe the global perspective of his heritage will tangibly benefit how the United States views itself, as well as how it is viewed by others. We must not forget that, in our parents’ lifetimes, Jim Crow segregation still ruled the South. The election of a black president is a staggering achievement, symbolically powerful and illustrative of America’s promise.
But in recognizing this, we risk falling into the trap of complacency. Our generation has worked to put an African-American in the Oval Office, but this is not the “be-all end-all” (as Sarah Palin might say). We may chant joyously “Yes we did,” but all we have really done is give ourselves a chance. It is our responsibility, as caretakers of the planet and of each other, to proactively seize this historic opportunity.
Eight years ago the United States was attacked by radical extremists. We received the goodwill of much of the world, and we could have used that global capital to send a powerful message. As Americans, we could have led an international charge against human rights violations. We could have said we, having just suffered the worst terrorist attack in our history, know what human rights violations look like, and that we will not stand for them in our coming battle against extremists. We could have recruited the world in an effort to improve the environment, and to make it able to sustain the generations that will come after us. In short, America could have called on the rest of the world to help make the global community a safer and more peaceful place.
After eight long years, America has regained this goodwill. Let us not squander it amid hollow cheers of “Yes we did.” We have not yet solved any problems of substance, but I remain confident. Yes we will.
River Clegg is a sophomore in Daevnport College.