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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Should an Obama form letter make you choke up?

I received a form letter from the Obama campaign in the mail today, thanking me for donating. (I gave a hundred bucks a few times over the course of the campaign.) And I gotta say, it's a powerful form letter.

It's still a form letter, though, and that means it's formulaic. It repeats the familiar themes of Obama's victory speeches, including ones that make me cringe. Are we really supposed to believe that donations of five dollars made a difference? 80% of his money probably came from people who gave over a thousand bucks, right?. It also follows the mass mail tradition of inserting my first name, hoping I will be flattered by the illusion that this letter was individually drafted and signed just for me. That signals its artificiality and alienates me from the letter's message; it would be better if it were just addressed to supporters in general.

But the content of the letter is remarkable. It does not ask for more money. It has some actual content that I think supporters need to be reminded of: "This victory alone is not the change we seek -- it is only the chance for us to make that change." In fact, it repeatedly establishes the sense of being at the beginning of something; the closing line begins with "For now". And it finishes with "We will never forget you."

Now, I know that this is not a letter from Barack and Michelle Obama. It is a letter from a computer, or from a staffer who composed it, or from a team of people who quickly threw it together. Obama has not read it. But on the other hand, it is an amalgam of phrases Obama has written or chosen from proposed speech drafts, and it emulates Obama's tone and sincerity. So it is an Obama letter, even if he did not write it, and it carries meaning for me.

Reading it, I also experience a connection to others like me who believe in Obama. This is remarkable, because I know many Obama supporters, and I know I have immense political and philosophical differences with them. My friend Megan, for instance, refuses to agree that there is no objective meaning in the universe -- that we're just glorified apes who construct meaning for our own purposes. My friend Leah thinks that more money will turn bad public schools into good ones, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be the case. And my mom is relieved that Larry Summers isn't Obama's nominee for Secretary of the Treasury, because she can't stand his impolitic comments about why there are so few women in Ivy League science and math departments; I think he'd be the best man for the job, on the basis of endorsements by smart liberal and conservative economists alike.

And if I compared my Netflix movie ratings to those of some other Obama supporter, I would find differences that are inexcusable in my book -- liking Little Children or Running with Scissors, for instance. (I'm not bringing the movie ratings up to be trivial. It really would disgust me.)

In other words, I would give support or money to causes that other Obama supporters would oppose; I could just as easily be reading a letter thanking me for donating towards increasing school choice, which would anger many other Obama supporters.

And yet, when I read this letter, I feel connected to all those other Obama supporters, to the part of them that I agree with and love, to the spirit inside them that recognized a decent and smart and fairly honest man.

I am imagining a community, to use Benedict Anderson's phrase, of people like me in some fundamental way. Like so many of the nationalists he discusses, I don't consciously know what it is about those people that is like me, but I know they are out there and I am one of them. (Though Anderson cautions that other associations are seldom as strong as religion and nationalism. He points out that there is no "tomb of the unknown Marxist", though when reading this I felt there should be one.)

But part of Anderson's point is that there is often little that people in the same "imagined community" really have in common. There is no one imagined Obama community, of course; what I love about imaginary Obama supporters around the country is different from what a real, other Obama supporter loves about the fellow supporters she imagines.

And so this letter is intentionally vague on what it is exactly about us that connects us, leaving it to the fact that we are all one, we are all hopeful, and we all like to say "yes we can". I do think there's more that connects us, as a subset of the nation's population, than that.

The letter's text follows.

Dear Mr. Wheeler,

The victory we achieved on November 4 means so much to so many -- but to all of us, it is a stirring affirmation of our country's most fundamental promise: America is a place where anything -- anything we choose to dream together -- is possible.

Ours was never the likeliest campaign for the presidency. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington -- it was built by working men and women, students and retirees who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause.

It grew from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from the Earth.

Benjamin, this is your victory. But even as we celebrate, we know the challenges are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. And we will be asking you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for 221 years- block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand. What began 21 months ago in the depth of winter must not end on a night in autumn. This victory alone is not the change we seek -- it is only the chance for us to make that change.

Benjamin, this is our moment. This is our time -- to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth -- that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.

For now, please accept our deepest thanks. We will never forget you.


Barack Obama
Michelle Obama

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