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January 27, 2009

Postcard from Washington: In the belly of the beast

Posted by Graham F. Scott at 12:16 PM ET | Comments (1)

[Editor's Note: From time to time we feature guest bloggers on the site. Eva Salinas, who edits news columns for the magazine, was in Washington D.C. for the Obama inauguration last week, and sends this dispatch about her experience. To propose guest blogs, email editor at thismagazine dot ca.]


And what a beautiful beast it was.

Last week, by some wonderful twist of fate, I found myself in Washington, inside a throng of more than 1 million well wishers.

It was early Tuesday morning and there I was, leaning in closely to the bodies in front of me, trying to keep warm while icy air whipped our hair and lashed our faces. The speakers boomed around us, marking the start to the inauguration of the U.S.'s 44th President.

Millions of people in the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of Barack Obama

But before excitement, joy, and hope, the first thing I felt was the cold. I thought I had left Canada, but this felt much more bone chilling than any Toronto morning. I imagined it was like doing the polar bear dip, only we were swimming in a sea of people, surrounded by brilliant smiles on patient faces.

I closed my eyes, wincing at the wind and thought about the past twelve hours. Only hours earlier we were driving in darkness from Toronto to D.C., a spontaneous trip that began Monday evening. Our car, a small, dark blue thing — dirty as hell with sleet and snow — hummed down the highway under starry skies in New York State, Orion's Belt leading the way. We snaked through the Poconos mountains in Pennsylvania, and zoomed along eerily quiet roads in Maryland, past empty gas stations, sleepy houses, and the neon lights of 24-hour Uni-Marts and Kwik Fills. All the while, Barack Obama's articulate, familiar voice hushed us into a reflective state, as we listened to the audio books of his "Dreams from my father."

Looking up at the darkness above, images from his life played out in our heads: his grandparents struggling in a racist Texas; their white daughter's choice of a Kenyan husband; Obama as a boy, influenced by stories of his father (the legend; the man of stubbornness and principal); outdoor boxing lessons in Indonesia; his mother's loneliness there and, later, Obama's indifference to academia as a young man; his rebellion... The trials of his younger years unfolded in our minds, as red and white lights flashed on the highway in front of us.

Hours and miles and too many cups of coffee behind us, we arrived in Washington, just past 7 a.m. A caller into one of the local radio stations said it already felt "like lunch time" in the downtown core, and we braced ourselves for a traffic jam ahead. But luck was on our side and, despite reports of bridges and streets being closed, we made it into the heart of the city, driving past the dozens of military personnel on guard (more security in the city than U.S. troops in Afghanistan), and the revellers already out in the streets.

By 9 a.m., our car parked underground, we were on our feet, walking with them, toward the Mall.

We entered the grounds, the sun shining through the trees and on the frozen pond. Choral music streamed into the air in surround sound, I had no idea from where it was being projected. It felt like as though a strong magnetic pull was drawing us into the area ("like the mother ship," my friend observed): people emerged out of every building and from every street, pouring into the park, walking over paths and grass and tree roots and stones, forging their own route to the epicentre.

We reached Washington Monument around 10 a.m., where we hit a wall of people. This was still a good half mile back from where the action would take place on Capitol Hill, we couldn't see where exactly, only the sea of people in front of us, and the growing sea behind us. Giant screens dotted the crowd every couple of hundred metres.

It was incredibly cold out, even for us Canucks. I know it was said the temperature was just below zero, and compared to the -14° C weather we left at home, that's nothing to complain about. But there was something about the chill there that seeped into your bones, a dry cold that made you try to shake it off, but to no avail. Just trust me, it was damn cold. Some friends who descended upon the Mall at 2 a.m. to get a prime spot ("the front of the nose bleeds") would later tell me that they were surrounded by "cuddle puddles" all night long — crowds forced out of necessity to huddle to together, an experience oscillating between something sexual and platonic love for one another, despite being strangers. God forbid you had to go to the washroom.

Around 11 a.m., the screens came alive with announcements and images of sleek convoys rolling in, men in suits and women in long, presidential cloaks arriving. We waited with bated, cold breath.
Just before Noon, after special guests had been welcomed and seated, including a boo'ed Bush and a cheered Clinton, controversial Evangelical pastor Rick Warren took the stage. I can't remember what he looked like; my face had long been tucked into the neck of my sweater for warmth. But I could hear booing around me, and "just wait to hear what he has to say" comments behind me.

And I was surprised by his speech.

I was prepared for the predictable — many mentions of God, avoidance of controversial topics, such as his views on homosexuality and Iran. I had regretted earlier, as we walked toward the Mall, not having brought a rainbow flag or something to quietly protest his views, while respecting the ceremony (as was recommended by Dan Savage last week).

Warren's views are impossible to ignore, however taking his prayer at face value, I echoed his sentiments. God or no god, everyone present bestowed love on Obama and his family, on Biden and his family, and hoped for strength and courage and guidance in light of the challenges they will face. This is true prayer at its best, when non-believers and believers alike can close their eyes and share in the feeling of good will toward others. I won't go so far as to say I came out respecting Warren that morning, far from it, but I had respect for his words, their meaning, and, more likely, his speech writer.

Washington Monument

The swearing in ceremonies went as expected, more or less: a cheering crowd, a stirring piece of music or two, a thousand smiling moments in succession that made your cheeks ache. Obama spoke, to me, of building up, not breaking down, of accepting a diverse country of believers and non-believers, of the importance of the environment, of science, of meeting challenges, of a new day.

And, before we knew it, it was all over, we were herding out of there, slowly but surely, streaming back into the Obama-mania streets filled with hawkers selling Obama air fresheners, Obama hand puppets and Obama earrings.

The next 24-hours remain a blur: walking around a new city, limos and taxis and bicycles flying past people dressed to the nines, the presidential parade, the zealous, spontaneous conversations with strangers while in line for coffee, in the hotel restroom, or at the pub. The jubilation.

And, the next day — after a night of celebrating among locals, foreigners, actors, musicians, actors-cum-rappers, filmmakers in top hats and all lovers of 5 a.m. pita sandwiches — we set off for home.

Today, one week since his inauguration, Barack Obama is the U.S.'s 44th President.

Immediately, there are many signs his presidency will be reassuringly, incredibly different. And not just because he gets to keep his BlackBerry. The announcement to close Guantanamo, to lift the ban on abortion funds, and to move toward tougher auto emission standards are just a few of many early, positive signs this President is not afraid of change.

Will that mean justice for Omar Khadr, equality for the gay community or peace for Afghan children? I'm not sure. But if the butterflies in my stomach during the drive back North last week were any indication, there is hope.

Eva Salinas is This Magazine's news columns editor. She also provided the photos.

More entries on: American Presidential Election

January 20, 2009

Liveblog: Barack Obama's Inauguration

Posted by Graham F. Scott at 10:03 AM ET | Comments (0)

Welcome to our liveblog of the wildly anticipated/overhyped inauguration of the U.S.A.'s 44th president, Barack Obama. The blog will update automatically in the window below, so you don't need to refresh your browser. You can also leave comments in real time by selecting "Make a comment."

More entries on: American Presidential Election

January 19, 2009

FYI: we're liveblogging the Inauguration tomorrow

Posted by Graham F. Scott at 04:31 PM ET | Comments (0)

Run DCJust a brief programming note in advance of tomorrow's all-day O-nauguration extravaganza: We'll be doing a liveblog of the ceremony on Tuesday, January 20, starting right here at at 11 AM. C'mon back and see us then.

More entries on: American Presidential Election

January 15, 2009

Presidential Inauguration, Survivor-Style

Posted by Elaisha Stokes at 11:43 AM ET | Comments (0)

As Americans prepare to make history before the world's watchful eyes, the town of Washington DC is gearing up for a natural disaster. Next
Tuesday's inauguration of President Elect Barack Obama is starting to sound more like a drill for an impending terrorist attack than a celebration.


In preparation for this historic moment, the city of Washington DC will be shut down. There will be no access from any of the bridge crossings from Virginia, and the downtown core will be cut-off. Over at the State Department, all essential personal will be required to spend the night prior to the presidential inauguration sleeping under their desks on inflatable mattresses.

Journalists are being told to prepare for "survival conditions," especially because the majority of the washrooms in the downtown core will remain locked for security concerns. The city has committed to erecting 5,000 porta-potties, or about one toilet for every 10,000 people. And that's assuming turn out is low.

Add to this a mass of arctic air, predicted to descend on the city this coming weekend, and you've got a recipe for one hell of a party. Or one hell of a endurance test, depending on your sense of adventure.

What ever happened to the good old days, when a gathering on Washington Hill required little more than love beads and a joint?

More entries on: American Presidential Election

November 04, 2008

Guest Blogger: On Being Canadian Today (Impotence)

Posted by Graham F. Scott at 04:17 PM ET | Comments (1)

[Editor's Note: from time to time we'll feature guest bloggers on important issues; In honour of today's big electoral hurrah in the U.S., a reflection on Canadians' feelings of helplessness as the American presidential race comes down to its final hours.]

s_barmak.jpgBY SARAH BARMAK

A couple of weeks ago a friend from Texas who is living and working in Toronto asked me to print out a form he needed to cast his absentee ballot. I may have slightly overreacted.

Outwardly, I simply smiled and asked for the file; inwardly, my heart swelled with unbridled enthusiasm. I rose to the task of switching on my printer and clicking "Print" as if it was the most meaningful act I had done, or could do, for the human race.

Let me explain. I'm a Canadian. That means I'm both a) fascinated by the U.S. presidential race, the outcome of which has serious consequences for both Canada and the rest of the world, and b) utterly powerless to influence it in any way. I'm more impotent than a voter casting a ballot in bluest Manhattan: I can't
vote at all.

Worse, as someone who checks political blogs and election polls daily (I obsessively refresh meticulous pollster Nate Silver's as well as Steve Benen's "Political Animal" blog) I'm probably more informed about this particular election than most U.S. voters. Not that it matters. The only thing it has an effect on is how my own productivity has fallen (steeply) and how fed up my friends and family are with getting links to Sarah Palin-related articles and YouTube videos (very).

Some Canadians have been doing what they can to help Barack Obama, the Democratic senator who is the world's choice for U.S. president, by phoning U.S. and dual citizens living in Canada and directing them to request their absentee ballot. Others have even travelled to the states to canvass door-to-door. Others outside the U.S. are dealing with their feelings of impotence in slightly more creative ways. Others are simply thinking positive thoughts, "The Secret" style. Good luck to them.

Me, I'll be spending this evening with a pint, CNN's holographic, person-like shouting heads, and a laptop, checking election data, ready to cheer or cry as necessary.

My Texan friend's form, by the way, failed to print. Apparently the PDF was corrupt. Perhaps I wasn't thinking positive.

Sarah Barmak is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

More entries on: American Presidential Election

October 30, 2008

Obama and NAFTA

Posted by Daniel Tseghay at 05:16 PM ET | Comments (0)

The American Presidential election is coming to a close next tuesday, November 4. Canadians might be watching this election as if it were a tv show - amused, entertained, titillated, yet ultimately detached. But let's not forget just how much our future is wrapped up in the dealings of those south of the border.

Case in point, our economies are very much intertwined at the moment. With the signing of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, Canada, the United States, and Mexico, forged a special trade relationship comprising lowered tariffs and, since 1998, the elemination of all tariffs on qualifying goods traded between Canada and the United States. Some of the effects of the agreement include relaxed restrictions on the mobility of workers from the three states; the strengthened role of foreign corporations in domestic affairs; and weakened environmental regulations; and weakened workers unions.

So in light of our growing integration with the United States, and the current election, Paul Cellucci, American ambassador to Canada, thought he would tell us what a Barack Obama administration would mean. He said that if Obama wins, there will be pressure on him "to . . . open up NAFTA and make significant changes. I don't think that's in U.S. interest; I don't think that's in Canadian interest." This would be a "danger" to Canada in Cellucci's view.

What Cellucci fails to understand, or conveniently forgets to mention, is that Canada is deeply apprehensive about NAFTA-as-it-currently-stands. The agreement is still seen as doing more for the United States than for Canada, and a good majority of Canadians feel the agreement should be renegotiated. The kind of renegotiation Cellucci warns of should not be seen as a "danger" to Canada. It's quite obviously an oppurtunity.

More entries on: American Presidential Election

Obama infomercial was puke-tacular TV

Posted by Graham F. Scott at 01:30 PM ET | Comments (5)

On Wednesday night the Obama-Biden ticket broadcast their already infamous "Barack Obama: American Stories" infomercial, above, across seven TV networks simultaneously. Initial ratings indicate 30 million people tuned in. I hope it brings him some votes, because he's obviously the better candidate of the two.

But seriously, folks: what a nakedly manipulative, shamelessly sentimental trough of Hallmark bull-pucky it was. The Amber Waves of Grain swaying in the breeze, the plucky everyfamily filling up at the gas pump, the stoic elders working at Wal-Mart to pay for prescription arthritis drugs. Real people, sure, with real problems that are worthy of the candidate's attention. But the soft-focus, TV-movie-of-the-week production values made the whole thing seem like a promotional video for a nursing home. Ick.

More entries on: American Presidential Election

October 29, 2008

Obama and socialism

Posted by Daniel Tseghay at 04:13 PM ET | Comments (2)

McCain, Palin, and their Republican acolytes have recently taken to calling Barack Obama a socialist. In making that "charge" (apparently socialism is a very bad thing in the States) they point to Obama's progressive, or punitive, depending on how you look at it, income-tax plan. In his plan, people making more than $250,000 will face increased tax rates. The rest will experience tax cuts. The McCain campaign calls this redistributionist and, therefore, socialist.

There are a few things to keep in mind at this point: graduated taxation is not necessarily socialism. It is, at best, only one of the conditions for socialism. The United States is now and has been for quite a while a country with a graduated income-tax rate. Obama merely wants to increase the top marginal income-tax rate from 35 to 39.6, amounting to an incremental progression from an existing income-tax plan - not a major shift into a totally different economic system.

Finally, McCain and Palin should not be throwing stones. Palin, as Alaska's governor, did nothing but redistribute wealth. Here is the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg on Palin's hypocrisy:

"She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government's activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year's check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269."

And when asked in 2000 why people are being penalized for making more money and if this was socialism, McCain responded: "Here's what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there's nothing wrong with paying somewhat more."

That indeed might be what he really feels. Now why can't he bring himself to let the truth out? He knows Obama is not a socialist and, ultimately, he sort of agrees with Obama's plan, if not the specifics. Where's the "Straight Talk Express" now?

More entries on: American Presidential Election

The presidential election is only six days away!

Posted by Daniel Tseghay at 11:18 AM ET | Comments (0)

Six days from now, on November 4th, America will decide its president. They will either choose the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, or the Republican, John McCain. But what would choosing either amount to? Many of us know what the candidates have said they will do as president, but, of course, what one says and what one does are often two different things.

Michael Walzer, the political philosopher and co-editor of Dissent, composed a very helpful list of what, at least, a Barack Obama presidency would mean to international affairs. No more unilateralism; a more pronounced approach to global warming; the probable shut-down of Guantanamo Bay; and European cooperation on common security issues, among other things.

More entries on: American Presidential Election

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