Giving Thanks, 2008
We can give thanks for many things this year. The election of the first African-American president is a significant step toward the elimination of racism in our country. The peaceful transition of power, even in parlous times, is an enduring symbol of the strength of the American political system. But hopeful signs were not restricted to the political sphere. Pope Benedict XVI, during his trip to the United States in April, surprised even longtime critics by his compassionate meeting with sexual abuse victims, his stirring homilies and his warm touch with the crowds. And for those in the City of Brotherly Love, the World Series finally turned out just right. (Tampa Bay readers may feel less grateful.)
Still, is it possible to give thanks in such frightening times? With each passing day economists deploy ever more alarming adjectives to describe the world economic crisis. Here in the United States, we are fighting two wars, expensive in both lives and dollars, are crippled with a colossal debt and are beginning to see employee layoffs and drastic cutbacks in consumer spending. Can we be grateful in the face of so many woes?
Yes. One reason that St. Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises asked believers to begin their daily “examination of conscience” with gratitude was this: We often feel so swamped by the problems of the day that we forget to “taste” the gratitude. Thanksgiving is a time to savor more than just the turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. It is a time consciously to “give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received,” even in the midst of turmoil—perhaps especially in the midst of turmoil.
Suffering grows for Zimbabwe’s ever more impoverished population. The inflation rate stands as the highest in the world. Together with the rise in global food prices, a country that was once known as the breadbasket of Africa now experiences severe hunger. The United Nations has predicted that half the population will need food aid by January 2009. An estimated one million children have lost one or both parents, many because of AIDS.
The human rights record there remains abysmal. In the wake of last March’s general elections, and the subsequent runoff on June 27 between 84 year-old Robert Mugabe and the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, state-sponsored violence has led to the murder and torture of thousands suspected of favoring the opposition party. Mr. Tsvangirai himself was beaten and tortured in election-related violence. International pressure has led to a power-sharing deal between the two leaders of the new unity government, signed in mid-September. It has no provision that would allow for the perpetrators of the violence by security forces to be exempt from prosecution, so prosecution would be possible. Such a move, however, could jeopardize the fragility of the power-sharing between the two parties, Mr. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. Still unresolved is who has control of various ministries, especially Home Affairs, which controls the police. Both leaders were looking to the 15-member Southern Africa Development Community to resolve the political impasse, but at its meeting on Nov. 8-9, the group failed to produce a mutually agreeable solution. The humanitarian and political crisis continues to deepen.
The New Media Presidency
Did Tina Fey, with her spot-on “You betcha!” imitation of Gov. Sarah Palin, swing the presidential election? Did Will.i.am’s viral “Yes We Can” video help jump-start Barack Obama’s campaign? How many young voters did Facebook attract? Did Senator Obama’s texting news of the choice of his running mate increase interest?
It is hard to say with certainty. What is certain is this: the 2008 election was the first in which the new media, loosely defined as anything outside the traditional press, television or radio, had a significant influence on the outcome. Portents were seen in Howard Dean’s failed 2004 campaign, where staffers used Web sites like Meetup to gather together young supporters and raise amounts of cash that were surprising at that time. This year both candidates aimed to capture young voters with the help of new media, and by using newer forms of the old media, for example, through appearances on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” whose mock news programs often yielded more substantive results than their more established counterparts. (Katie Couric’s “old media” interview with a tongue-tied Palin, however, was a hit on YouTube.) But there is a dark side. Harper’s magazine highlighted several videos produced by Senator McCain’s more shadowy supporters that sowed doubts about Obama’s religion, patriotism and even birth certificate.
Barack Obama was elected in part because the majority of Americans liked his brand of leadership and liked him. Many found out about both through new ways, which—along with other media not even dreamed of—will be a permanent part of the ever-changing political landscape.