Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Case for a Second Act

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’

As a playwright, I wish this were true.  Not only because I find second acts the hardest to write, but because first acts are so full of (for lack of a better word) hope.  Nothing needs to end in a first act, nothing needs to be definitive.  They can be full of possibility and potential and the sweet, narrative candy that keeps us interested. 

But they’re incomplete.

As an audience, we need those second acts.  We need them because they satisfy us in that deep, primal kind of way.  They bring with them the resonate weight of human truth.  Take Oedipus or Death of a Salesman, for example.  Without those second acts, the stories, on a subconscious level, feel false -- Oedipus is happily married to Mom, and Biff is going to that meeting with Willy thinking everything is going to be just fine.  And while the optimist in me always wishes they would end there, what makes them timeless pieces of ‘Literature’ or ‘Art’ is that they reflect life.  The cold, karmic hammer of reality comes down because it has to come down – not for the sake of the plot, but because as human beings we expect it, we need it -- we know it to be true.  Something within us craves resolution.  It’s scientific – every action has a reaction, factors result in a balanced equation; it’s the punchline to our jokes and why music makes us tap our feet. 

And it’s why we should re-elect President Obama. 

What does that have do with anything, you ask?  Hold on. 

If you ask me (and perhaps you didn’t), this whole American enterprise has grand tragedy written all over it.  Why?  Because, if we’re honest, the ‘greatness’ of this country, was built, like something from Sophocles or Shakespeare, on a tragic, pervasive flaw – which is, of course, slavery.  It haunts us to this day.  It lies at the root of our domestic problems and undercuts even the grandest ideas put forth by Washington, Jefferson, and the rest.   Because, really, America’s not unlike ol’ Oedipus or Willy Loman – we harbor this terrible truth we can never talk about because doing so would expose the fundamental lie that governs this country: that all men are created equal.   

Which is why, four years ago today, something incredible happened.  In some deep, unknown way, America (the character, of course) transcended its perceived limitations in that rare, amazing, Helen Keller kind of way – the kind of way you’d never believe if it wasn’t true – by electing an African-American man to the highest office in the land and put him up in a white house built by black slaves.  It was a choice – dramaturgs, holler if you hear me -- it was a choice to progress and, in some way, atone for what our ancestors had done.  That we could, at a crucial moment, make a euphoric choice, instead of a tragic one --that we could somehow stop the inertia of history, draw a line in the sand, and say ‘Now, we’re new.’ 

It was, in the story of America, an act break. 

But in the story of the Obama Presidency, of course, it was just the beginning.  It was, if you want to get technical about it, the inciting incident.  And I think the conflating of those two stories – what Obama’s election meant for the country and what it meant for the man himself – is why a lot of us have been frustrated by the lack of change over the last four years.  We were expecting a second act, when in practicality, it was really just the first.

Are you following?  I hope so.

My point is that the choice we make on Election Day isn’t for one man to have a job for the next four years, it’s the choice to finally usher in that second act we’ve been waiting for. 

Because if we think about the sad nature of our political system, a President’s first term is only the preamble to the bold moves he (or she – Hillary 2016!) could enact his a second.  And if we think of the narrative of President Obama -- from Hawaii to Harvard, from Chicago to the Presidency -- at every step of the way, he’s exhibited a profound political savvy, balancing between opportunism and pragmatism, knowing all the while he’s had to satisfy the expectations and prejudices of a fragile electorate (whoever it was at the time) in order to get ahead.  And I firmly believe that an Obama second term is a chance for him to gloriously reclaim the mantle of ‘Change’ he championed so passionately as a candidate.  And I know he can do it.  Because without the fear of political repercussions that a second Presidential term allows, I trust that he will have the personal power and legislative know-how to institute the kind of widespread systemic changes that America needs in order to thrive in the 21st Century.

As President Obama knows better than anyone, we are no longer a country of White Christian men.  And to succeed, to ‘win the future’ (as that terrible phrase goes), we have to embrace the growing diversity of our population and re-engage with the world as neighbors instead of bullies.  We have to lay the groundwork for an epic American second act in which we see a modern renaissance defined by diplomacy in global affairs, progressive social policies, and a new New Deal that invests in updating our creaky infrastructure while balancing our economy. 

It’s more than possible, but the time to make it happen is, and can only be, now.

If we falter, the second act we need so desperately will escape us, and not only will that make for one hell of a horrible story, but we’ll be headed down the same ignorant, self-satisfied path that has felled every empire over the course of human civilization – and the one, not to mention, that led to the mess we found ourselves in four years ago.  If Mitt Romney is elected, we will admit to ourselves and to the world that we’re not who we thought we were in 2008, and we’ll revert to taunting the looming dangers of climate change, Islamic extremism, and economic disparity with our American chauvinism.  And that cycle can’t keep repeating itself.  We don’t have time.  Sooner or later, the paradigm will shift, the egg will crack, and in a blaze of light or in blood on the streets, we won’t recognize ourselves anymore.   

America deserves a second act.  It’s about damn time we turned and faced the fundamental problems that plague us.  And we can – because of one man’s unique place in our history – yes, we can.  (Sorry).  But it takes looking beyond our little window on the world.  It takes empathy and guts and patience.  Kind of like writing a play. 

I’m sorry, but F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong.  There are second acts in American lives. 

And the biggest one begins on Tuesday.  Go vote. 

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