McCain’s America, Obama’s America

My thoughts and responses concerning the election of Barack Obama.

Since I’m not an American, I don’t have a vote. But I should say, just for the record, “It’s a monumental historic occasion, a victory for the people, etc. etc.”

I note how commentators on the news media keep saying the phrase “We’ve elected a black man” over and over again, almost as if they still don’t believe it, and they are trying to convince themselves of their new reality.

I watched the coverage of the U.S. election on the CBC’s web site, which had a streaming video set up. I saw McCain’s concession speech, and Obama’s victory speech. In watching these two speeches, and watching the reaction of the crowd, I think for the first time I really saw and understood the difference between these two political cultures in America.

McCain’s supporters were almost all white people. In fact I do not recall seeing a single non-white face in the audience — not one black man, not one hispanic, aboriginal, oriental, or south-asian face. Obama’s crowd was remarkably diverse. The camera was zooming in on black faces as one may expect, especially the faces of Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Oprah Winfrey.

I observed how the audience responded when the candidate mentioned his opponent’s name. When McCain first mentioned Obama’s name in his concession speech, the audience booed. Some started chanting nationalist slogans. McCain put out his hand to try and quell this, but it still made me cringe a little. I felt that familiar feeling of dread that I often feel whenever I see Americans noisily spelling out the name of their country – USA! USA! USA! USA! — whenever I hear that, it makes me fear that an invasion is coming.

When Obama mentioned McCain’s name in his victory speech, and acknowledged how America has benefitted from almost half a century of service from McCain as a soldier and as a politician, there was polite applause. Obama named a few Republican values in his speech: “self reliance, individual liberty, national unity”. Again, there was applause – I think it was honest applause. Democrat voters are still Americans, and they recognise that Republican voters are Americans too.

I have my doubts about whether Republican voters recognise Democrat voters as fellow Americans. During the campaign, Palin told a crowd of her supporters: “Just once I want to hear him [Obama] say he wants America to win!” In a throwback to the McCarthy era, congresswoman Michelle Bachmann wanted the media to investigate him for anti-american views.

It became clear to me, I think for the first time, as I watched McCain’s concession speech, that a very large section of American society sincerely believes in American exceptionalism and in the doctrine of manifest destiny. Even in his concession speech, McCain’s portrayed the rest of the world as a dangerous place, and something to be afraid of. In his campaign, he offered people reasons to be afraid, and he offered himself as a great protector. McCain and his party believes a strongly imperialist America, which “makes history” and “wins” by attacking things. McCain’s America is an exceptional America, an ascendant America, an America that comes first, an America Over All (as a recent Air Force recruiting campaign says), and claims for itself a manifest destiny to fight evil in the world. This was even visible in the symbols that adorned the stage: the diamond-cut star, with its five facets, vaguely resembling a swastika, sitting atop speed-stripes as if it had been shot there like a comet to the top of the heavans. I love my own country, my Canada, and I believe that my country is a great country, but I would never say my country is the greatest country in the world, as McCain said of America in his concession speech. That kind of imperialist talk distorts reality, and gives people a false sense of their true potential. It makes them think they can do anything, and offers no means to separate what is worth doing from what is not.

I already knew that the belief in America’s manifest destiny was widespread, but I think I had never before seen how this view is passionately, ferverently, deeply, and whole-heartedly embrased by its supporters. Looking at the map of red states and blue states, I see that this view of America is believed in by nearly half of the country.

That is the America that I, as a non-American, find utterly terrifying.

Obama, by contrast, offered people reasons to be hopeful. His America has problems but his America possesses the power to solve those problems — and to solve them by means of reason and compassion, not by means of aggressive militaristic conquest. Obama acknowledged the situation of working class and middle class people, of marginalised and oppressed people — I can’t recall ever hearing a presidential candidate even mention gay people, disabled people, and Native people in a public address, let alone affirm their dignity and invite them into the circle of his concern, as Obama did. In his speech on “a more perfect union”, which even before his victory was being heralded as one of the greatest political speeches of all American history, he acknowledged that white working-class people feel they work hard and long for the benefits they possess and therefore find it unfair that similar benefits are offered to blacks or to immigrants, in affirmative-action programs. I’ve never heard a politician acknowledge this before. Indeed I’ve never heard a politician express a desire to uplift the oppressed in a way that does not require others to sacrifice the things they have worked hard to earn. Here is a man whose speeches contain ideas that are rational, perceptive, and compassionate.

All right, I admit I got a little carried away with the political theatre of it all. We in Canada haven’t had an inspirational orator since Pierre Trudeau. Some of us still miss him. But nonetheless, when Obama mentioned the people listening to him from “beyond our shores”, I nonetheless felt as if he was speaking to me, and to my country, and everyone else who, like me, is concerned about the way America moves in the world.

In that most memorable victory speech, Obama described American history using the touchstone of a 106 year old woman, and as he put the text together, her story became the story of a nation. The America that Obama described is an America that aims for great things and succeeds — but he is distinct from McCain in that the kind of great things he named were, for the most part, advancements in the cause of social and political justice: the New Deal, the civil rights movement, for instance. I thought it very poetic. Obama’s America is not a schoolyard bully who gets his way by intimidating people with the might of its arms or the scale of its wealth. Obama’s America is the schoolyard nerd who grows up to become the architect of a new school.

I know that many people view Obama’s story as a fulfillment of the American dream that by working hard one can start as a nobody and finish at the top. I don’t think that dream is distinctly American. People can achieve greatness in any country in the world. What I think Obama represents is an America where people who take care of each other in a deliberate and organised way can achieve greatness too. That’s the America that produced Martin Luther King, and the Suffragettes, and the Kennedys. That’s the America in which thousands of people in every major city launched spontaneous dance parties in their streets when Obama won. I saw the video footage of people singing, hugging each other, crying with joy, waving their flags, and exclaiming their love of their country and their love of being alive.

That’s the America that I, as a non-American, admire greatly.

And now, that is the America that elected Barack Obama. Of course it will be impossible to truly know what kind of president he will be until he is actually in the White House, doing the job. In fact I am doubtful about how much he will be able to accomplish, in part because certain international corporations are more powerful than the heads of even the wealthiest and most militarily powerful nations on Earth.

But I’m also doubtful of what he could accomplish because there is a very large section of Republican-voting America which will never accept a black man as their President, no matter how intelligent, compassionate, or admirable he may be. I fear for Obama’s safety and his life. I noted that the stage where he delivered his victory address was surrounded by bullet proof glass. Indeed I wonder how many Secret Service bodyguards are asking themselves, even now, if they would be willing to take a bullet for a black man.

I fear that America may not be at the beginning of a new era, but at the end of one. In my meditations on Wednesday morning, I received images of an America where secessionist voices grew loud again, and politicians in Texas and former Confederate-south states began talking about leaving the Union. I fear that one of America’s political cultures may decide that it cannot stand living in the same nation with the other. I fear that the differences between these two cultures may express themselves in domestic violence, perhaps on a scale not seen since the civil war.

This I believe would be a great disaster for America and the world. For the greatness of democracy is that it is the only means of changing the leadership of a nation ever devised which does not involve murder, violence, bloodshed, warfare, or death. I fear that the politics of murder may come back to America within my lifetime. I fear that the Republican campaign may shift from preaching fear of foreign Islamic terrorists to preaching the fear of their own president. It is not hard to imagine that they will invent some new reason to smear him, just as they used the relatively minor issue of Bill Clinton’s marital infidelity against him — relatively minor, that is, compared to the launching of an illegal war, the suspending of almost all civil rights, the torture of prisoners without evidence of their guilt, the suspension of regulatory controls over the banking sector which created the worst economic disaster since 1929.

Barack Obama’s mere presence in the White House, despite whatever good decisions or policies he may create there, may serve not to unite America but to further divide it. And I fear for my own country, my Canada, should that division express itself with violence.

My response to America’s decision to elect Obama is thus mixed. But I do wish to say, that Tuesday night confirmed for me my sincere belief in the deep goodness of humanity. Indeed it was the first time in many years in which the sight of an American flag did not make me cringe with fear, but instead made me swell with pride.

Even though I’m not an American.

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12 Responses to McCain’s America, Obama’s America

  1. Interesting observations. I, however, am an American, and therefore have a vested interest of what happens in my country.

    The United States of America IS ready for a black president, sadly, Obama is not that man. I fear his being elected will do more harm to the civil rights movement, than good.

    Everyone has the right to their opinion, and I respect yours. As a Canadian, I hope you’ll keep watch on how a ‘president obama’ treats Canada in future trade dealings. I don’t trust him, and I honestly don’t think your country can either.

    • marytek says:

      I have grave concerns about Obama and his views on Canada. The fact that he wants to renegotiate NAFTA because it’s unfair to the USA is hypocracy to the highest order. The WTO has on numerous occasions and even the arbitration process for NAFTA found that the US tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber violated NAFTA (just one example)…every time Canada took the American administration before NAFTA arbitration and even the World Trade Organisation Canada would win the legal arguments. And yet here’s an untried President-Elect who is willing to renegotiate NAFTA because it’s unfair to Americans.

      Economically the Democrats are insynch with the Canadian Conservative Party. The biggest difference between Repulicans and Democrats, as an outside observer, is in the realm of social conservatism – the Republicans tend to be socially conservative while the Democrats tend to not be.

  2. Sorry, I forgot to mention one thing:

    In your post you mentioned “. . .just as they used the relatively minor issue of Bill Clinton’s marital infidelity against him. . .”

    It wasn’t so much about marital infidelity as it was about the President of the United States, LYING under oath! This affair, before it came to light, also placed him in a position where national security could be compromised by someone wishing to blackmail him.

    President Clinton missed many strategic opportunities which likely would have prevented 9-11-01 from happening. He did nothing when the USS COLE was attacked. He let our Armed Forces operate on a shoe-string, thus weakening our defenses so that there was more money in the kitty.

    Sure, he did some good things, but this president was far from perfect.

    • admin says:

      Hello strangegodsb4me,

      You wrote, “It wasn’t so much about marital infidelity as it was about the President of the United States, LYING under oath!“.

      Well I can certainly agree that lies are generally bad things, and that people in positions of power and honour should not tell lies.

      I’m curious, therefore, what your views are concerning George W. Bush lying to the people concerning Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction?

      What about the Republican party’s various lies about Obama, such as that he’s a socialist, or that he consorts with terrorists, or that he would let all the black prisoners out of jail, or that he would repeal the constitutional right to bear arms, or that he’s a Muslim, and so on?

      All of these statements are false. Obama’s campaign met every one of them with solid evidence of the facts. But the Republican party’s supporters seemed not to listen. This only reinforces in my mind the observation that America’s two main political cultures are pathologically polarised from each other. For if they are not even speaking properly to each other, then any story, however ridiculous, will be accepted as true, and any rebuttal of a falsehood, however sound, will be ignored.

      Furthermore it seemed that these lies were designed to increase people’s fear, particularly fear of foreign attack, fear of the black man, fear of economic instability, fear of domestic crime, and the like. This, too, seems to me to confirm my observation that the Republican party offers only fear, and a promise of protection from fear.

      The questions on my mind now are:

      Will all this fear die down? Or, will it transform into hate?
      And if the latter occurs, who or what will be the target of that hate? And will this hate manifest in the form of violence?

  3. weds says:

    We in Canada haven’t had an inspirational orator since Pierre Trudeau. Some of us still miss him.

    I hadn’t actually thought to compare Obama with Trudeau before now, but I may need to go reread some of Trudeau’s essays to follow that thread. In retrospect, living here in the final months of the campaign has been not unlike grabbing wisps of Trudeaumania out of the past and watching them adapt.


    In my meditations on Wednesday morning, I received images of an America where secessionist voices grew loud again[…]

    …I desperately hope you’re wrong about le Front de libération du sud.

  4. skiegazer says:

    I think you win for “the best post-election post” I’ve read. 🙂

    As someone who is an American and living in America, I’ve been not only watching other people and thinking, but observing my own reactions as they change and evolve. My first reaction was… kind of like getting really, really drunk really, really quick. You know how you go through stages of drunkenness, and the first stage or two is a pleasant enjoyable relaxation and slight buzz… but then if you keep at it, especially too much too quickly on an empty stomach, you just feel sick as a dog.

    I think many people in this country are so used to living in a kind of postponed despair and isolation from one another, that the thrill of the election results was only partly about who won, and also partly about the very notion that suddenly we could come together in trust and hope. Even if by Thursday everyone went back to being self-concerned jerks to each other. For me, though, always striving to enliven hope and make connections in my everyday life, it was like being overwhelmed to the point of disgust with presumed intimacy and blind orgiastic celebration.

    Now that’s settled down a little bit… I’m getting a little more perspective, and also noting how strange it is that, all this time throughout the campaign, we kept trying to shy away from the race issue–and yet that’s the only thing I keep hearing people really mentioning over and over again. Obama’s policies themselves, though liberal-centrist, are not amazingly new or radical. Even his rhetoric of hope and change is fairly familiar (I was too young to pay much attention, but didn’t Clinton run on a very similar platform?–he was from Hope, Arkansas, for Pete’s sake!). There is some visceral symbolic power in seeing a black man rather than a white man proclaiming these ideals, of course, and I can’t say I’m not moved–but really, he’s not radical or even all that unique.

    And while I want to believe that Obama’s America can aspire to all those things you said, the basic premise about American exceptionalism is not necessarily challenged merely because we include gays, women and ethnic minorities in the mix for once. Think how Sarah Palin enlisted feminism itself as a point for “why America is great” in the same breath that she used that greatness to justify policies that would undermine women’s rights and push us back half a century.

    So I’m not holding my breath. The starry-eyed puppy love everyone here is feeling right now will wear off. Maybe it will spiral into violence, though I very much hope not, but either way, I agree–I don’t think this is a new beginning, but just a moment of respite during a long, painful end. Which is good, because we all needed a rest and a sense of renewal, and even long, painful ends can eventually lead to new beginnings. I just hope we don’t let it give us false hope or blind us to the problems inherent in the system regardless of the figurehead’s skin color.

  5. Anonymous says:

    strangegodsb4me, you have no reason not to trust Obama. He hasn’t even started yet! If you’re referencing stuff mentioned by McCain in his campaign, those were smear tactics. McCain saw them attack him in 2000 when Bushies accused him of having an illegitimate black child. They’ll do anything to discredit people.

    Anyway…fantastic post, Brendan! You got it all right. I haven’t been this proud of my country in years. At least we know half of us aren’t racist. I do fear for Obama’s life, and I partly blame McCain’s dirty campaign for fueling dangerous racism at their rallies. Of course some people in this country are already racist, but McCain/Palin starting rallies with “Who is the real Barack Obama?” and not denouncing the responses they got back only fueled hatred and mistrust of him. They should be ashamed.

  6. “the best post-election post” – Agreed!

    Good stuff B. Ya know, you came up with some pretty poetic stuff yerself up there… maybe you should look at switching to speech writing?

    I agree too with concerns for Obama’s safety at this point. In fact one friend on my Facebook list already suggested buying Obama a Pope-mobile. It’s been a long time since anyone’s made an attempt on an American president, longer still since anyone was successful. Let’s hope they’re not due to revive the practice. That being said, I’m not panicked by this. The great thing about Obama (as you pointed out about the crowd at his speech) is that he’s really an Everyman. Some news station head was saying a similar thing this morning. I’m paraphrasing at best but the gist was” They didn’t elect a “black president”. They elected a black, white, asian, native, immigrant, Christian, Muslim” etc, etc, etc. The guy on TV didn’t say Everyman, but that was the idea. I think the point is, everyone who’s been classified as “other” feels like Obama can (and will) understand their perspective and defend them. Like you said, you feel like he’s talking directly to you.

    I also hope people will buy into, as you put it “the desire to
    uplift the oppressed in a way that does not require others to sacrifice the things they have worked hard to earn”. Well said. One of the things that always struck me about the feminist backlash is the attitude that in order for me to gain, you must therefore loose. What strikes me as even more odd is that I’m the only feminist I know who usually points that out to people… hey, you been readin’ my stuff??

    But seriously, I’ve been waiting for ages for people to realize that the old adage about “a high tide lifts all boats” is not just about economics.

  7. cairde_luis says:

    I’m an American by birth, and honestly considered seeing if I could vote in this election, but I’ve been out of the country a little too long.
    I have family on both sides of the party line – So I know many of them were out partying when Obama won and others — well not so much.
    I do also have some concerns about Obama’s safety. My father is actually surprised he managed to not be assassinated already, if not at least shot at a few times. He’s very pro-Obama and I have kept up with the campaign through him.
    I hope that Obama succeeds in many of the things he has spoken of. I’m sure he’ll be facing a lot of stonewalling though.
    I’m anxious to see what the next four years will hold for the US.

    Great post by the way 🙂 Very well put.

  8. erynn999 says:

    McCain’s America is the one I’ve been living in most of my adult life, and it is the biggest reason I wish I were living in a different country. If you, as a Canadian, have been terrified of my government then I, as an American living in it, have been just as terrified of what my government does with its power.

    Obama’s election is a change of sorts, and race is one of the factors in that change, yet Obama is by no means a liberal. America is so far to the right that even a somewhat right of center politician is called a “socialist” here, as Obama was during the campaign. I have heard the rhetoric of hope, and I was one of those people in tears about Obama’s acceptance speech, yet there are some significant problems with his positions on war, on the economy, on environmental issues, that can’t yet be reconciled with a truly liberal agenda.

    I feel some hope, but I will not allow myself to be blinded by it. Only time will tell what Obama can genuinely accomplish as president and whether he fulfills any of the promises he’s made. I hope he will move us toward a more compassionate culture, but I am not sure if anyone can without the wholehearted cooperation of the American people themselves.

  9. >It became clear to me, I think for the first time, as I watched McCain’s concession speech, that a very large section of American society sincerely believes in American exceptionalism and in the doctrine of manifest destiny.

    Unfortunately, this does seem true to me. I have to be careful when I speak to my dad about foreign cultures and countries, because his view is so consistently “we’re on top, and they all want our stuff (technology, medicine, military aid, etc.).” As if the rest of the world exists as a result of our magnanimity. I’ve never had a run-in with the classical “manifest destiny” doctrine, but the notion that America is literally the best (at everything), and leads the world (in everything), and is responsible to right the wrongs of (all) the world, is alive and well.

    Have you ever seen the documentary This Divided Nation, about the controversial visit of Michael Moore to a small town university in Utah? It really shows the division in mindset between liberals and conservatives.

    >That is the America that I, as a non-American, find utterly terrifying.

    And I, as an American, find equally terrifying. No doubt Obama’s presidency will bring out some radical voices on the conservative side, but hopefully the overall direction of the country will improve, and we’ll see a swing back from the conservative, religious-right politics of Bush’s reign.

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