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.