Bringer of hope

2008-06-12 00:00

People get weary, jaded, disillusioned: then they need some person or some thought to cheer them up, to reanimate them. The same is roughly true of whole countries. It is also true, to some degree, of the world itself.

The world has perhaps seemed a bit jaded recently, with natural disasters, rising fuel and food prices, unsolved conflicts, and the depressing displays of criminal desperation and perversity by the generals of Burma/Myanmar and by our neighbour Mugabe. South Africa has also had its own grim set of anxieties and disappointments. Something a bit cheerful was needed, some positive headline; and that has been provided for many people throughout the world by the news that Barack Obama is to be the Democratic Party’s candidate in the forthcoming United States election. Obama has been putting forward boldly inclusive policies: considering the poor and marginalised at home, and speaking to America’s enemies abroad.

It may seem odd that so many people should be concerned about an election that is distant for most of them. But the U.S. is very powerful and influential (although with the decline of the dollar and the rise of China and India its hegemony has begun to wane), and under George W. Bush it has often been the very opposite of an inspiration to the world. It is also true, of course, that current globalised TV coverage means that no elections are really distant: they almost all take place in our living rooms.

One’s joy at Obama’s nomination is not unsullied. There are five months to go before the presidential election, and it is by no means certain that he will be the successful candidate. Several times in recent decades thoughtful and imaginative Democratic candidates have been defeated by Republicans who, while not without some virtues, had the knack of understanding and playing upon ordinary people’s less noble instincts. And Obama, as a liberal person of colour, is obviously going to be the victim of strong attacks from those who are conservative and/or overtly or covertly racist.

What is more, even if he becomes president, Obama is bound to be something of a disappointment to those most deeply committed to the new thinking that he has tried to promote. The American electoral system — like most democratic systems, only more so — is highly regulated and largely dominated by the power and wealth of the big corporations. A new incumbent, who will inevitably have moved towards the centre in the course of the campaign, is not likely to have a great deal of space to manoeuvre within vested interests and prior national and international commitments.

In rejoicing at Obama’s nomination, then, one has to be cautious and realistic. One might add too that it’s a great pity that the first really strong African-American candidate should have emerged, and within the same party, at the same time as the first really strong woman candidate.

Most commentators seem to think it unlikely that Obama will choose Hillary Clinton as his running-mate; I think he might be wise to do so.

But let us rejoice at Obama’s nomination nevertheless. He has put in a remarkable performance in challenging and defeating the powerful and talented Clinton, and in the process he has shown himself to be a political leader with a striking range of qualities: he is strong, flexible, deeply thoughtful, empathetic, idealistic in the best sense, good humoured and eloquent. Many have said that he combines the virtues of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King; there can be little doubt that he is in the same class as these leaders. It is significant that things that he has said or written are being quoted and discussed not only in the newspapers but also in quality journals and academic articles.

If I had the space I would quote from Obama at length. But I shall limit myself to the following, a brief extract from a speech in which, with both firmness and subtlety, he explained his attitude towards the race issue in the U.S.

“For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances — for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

Perhaps the main thing that needs to be said about Obama, in the end, is that he shows the jaded world — and particularly us in a rather chaotic and un-ideal South Africa — what politics should really be about: not primarily power (although one needs to get into power in order to achieve anything), but an honest, committed, imaginative determination to improve the life of all human beings and of the whole world in which they live.

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