Idealism is reborn

2008-11-12 00:00

The global reaction to Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States has been quite astonishing. No other presidential election in U.S. history has elicited anything like the same wave of excitement. Indeed I can’t think of any other leader of any of the major world powers whose electoral triumph has been greeted with such universal acclaim.

Only here in little old South Africa with the election of Nelson Mandela. And for much the same reasons. Just as Mandela’s election was seen as an act of redemption from the great sin of apartheid, so too does Obama’s landslide victory bring closure at last to the United States’s ugly past of slavery and segregation and the legacy of concealed racism that lingered after it.

And so the elections in both countries took place in the same atmosphere of quivering anticipation tinged with a little anxiety. Would Eugene Terre-Blanche’s Afrikaanse Weerstand Beweging (AWB) wreck it all with bloodshed at the last moment? Would the Bradley Effect thwart Obama at the last moment as latent white racists changed their minds in the ballot booths? When neither happened the relief was ecstatic, not only in South Africa and the U.S. but worldwide, for the stain of racism is shared by many across the entire white world and these moments of redemption have been for all.

There were other similarities, too, between these two great liberating events. The same record turnout, especially of young people anxious to free themselves from the sins of their fathers. The same long queues wrapped around city blocks as people waited patiently to play their own small parts in the making of history.

My own favourite story of the Obama election came from a snatch of conversation in one of those long queues. A voter arriving at the tail end of one asked the man in front of him how long he had been waiting. “About 200 years,” came the reply.

There can be no doubt that the election of the first African-American as president of the U.S. is going to have a major impact on the image of the U.S. in the rest of the world. Americans tend to view their country as a benign giant which uses its immense economic and military power to put down tyrants and take the benefits of democracy and “the American way of life” to the less fortunate of the Earth.

To their bafflement that is not always how it is perceived by the recipients, many of whom see U.S. interventions as acts of imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation. It is an impression aggravated by the fact that, unlike the old and more genuine imperialists, the U.S. does not have a long and close understanding of the histories and cultures and often delicately balanced political structures of the alien societies in whose affairs it intervenes. So it is prone to blundering in with “shock and awe” tactics and quick-fix solutions that not only fail but cause huge resentment and project a Rambo image of the U.S. to the rest of the world.

The U.S.’s racist history does not help, for it evokes impressions of a powerful white superstate treating the whole non-white world with the same attitudes of superiority, paternalism and heavy-handedness as it has treated its own black population through the centuries.

The fact that a society perceived in such a light has now elected a black man as its president is bound to impact hugely on that perception. For many, even here in South Africa, Obama’s election has been scarcely believable. They are gobsmacked, just as many in the darker-skinned parts of the world were when South Africa elected Mandela. This in itself will help reduce global tensions, which stem in large measure from stereotyped images of “the other”.

Even more important, I believe Obama’s election will help transform the way the U.S, itself sees the rest of the world.

Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and lifelong Republican, who endorsed Obama two weeks before the election, described him as “a transformational figure”. It was a perceptive description, for the political importance of Obama’s persona goes beyond his blackness. He is a uniquely multiracial, multicultural and international figure in a way that no U.S. president before him has been.

He is half white and half black, a Christian who had a Muslim father and who bears a Muslim middle name; he was born in Hawaii which is one of the most cosmopolitan spots on Earth; he spent his childhood there and in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population; his blackness is derived directly from Africa, not from the old slave heritage and he still has a grandmother and other relatives whom he visits in Kenya; and he reached his maturity in the U.S. where he became a star student and lecturer at Harvard, the country’s most prestigious university and alma mater to a long line of its national leaders.

That makes him a globally diversified figure uniquely equipped to relate to the global diversity with which the U.S. has to deal as the world’s only superpower. It will enable him to relate to other cultures, particularly in the Islamic world which the U.S. has understood so poorly and where its interventions have been so catastrophically mishandled.

In short, Obama is equipped to change the U.S.’s relationships with the rest of the world. That is what makes him a transformational figure.

For me personally he raises another hope — or dream. I first went to the U.S. in 1962 to spend a magical year at Harvard. It was at the peak of John Kennedy’s all-too-brief presidency and the air was alive with the excitement and the spirit of idealism which the young president had brought with him. A new era seemed to have arrived as Kennedy talked of a “new frontier” and as the youth rushed off to join the Peace Corps and the administration began to confront the issue of segregation in the South.

Then came the assassinations of the president, then his brother Robert, of Martin Luther King, then Malcolm X, together with the deepening mire of the Vietnam war. It was like a bursting of the idealistic bubble and there followed an age of disillusionment, cynicism and greed which infected the whole world. A more muscular foreign policy replaced the earlier idealism of trying to win hearts and minds, sending the political pendulum ever further to the right through the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and finally the appalling George W. Bush junior, during which time the U.S. plunged into three more wars in the Middle East.

The interim Democratic presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in that long rightward drift offered brief moments of hope, but the U.S. electorate had itself become so deeply conservative and liberalism so demeaned that they had to shift ground and occupy the centre-right.

Now we have Obama. The excesses of Bush sent the political pendulum way over to the extreme right, so that the U.S. electorate has now recoiled in embarrassment from him and sent the pendulum swinging back again to hand power to his polar opposite.Liberalism and idealism are reborn.

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