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Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Hail to the Chief?

One has, I suppose, to say something about the election of Senator Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Everyone else has; so why not be fashionable for a spell, and a change.

An American friend forwards a headline from an Egyptian blog: “Black man gets world’s worst job.”. That’s not a bad summary at all. Others, notably Matthew Parris in The Times of London on Saturday (8 November), have pointed out the obvious corollary: that Mr Obama now has so many hopes and dreams draped upon the tabula rasa of his personality that the limitations of the job will mean he disappoints many, perhaps all, and risks a vicious backlash. Parris notes too his likeness to Tony Blair (“a Blair with brains”) in this, but Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance goes further: “Within a year or so, the non-whites who are still celebrating his victory will have noticed that nothing much has changed as it affects their lives, and will be denouncing him as a white man with a black face.” And Gabb foresees for the United States the kind of subtle but radical destruction of liberties by seductive persuasion that we have seen in the United Kingdom over the last decade. To me, Mr Obama recalls Blair too in his sheer oleaginous politician-ness: his condescending, rather nervous smile during the presidential debates (which weren’t debates at all), his brilliant evasiveness on specifics of policy, the consummate meaninglessness of that Change We Need slogan. Well, we shall see, in due course, what Mr Obama really has to offer.

The pleasure and the pain
There are reasons to be pleased: for one, that somewhat more than half the US population did not, as once it would, find it entirely impossible to vote a black man into the White House. One wonders, though, how many people voted for him simply because he is black, regardless of any political substance (or lack of it) – although his being young and handsome and a skilled orator surely helped. In his campaign Mr Obama may not have played much himself on his race, but he was too shrewd a politician to discourage others from doing so. Some people, almost certainly, voted for him out of solidarity: one Republican commentator remarked that the black vote had increased by precisely the same percentage as Mr Obama’s winning margin – “Go figure.” If so, the impulse was fundamentally as backward-looking and racist (and naïve) as any that may have driven some whites to vote for Mr McCain simply because he is not black. And it’s certainly not difficult to imagine the temptation for many liberal, well-meaning whites to vote for Mr Obama simply to join in the making of an “historic” point.

And lurking behind such considerations is the ghastly spectre of political correctness, and the peculiar, demagogic illogic of contemporary political language. In this, a truncated vocabulary exploits excluded middles: suggest people should arm themselves against sociopaths, and you are acccused of vigilantism and a lynch-mob mentality; lift a voice on behalf of habeas corpus, and you are at least soft on terrorism and maybe a closet al-Quaedist; criticize a black man, and you’re a racist. Rather support Mr Obama, however much you may secretly question the wisdom of the choice, than risk being accused of the worst crime on Earth after child molestation and not weeping at Princess Diana’s demise.

So, whatever Mr Obama may think, or say with such rousing conviction, this was not quite a defining moment. As long as Americans vote out of ‘ethnic’ loyalty or according to some second-guessing of history, they will remain stuck in the past. The United States will really have put its racial divisions behind it only when no one bothers to remark on politicians’ appearance or background at all. But, despite the caveats, this result remains an encouraging sign.

The geography of change
Meanwhile, what of the 57.4 million people who voted for Mr McCain? Simplistic views of a new sense of unity in America creak a bit when one looks at where they live. The slightly byzantine nature of a US general election means that the electoral college votes of the Western seaboard states, a chunk of the Midwest, the Northeastern seaboard, and – looking rather lonely – Colorado and New Mexico went for Obama. Most of rural (central, ‘heartland’) America and the Deep South went for Mr McCain. What the psychological effect of this will be remains to be seen: but at that level one may as well be looking at three or four different polities. The picture you get when viewing voting by county (we filched the map from Wikipedia) gives a rather different impression, but one that’s no less unnerving in its way:



Note, for a start, how most of the US–Mexico border is blue; elsewhere, the rural/urban divide is even more striking than in the declarations for the electoral college. If US presidential election results were based on square miles of territory (and perhaps it’s as well that they’re not), Mr Obama would have been feeling rather wan by now – not to say hung out to dry. This geography of political exclusion will no doubt lead some on the further shores of the Right to wail and gnash their teeth and predict apocalypse. What it really indicates is yet another massive task for Mr Obama – to live up to his promise to be a president for all Americans.

It is possible he may convince much of the American people of this. But it’s not simply a matter of winning over the kind of supposedly “bitter” people who, in Mr Obama’s ignorant, revealing and rather odious caricature, “cling to their guns and religion”. He has too to reign in the presumptuous prejudices of ‘liberal’ America, whose complacent righteousness shows signs of slavering for a field day.

Where else might one find a neat example of this but the Web edition of the New York Times? A mere three days after the election, online correspondent Hanna Strange reported that “Gun stores across the United States are reporting a massive surge in sales as buyers rush to stockpile firearms in case of a ban under soon-to-be President Obama”. The Times, which cited only two gunstores in its copy, appears not have noticed the recent Supreme Court ruling reasserting Americans’ right under the Second Amendment to “cling” to all the guns they want – just too tacky, my dear, to have to admit to that. Rather worse for an allegedly responsible newspaper, it doesn’t address the question of why some Americans are so distrustful of an Obama administration (with a packed Congress behind him). Instead one gets the really unnerving impression that the high priests of ‘liberal’ America are creating mythic fear-figures – bogeymen – out of people who choose not to think like them, drink like them, or dress like them.

Are the people of the American heartland, who are spread out over so many square miles of their astonishing landscape, the new niggers for the cloistered urban élite? That’s how we’d portray it if we had the skills of a vicious political cartoonist.

1 Comments:

Blogger Tim Fleming said...

He's going to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense? Why? Anything and anyone associated with the abomination known as the Bush Adminstration foreign policy should be forever banished from serving in government again. Gates' policies are Bush's policies, and we've all had enough of that. Obama should appoint Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as Secretary of Defense for many reason. He served on Senate committees overseeing appropriations, he's a no-nonsense critic of the the War in Iraq, and he would be a tangible symbol of Obama's bi-partisanship.

As for those who would argue (and I don't know that there are many left) that withdrawal is defeat, they are dead wrong. Withdrawal means victory, because victory is attained when the Iraqi people stand on their own. And it is time to make them stand on their own. The Iraqi army has the training, the national will, and the money (our money, to be exact) to make it happen now. Take the billions we're spending there and use it, instead, to bailout our economy. We can't afford to nation build anymore. It's time to take care of our own.

And please withdraw the Clinton nomination for Secretary of State. Let her stay in the Senate where she can do a good job reforming health care. No need for Obama to have the stench of the Clinton psychodrama hanging over his first term. He 's got a lot of work to do, and the Clintons would be a distraction. Does Obama not realize he has a ready-made cache of goodwill with the rest of the world already?

Tim Fleming
author,"Murder Of An American Nazi"

25 November 2008 20:07  

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