It has been my unfortunate experience, too many times in my life, to be judged by my name, my (apparent) ethnicity, and even (less apparently) the colour of my skin. I rarely think of myself in those terms, although the reality of my origins are an important part of who I am, of what I have chosen to do, and of how I have chosen to do it. Those origins help explain why, for me, the election last night of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States was very emotional.
I have reached the time in my life when I am aware that I have lived through history. I recall, vaguely, Dr Martin Luther King. I recall, vividly, when he was assassinated. I recall, too, from a very early age, being aware of apartheid (I had a special loathing for John Vorster), and of the white-minority regime in what is now Zimbabwe, led by Ian Smith. I remember being aware of the fact that while I was in my teens in some parts of the world if I had wanted to go out with someone who was white it would have been against the law--just as it would have been for my parents if they had lived in another country. Indeed, one of the reasons that my parents opted to immigrate to Canada was because of the history of segregation in the US (along with the ongoing Vietnam War). I remember the Soweto uprising, the horrors of the South African military gunning down schoolchildren, but also the acute knowledge that had I been living in South Africa at the time I would have been told the places where I could live, just like those living in Soweto. I remember the violence in the northern US around school busing and the efforts--sometimes for better, sometimes for worse--to integrate schools. I, of course, marched--and marched!!--and marched!!!--for the release of Nelson Mandela, and consider myself extremely fortunate to have met, albeit briefly, Oliver Tambo. I remember when Nelson Mandela finally walked free: the world stopped, and marveled. Walls indeed can come tumbling down, and the impossible is possible.
This is how I feel about the election of Barack Obama. In the global struggle for dignity, equality and social justice, we as humanity have taken a tremendous step forward. By electing a young African-American from an impoverished single-parent background to replace a deeply unpopular plutocrat from an aging political dynasty, the voters of the United States have struck a blow for equality for all of us. It is an event that will reverberate throughout this century. As I said to my son yesterday, one day someone will ask him: 'Where were you when Barack Obama was elected?'
Barack Obama is not capable of fulfilling the tremendous aspirations that the world has placed on his shoulders. For many--especially those energized by political advocacy for the first time--there will be, in all likelihood, a moment of near-transcendental disappointment, when they come to the realization that, in the cold light of day, Barack Obama is an American politician. For Obama is not going to fundamentally transform American society, let alone global society. This was never part of his political agenda. He is going to govern the United States from the political center, very competently, but also very pragmatically. The evidence for this is demonstrated by his already well-established transition team, and the host of economic advisers that he has surrounded himself with. As President, then, he will resemble, somewhat ironically, a more decent, more efficient, and more effective version of former US President Bill Clinton.
However: Barack Obama will not forget that his grandmother lives in a rural village in Kenya and lacks both electricity and clean water. He will not forget that he went to an Islamic school in Indonesia and had a lot of friends there. He will not forget that it was social provisioning and public support that allowed him to realize that his aspirations were achievable. He will not forget the empty lives that he saw while working on the South Side of Chicago. Barack Obama will, within the constraints of the political economy within which he is enmeshed, try and make a difference; the extent to which he actually succeeds remains to be seen, for the constraints of the US political economy are indeed strong, especially now that US finance capital is in crisis.
So, while the election of Barack Obama is an event that could and should bring both joy and hope to billions of people around the world, the world has not been transformed by his election. Rather, his election brings the possibility of transformation that little bit closer. It is a transformation that will--and must--come. This morning, more than yesterday morning, there is a possibility of hope.
In Age of Extremes the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm accurately described the 20th century as being 'short', having lasted from 1917 to 1991, the life of the Soviet Union and the world that it ushered in. As the great British comic Eddie Izzard said last night, '4 November 2008 is the first day of the 21st century.'
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