Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Here's some quick thoughts on the Obama victory. I'll put together something meatier and more formal during the next week, when we've learnt a bit more.
In some ways, Obama's a hard one to pin down. Look at his background and he's left-liberal. I heard an radio interview with him the other day, recorded several years ago when he was teaching law at Chicago uni, where he gave a very thoughtful account of how black people had lost out in the original US constitutional settlement two hundred years ago, and assessed how that might be rectified going forward through the courts or through legislation. With his measured consideration of a serious social justice issue, the guy sounded really impressive. If I'd read a transcript of that without knowing who it was, I'd instantly want to hear more from this smart young academic.
At one level, that's Obama. But then as a politician he's clearly prepared to adopt some pretty right-wing positions, maybe because he feels he has to or maybe because his thinking is genuinely moving in that direction. Take foreign policy. His stance on the Palestinians, for example, is just as cruel as any adopted by Bush or Clinton. And he's surrounded by advisers from the Clinton era, during which time US foreign policy was far from enlightened. For the next 4-8 years the US is still going to be an imperial power with its policy-making dominated by elite interests. Obama would have trouble changing that even if he was a committed revolutionary, and he's definitely not one of those.
But then, nor is he of the McCain/Bush "give war a chance" mold. His approach will be less impetuous, less willfully ignorant, and less agressive. Yes its still imperialism, albeit with different tactics. And yes Arundhati Roy was basically right when she said that debating the pros and cons of imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape, because the coercion that's intrinisc to imperialism is immoral in its essence, not purely on the basis of outcomes. But a reduction in the amount of wars being fought or threatened is obviously a good thing, whatever the reasons for that happening, because more human beings will get to live.
The Republican party of McCain/Palin/Bush/Cheney was borderline demented on foreign affairs, as Tom Engelhardt expertly documents here. The world's a safer place with them gone, and that's not something that should be overlooked no matter how cautious we are about Obama.
Another positive thing is that the right-wing politics of race-baiting, militarism and extreme Reaganite economics have just been trounced at the polls. That's a big message to the political class. The question is the extent to which they choose to heed it, but its not something they'll be able to ignore.
Has anyone thought to mention that Obama is black?
In all seriousness, this is no small thing. Plainly we won't see racism eradicated overnight. There's been a black Secretary of State for the past eight years, during which time African-Americans gained precious little (and Katrina happened, of course). But Obama's victory is still an important step. Fifty years ago you could pretty much lynch black people with impunity in the southern states. Now a black man is President.
For the next 4-8 years, its going to be harder for those white Americans who harbour softer racial prejudices (always a bigger problem than the hardline racists) to cognitively maintain that mindset, at least so long as they perceive the Obama administration to be basically competant and decent. This will contribute to an erosion of American racism, and thus an expansion the life-chances of many African American people. There are black kids today who are going to have futures that their parents would have been denied. That this is not a trivial thing is well understood by those at the sharp end. Many of the survivors of the 60s civil rights struggle are visibly moved by last nights events and their feelings should not be belittled. Taking this aspect alone, anyone claiming to be of the left who dismisses Obama's election as meaningless is simply exposing themselves as an unthinking fraud.
Another point on prejudice. There was an attempt by sections of the right to draw on the racism that exists in the US against Arabs and Muslims - a bigotry which sees these people not as a large and disparate group of human beings but as a baying, bloodthirsty mob of neo-Nazis. This attempt was made using various devices to remind people of Obama's links to Islam through his father and through his middle name, Hussein - a part of a general strategy of 'othering' Obama which the increasingly odious McCain did precious little to stop.
Sadly for the GOP, there don't seem to be enough racists in America to make that one stick. And again, those that harbour softer prejudices are going to have 4-8 years to get to know, and possibly like, a man whose middle name is Hussein, whose father was a Muslim, and who spent some of his formative years growing up in a Muslim country, Indonesia. Bigotry depends on your ability not to see the people you're prejudiced against as human beings, which is harder to sustain when you get to know someone. And when soft bigotry against the people of the Middle East erodes, imperial aggression against that region becomes far harder to sustain and justify as well. Another non-trivial aspect to consider.
One could argue that McCain ended up betting everything on the 'othering' strategy. Remember that by the final few weeks he needed to win every safe Republican state, every toss-up state and at least one major safe Democrat state to pass the 270 electoral college vote milestone that gets you into the White House. Running short of cash he bet everything on Pennsylvania, probably on the assumption that blue-collar white Democrats would be fairly easy to scare off the black liberal with the funny name and the "questionable associations". McCain campaigned hard with the 'Joe the Plumbers' of Pennsylvania, and in the end Obama thumped him 54-44. McCain was campaigning in the wrong America - the one in his mind. That's another of many big messages sent to the political class last night. Again, the question is the extent to which they choose to heed it, but its not something they'll be able to ignore.
Obviously the power-structures of the United States, which are the real problem, remain firmly in place. As I say, Obama is no radical. Far from it. The endorsements he's received reveal him as very establishment-friendly, as does his stance on many issues. But at the level of the US Presidency, even small differences can make for big outcomes. Both the continuities and the differences, from Bush to Obama, are worthy of our attention.
Change? It'll probably be non-structural and therefore insufficient. But at the same time, it will be far from meaningless. If its turns out to be more than that, it'll be because people didn't go home and go to sleep on November 5th, but kept up the campaigning that began under Bush, as Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel points out in this excellent essay. If the public stays mobilised, changes really do become possible.