Monday, November 10, 2008

The Flip Side of Obama's Victory

Sometimes when someone who you expect to screw up most of the time because they have a history of doing so does not screw up, you are overly effusive with your praise and blunder into actually being insulting and reading more into one victory than is appropriate. This is a phenomenon happening with great frequency right now in the "rest of the world" and its reaction to Senator Obama's sweeping victory last week.

I want to point out one example here, which is an article written by Steven Wells, contributor to both the UK Guardian and also Philadelphia Weekly here in the States. The article can be found here and I will just address some of the points made.

Mr. Wells writes this open letter to America ostensibly as a congratulations, but it veers hard right into a rebuke of America's history virtually in its totality. That is the danger of Senator Obama's election - it does not change history, but what it does do is give us a clearer picture of how some people have seen America because now they've decided to tell us how they "really felt" about us, seeing as how as of last Tuesday we moved past our racist history. And that is the other danger - that the world has read far too much into this result.

In this article, Mr. Wells congratulates us for the election result - and lots of other things about America that he finds to be "really cool" but admonishes us for some of the things we've done... and then just keeps on going:

But there’s the other stuff.

You know, overthrowing democratically elected governments, supporting fascists, supporting the Khmer Rouge, supporting Islamic fundamentalists, torture, Cheney, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Rush Limbaugh, Nixon, Joe McCarthy, Ronald Reagan. All that stuff. And electing Bush. And then—astoundingly, mindblowingly, jawdroppingly—re–electing Bush. When you guys suck, you really suck.

Then there’s the racism thing. A lot of us grew up with TV images of cops beating civil rights demonstrators, the genocide in Vietnam, the persecution of Muhammad Ali, the murders of the black panthers, Dr. King and Malcolm X. We know that modern white America thinks its shit don’t stink, that racism is in the past and anyway, things are much worse in Europe, and that American kids are colorblind (despite the fact that they cluster in blacks–only and whites–only groups in college cafeterias).

There’s an article in the latest GQ that describes modern America as suffering from ”segregation without the racists”. Meaning, presumably, that non–white Americans choose the low–paid jobs and choose to live in the shit parts of town. Because if America isn’t profoundly racist, what other possible explanation could there be? Rightly or wrongly this is how the rest of the world sees America—as a nation utterly obsessed with race and profoundly poisoned by racism.

This is the sort of thing that makes my blood boil about this election. This was an election about America re-embracing the virtues we extol and have said we embody. About a nation that had lost its way reclaiming the high road. This was not an election about proving something to the rest of the world about our feelings on race, the electoral equivalent of saying "hey, I'm not racist, I've got a black friend!" Meet Mr. Obama: our black friend. I mean, Mr. Wells, Vietnam? Civil rights demonstrators? 1968 called and wants its article back. You don't have something a tad more recent you'd like to discuss?

Further, the slightly-to-extremely pedantic Mr. Wells is from the UK (I presume), and perhaps he should get down off his soapbox, walk home from Speaker's Corner and do a little digging into his nation's own sordid history of racism and xenophobia - a condition, I might add, that persists to this day. I invite Mr. Wells to investigate how England treated its colonial holdings, including the appalling treatment of India that lasted well into the 20th century. But, undaunted, Mr. Wells continues:

The rest of the world looks at a US school system that is more segregated now than it was before the start of the civil rights movement. They look at the major US cities, most of which—like most of Philadelphia—are segregated with a totality that would bring joy to the architects of apartheid South Africa. And then we read articles in USAian magazines and newspapers that talk of racism in the past tense. And we scratch our heads in wonder.

In the run–up to this election, some Eastern Europeans I spoke to were absolutely certain that the USA is so racist that Obama will simply not be allowed to be president. Others—mostly Western Europeans—have been almost giddy with excitement. But it’s an excitement tempered with disbelief. Is the America of Jim Crow, the KKK, Birth of a Nation, ghettos, race riots, lynchings and beatings—where, in vast swathes of the country, blacks and whites are expected to vote for different parties, as if they were entirely separate and distinct tribes—did this America really elect Barack Obama?

Sigh. Mr. Wells, have you ever been to your beloved London? Would you describe it as living in racial harmony, or starkly polarized, with Middle Eastern and Indian citizens living virtually isolated north of the Marble Arch - an area where people I know who live in London refuse to go after the sun sets. Nobody has it perfectly yet, Mr. Wells. And Eastern Europeans? I mean, you guys really want to open your collective mouths about racism and people not being "allowed" to do this, that or the other? Don't make me say it. Don't make me. Wasn't it the anniversary of Kristallnacht the other night - dammit, I couldn't help myself.

Fact of the matter is that every country on this planet has problems with either a religious, ethnic or cultural minority. Show me one that does not. Show me a country where the many have not ever oppressed the few. You cannot. Countries are as good as their citizens, and citizens are people. Imperfect, fearful, flawed people. The best you can hope for is that countries will endeavor to become more enlightened and tolerant as their citizens move in that direction. Some move faster. Some move more slowly. But for the rest of the world, where there is still ethnic cleansing and genocide, if not now then within a generation in the past, to cast a skeptical and overly critical eye in OUR direction is a bit offensive. If you wish to take us to task for the past eight years, by all means, let's talk. But when you take this election and turn it into a referendum on the history of this nation, you're treading on thin ice. A lot of nations have done a lot of bad things. Let's not start pointing fingers or some of you may not like where things end up.

Mr. Wells does finish his backhanded compliment on a high note:

...we think that if America can elect a black president then anything is possible. It might even be that all the talk we hear coming out of American mouths about truth and justice and liberty and common human decency might actually be matched by American actions. By electing Obama you have proved yourselves greater, wiser, nicer and more truly American than we thought you possibly could be. And if you can do something this amazing, maybe the rest of the world can shake of its own horrible racist past too. You give us hope, America. You rejected the party of fear, racism and greed, and you elected the candidate who spoke to the best in you. And that action speaks to the best in all of us. All six billion of us. This morning, America, you really are as great as you think you are. (Don’t let it go to your head.)

Sigh. Having a black president does not, in and of itself, solve anything, with the exception of it making it impossible for that president to be George Bush. It does not make us wiser, better or more decent. It just means we voted for (in my opinion) the better man for the job without letting his race be a deciding issue for white voters. This is the danger in Obama's victory - the world has painted us with too negative a brush up to now, and now whipsaws the other way, and places far too great a weight on one act. The world equates all Republicans as racist fear-mongers and all people who voted for Obama as enlightened. Neither is true and to think so is dangerously simple-minded.

America is a complicated country - I would argue the most complex nation ever in the history of man. It cannot be painted one thing or another thing because it is always so very many things at once. To have painted us as a culture bubbling over with racism at all times and in all places - but that this suddenly and joyously ended on last Tuesday - is mind-numbingly simplistic. I hope for the sake of the rest of the world, they judge both our successes and failures on a more realistic scale going forward.


Defective Pants said...

There is no doubt that America has been an easy target for some time now, and even that we painted that target on our own backs. Fine. But I agree, to hear people like this author rip the admittedly imperfect America while completely ignoring Europe's glass house is amazing. Anto-semetism is on the rise accross Europe. Englan still hasn't come to terms with ots own treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland. European discrimination has made its slums a hotbed for radical islam. Get your own house in order before complaining about the drapes in mine.

Warm Apple Pie said...

Resolve the caste system oppressing poor Muslims. Address the despicable taunts of soccer hooligans throwing bananas at black players. Please. Your house burns down, yet you direct the fire department to the light smoke coming from the house across the way.

Pat Bateman said...

Listen, I'm happy the world has reacted positively to the Obama victory. I am glad it gives hope to people and can help restore our global image which has taken big and legitimate hits. But let's stay on-message. If you want to see hope in having a guy in office with a global perspective who will truly work to bring nations together and restore the United States to its rightful position as a beacon of hope and justice - great. When you turn it into something akin to "thank God you racist bastards have finally seen the light," that's where the rest of the world can suck it.