everything and nothing. not really sure yet.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Some thoughts

Tomorrow, in front of baying crowds, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. Almost simultaneously, millions - if not billions - around the world (including the majority of American citizens) will breath a sigh of relief. A couple of years ago, I bought a badge that read '1-20-2009 Bush's Last Day' (it came from America, so the date is written the American way). At the time it seemed so far away, but now, as it appears so very imminent, I find it difficult to describe my feelings. Much has been said about the historical nature of the next presidency, about the hopes and ideals that it will (or, at least, it is hoped it will) embody. I do not particularly wish to add to this - I do not think that there is anything that I could say that has not already been said on the subject. I think it is important not to build up expectations that cannot reasonably be met - some great things will be accomplished, and some dreams and promises will remain unfulfilled. Not every fight can be won. Instead of looking at what this upcoming inauguration means for the United States, I think that I will use my position as an expatriot (to some extent) to look at the effect that this inauguration will have around the world.

Throughout the election campaign, both during the primaries and the general election, whenever I discussed the campaign - and my preferred candidate, Barack Obama - with British people I was universally met with a repetition of a few statements that I felt were not only wholly untrue, but a misrepresentation of the American people. I received these responses from people that I know well and respect, and people that I do not know well at all, and do not respect in the least. The attitude of most people that I came across in the United Kingdom could be summed up as: "Yes Obama is great - better than Hillary Clinton or John McCain - but there's no way that a black guy could get elected in America." This sentiment, drummed up by questionable journalism on the part of the BBC's American bureau, including its editor Justin Webb (who I dislike intensely, but cannot entirely pinpoint why - it might just be something in his manner), is - I feel - a result of the anti-American sentiment that has pervaded European society, and a lack of understanding of the American political system. Europeans, and particularly the British, have a view of Americans as uneducated hicks - like the creepy uncle who is, for reasons that no-one is entirely sure of, extremely wealthy and powerful. Part of this feeling is down to George W Bush - particularly in light of the perceived bullying foreign policy of this administration (a form of gunpoint diplomacy that was most effectively used by the 19th century British leader Lord Palmerston) and the outward display of bombastic right-wing religion that causes many (including myself - it must be said) to shudder. However, it would be wrong to give the 43rd President all the blame for this anti-American feeling, I think that it runs much deeper than an opposition to Bush's foreign policy. Part of it, I think, is down to a feeling of disgust at the power America has in the world - both in terms of economy and politics. There is also a public sentiment that deep in the American backwaters lives a powerful majority of uneducated religious maniacs - this view is spread partly by TV, by stereotyping, and by the broad visibility of Evangelical Christianity - such as that practiced and preached by the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson - and its connection to political issues, such as campaigning on abortion. This image of the general American populace was powerfully shattered by Barack Obama's monumental victory. It left many Europeans - who had dismissed the Americans as racist idiots - wondering where their Barack Obama was, how can they really justify seeing themselves as being more enlightened than the Americans, when it would be much more difficult for a mixed-race politician in his forties to get elected in Britain (where, until Gordon Brown, every post-WW2 prime minister who had gone to university had gone to Oxford - Brown having gone to Edinburh - and every single Prime Minister to get elected was a WASP, in American terms)? There is still a racist sentiment in some areas of the United States - just as there is in Britain (there are only two Black farmers in the entire country), but most Europeans fail to understand that, not only are those views the views of a minority, but those few states that might be swayed by people who hold those views are irrelevant in the American system, with the Electoral College.

There is a view of the Americans as generally conservative, in a brash way, that is extremely common. This is, in fact, utter nonsense. Just after the election, many conservative American pundits opined that Obama would have to compromise on the more liberal areas of his manifesto, because America was "a centre-right nation". This view has been criticised and refuted on multiple occasions - scroll through the archives of liberal blogs such as Daily Kos and MyDD to find hard evidence against this idea. The idea that America is more right-wing than Europe is common, but false. Across the western world, there has been a gravitation towards a more right-wing politic, as Social Democrats accept some tenets of market-driven political philosophy (and they are now seeing just why this is a problem), and American politics are no more right-wing than British politics or French politics or German politics. Many have pointed out that you cannot get elected in American if you call yourself a socialist or social-democrat (tell that to Bernie Sanders). This is somewhat true, however, the fact that you call yourself a 'liberal' or 'progressive' does not make your policies - the policies that the majority of the American people support - any less left wing than if you call yourself a 'social-democrat'.

Barack Obama has the potential to change the way America is viewed in the world, to allow - even force - people to confront and bury their latent anti-Americanism. I'll leave with a little anecdote, a retelling of a conversation I had at that temple of Britishness (and the Anglophile world), Lords Cricket Ground. I was watching what might have been the fourth day of a Test Match (or maybe a One dayer or Twenty20, I go so often its hard to say with some accuracy). It was relatively breezy, particularly on the uncovered upper deck of the stand below the media centre (the Edrich stand), so I was wearing a thick South African rugby jersey to keep me warm. A man sitting across the aisle from me asks me if I'm South African. I reply that no, I'm not South African, but I'm half Zimbabwean, and it's difficult to support the Zimbabwean rugby team. He starts talking about the Zimbabwean rugby team, and I smile and nod along. I had mentioned that I'm also half American, and his response was "so you're supporting your better half, eh?". I smiled and nodded along. He mentioned that he had never been to America, that its politics didn't chime with his. He mentioned that he disliked the focus on terrorism (so do I - to an extent) and that even Nelson Mandela had been called a terrorist. I nodded and we parted ways after a reasonably pleasant conversation. However, I cannot say that I felt entirely comfortable. I wonder what he thinks of American politics now.


Blogger Gerard Jones said...

Ethan: someone pointed me to this post a few days ago (four months after you posted it) after reading my own (even earlier) post about my visit to London on the eve of the American elections: http://gerardjones.blogspot.com. (The relevant post is low on the first page.)

I've been in London many times since the 1970s and got used to a certain flavor of anti-Americanism--almost never hostile, but smug and amused. I felt a change this past October. People were in love with Obama but also seemed a bit off-balance in talking about him, as if they couldn't quite reconcile him with their perception of his country.

I was a guest on a BBC show in Nottingham and the presenter kept asking me about Obama, not about video games (my ostensible topic at the moment). At one point she asked me if I thought the UK or any other European nation might elect a black president soon, and it felt like a grudging admission that the US had slipped ahead in progressive politics.

You did a very nice job of capturing that dynamic here. I suspect the previous 28 years fit more reassuringly with the ways the English would like to see us: two "Cowboy Presidents," one CIA Republican, a centrist con man with a Southern accent, and a system generally dominated by Republicans.

7:21 am


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