After eight years of George Bush's misrule, Obama's victory brings great tidings of hope.
On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, a miracle happened. America, which had enslaved black people for centuries (till the Emancipation of 1863) and then subjugated and segregated them for another 100 years, elected an African American as its President. It was an astonishing landmark event in the socio-political history of not just the US but the entire world. It rekindled hopes for renewal and recommitment to the American (and universal) ideals of freedom, equality and democracy. For those of us “urban, anglicized Indians” who had spent much of our early adulthood in America as graduate students and then young professionals, it was a moment resonant with our personal trajectories and memories.
Forty years ago, when my wife and I were graduate students in the Boston area, America was a vibrant, open society, so refreshingly different from the ossified, class-ridden and (then) increasingly racist Britain from whence we had arrived to do further studies. Three powerful movements were churning the social and political fabric of America. First, the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, was going strong and had helped win major legislative victories on voter rights and other issues as part of the “Great Society” reforms of Lyndon Johnson (a hugely underestimated reforming president). Second, the women’s movement for social and economic equality was gathering momentum, despite fringe distractions of bra-burning and other antics. Third, the popular opposition to the Vietnam war was reaching a crescendo and, in the wake of the famous Tet offensive of February 1968, was to impel LBJ from seeking re-election. To foreign students like us, the power of popular protest and progressive social movements was both evident and uplifting. Anything seemed possible in this vibrant democracy.
As it turned out, 1968 was also a year for profound disappointments. The shocking assassinations of Dr King and Robert Kennedy stunned America and the world and weakened the momentum of the civil rights movement. Kennedy’s killing helped rend the Democratic party asunder and contributed to the November victory of Richard Nixon on a conservative platform, deliberately designed to capitalize on the southern white backlash to the civil rights advances of the Kennedy-Johnson years. This strategy swung the southern states into the Republican fold for the next four decades, and ensured that 28 of the next 40 years would see a Republican president in the White House. The Vietnam war dragged on for another seven bloody years as Nixon and Kissinger deliberately widened the scope of the conflict and the scale and intensity of the bombing.
In the years that followed we watched, with much fascination and some trepidation, the ebb and flow of conservative and liberal ideas and policies in America (by 1982 our vantage point had shifted to Delhi): the brief, liberal, internationalist interlude of Jimmy Carter’s presidency; followed by the potent combination of a strident free market ideology and a muscular foreign policy during the Reagan-Bush (Sr.) years; and then the resurrection of a more inclusive social contract by Bill Clinton within an economic framework of fiscal prudence and strong economic growth in the 1990s. Throughout the quarter century after Nixon, the vitality of American politics, society and culture remained a source of inspiration for those of us who had studied and worked there in our youth.
The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld actions post-9/11 changed all that. The initial US military response against the Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan was anticipated and understandable (though one cringed when Rumsfeld crowed in his press briefings: “We are not running out of bombing targets, Afghanistan is”). The gratuitous invasion of Iraq was a very different matter. It killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of civilians, made millions of people into homeless, stateless refugees, shredded the social and administrative fabric of the society…and all for no good discernible reason. In Afghanistan a successful military retribution against the terrorist perpetrators of 9/11 became transformed, over time, into a programme of officially sanctioned torture and degradation (remember Abu Ghraib?), “extraordinary rendition” and a seemingly generalized crusade against Islam. At home in the US, the draconian provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act shredded much of the civil liberties and rule of law that generations of Americans had taken for granted. Domestic surveillance of ordinary citizens by hugely powerful and well-equipped intelligence agencies became an accepted reality. Detention of “terror suspects”, without due process of law, was sanctioned (the Guantanamo prison is five years old). And heaven help you if you were brown, bearded, with a Muslim name and deemed to be acting suspiciously. This was not the American Dream that had drawn millions of immigrants to the country and inspired many millions more with the ideals of freedom, equality before the law and democracy.
Barack Obama’s election is a truly historic watershed. As Tom Friedman has written, it ended the 150-year-old Civil War in America. On election night the TV network cameras focused on the euphoria of African Americans all over the country from Chicago, to Harlem, to Atlanta. In doing so they may have missed the larger point: Obama’s victory brought joy to the majority of ALL Americans, not to mention hundreds of millions across Europe, Asia and Africa. Obama won not because he got 95 per cent of the black vote and 66 per cent of the Latinos, but because he received 43 per cent of the white vote, the same share won by the last three white Democratic presidential candidates: Clinton, Gore and Kerry. He won because he was a thoughtful, charismatic and enormously skillful candidate who offered a serious and consistent alternative to the Bush-Cheney doctrines; and who happened to be black. He won because in him Americans saw a return to the founding ideals of their nation. It was a victory of hope over fear.
Obama’s election will not, by itself, solve the gravest economic and financial crisis since 1930. It will not end the war in Iraq overnight or revert American civil liberties immediately to the pre-2001 status. Or defuse the international hotspots of Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East. Or provide instant solutions to climate change, energy scarcity and other pressing, planetary problems. But what it will do, indeed has done, is provide real hope that the world’s most powerful country will approach these profound problems in a serious, consultative, multilateral way. In international politics there are no cast iron guarantees. But we can hope. Yes, we can.
7 months ago