Nov 5, 2008

Upon the Occasion of the Election of Barack Obama

(Every so often I just want to use really flowery language. Today was one of those days.)

I woke up this morning, the morning of November 5th, crawled off of my futon, and began to check election results. The polls hadn't closed yet, and the various news sites were just flurries of speculation and unreliable exit polls. As I write this now, MSNBC has called Pennsylvania for Obama, and the New York Times, though not willing to make the same definite pronouncement, shows Obama in the lead in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. This election is over, and Obama has won.

My students, throughout the election, have had all manner of questions for me about it. Almost all of them know that I majored in Political Science, and when asked directly about my political beliefs I am honest with them. There are two questions that they've asked me at the start of conversations: Whom I support (Obama) and why do I support him. The answer to that second question is a bit more complicated. (I always try to turn the conversation around and ask them about the Japanese government as well. Most often, students lead in with a laugh about how the new PM, Taro Aso, is a huge otaku.)

Why do I support Obama? Why am I filled with glee and buzz as I'm reloading news sites in the other tabs on my browsers? I want the answer to be something more substantive and well thought-out than "because he's a Democrat." I am a Democrat, and a liberal one at that. But, I want my opinions to come from reason and discernment rather than an emotional sense of partisanship.

Why do I support Obama? One of the biggest reasons, is seeing how positively my students talk about him. I've seen several Japanese people smile and speak approvingly of the Democratic candidate, and what he represents about the U.S. One of Obama's greatest strengths (and perhaps a huge stumbling block to his presidency) is that he is a symbol as well as a man. This will undoubtably lead to a certain amount of disappointment from people who see him as the Second Coming, but this rare asset is also something that can help us (that is, the U.S.A.) in our dealings abroad.

Obama, as a symbol and an icon, shows two things to an international audience like my students. First, he is an obvious break with George W. Bush. The world at large has not been impressed with the current president, and Bush has done obvious harm with regards to our reputation and image in other countries. It is profoundly important that other countries like us. Even admire us. We are a military superpower, the biggest economy in the world, a mitigator of international disputes, holder of the most important currency on earth, and all-around superpower. With all of that ability and responsiblity comes a whole host of unique problems. We are also used as a scapegoat by ideological elites in less-well off countries, employed as a symbol by ideologues (like Hugo Chavez) who want to define themselves against us, and an obvious target for those who would seek to violently restructure civilization, such as Bin Laden and others like him.

To perform these responsibilities and combat these challenges we need legitimacy. Not only do the leaders of other countries have to agree with out official policies, but peoples in other places need to be comfortable with, say, American troops stationed within their borders and American diplomats and aide workers working on solutions to local problems. If we do not have support from the populace, if American troops, aide workers, etc., are seen as objects worthy of protest (protest which can potentially become violent) rather than as part of a solution, then our tasks abroad become much, much more difficult. George W. Bush has eroded that essential legitimacy, and Barack Obama, I hope, can restore it.

I have high hopes for Obama because people such as my students know that he is a profoundly different man than the current president. Not only in terms of his party and his race, but also in temperment and character. At one time I would have dismissed such things as emotional and unimportant, I would have only cared how a politican voted and decided on certain issues. Now, though, I can see how Obama's bearing has already benefited us a little in terms of burnishing our image. Hopefully, that trend will continue.

The second major way that the U.S. can benefit from Obama as a symbol is that he shows how a civilization can transform itself. Much has already been said about how the elction of Obama is the culmination of years of work regarding race relations in America. This is true, though racism and racial divisions will not vanish with his presidency. I do think, though, that it is extremely wonderful to see that a democratic, industrialized, economically liberal country can indeed actively move past divisions that were once seen as immobile and immutable.

Yesterday I was talking with a Japanese coworker of mine about Japanese attitudes towards Chinese. My coworker, who has traveled abroad extensively and lived in China as a child, mentioned that she feels odd when students say things that spring from obvious prejudice. She even went so far as to say that she herself even feels the pull of that prejudice, a whole array of social emotions that pulled her away from her better reason and nature. Obama, though, shows that one of the gifts of modernity is that it can help us pull away from ugly old tribalisms, and that divisions such as the one my coworker described need not be permanent. Through Obama the U.S. can show the world that such liberalization is possible and desirable.

I know that Obama's presidency will be as flawed as any other, and that his halo will undoubtably dim when his administration ends in (hopefully) eight years. However, right now, just for a moment, I'm delighting in a moment in history where a man who has become symbol of liberalism has acheived the presidency of the most powerful country on earth. The New York Times has called Pennsylvania for Obama. Ohio and Florida are still blue. Slate has just called the election. The world at large, I think, is looking on appreciatively.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

Bad ass, Joe! Very nice post. We too are cheering and looking on appreciatively on this side of the pond as well. Plus there were fireworks on Hilyard Street, how cool is that?!?