Wednesday, January 21, 2009

America's Renewal

This is the headline of paper version of this morning's The Australian as Australia woke up to a new US President. As I watched the evening news earlier, even halfway around the world, I can feel the euphoria of Obama's historic inauguration and its place in history.

Among the best articles I read today is from the foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan's thought-provoking article (p1), "Throwing off the chains of history":

From slavery to the US presidency; from shackles to the Oval Office; from laws banning inter-racial marriage barely a generation ago to the son of an inter-racial marriage running the place today.

From segregated drinking fountains and classrooms and public utilities to the most powerful nation in the history of the world placing its faith in an African-American to lead it in troubled times. The transformation in the status of African-Americans is surely now complete.

This is truly the stuff of history. And the history is not at all so long ago. Former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Colin Powell recalls in his memoirs driving to a base in the south and being unable to use the bathrooms at the service stations along the way, because these facilities were not available to coloured folks.

Of course, once this celebration is over we should really forget Barack Obama's skin colour. Martin Luther King's dream was that all of us should be judged by the content of our character, not by the colour of our skin.

But just as, a generation ago, Irish Catholics felt immense pride at the election of John F Kennedy - the first Catholic president - so too now we can feel immense pride in Obama's achievement in reaching the most powerful office in the world.

And here's another thing: to fall in love with Obama, as the world is showing every sign of doing, it is necessary to fall in love with America.

For the world to fall in love with America all over again is entirely a good thing, and is just as it should be. Every good element in Obama's life comes from his hard work and talent, but also from the normal workings of American society.

In America, talented people from all types of backgrounds reach the top if they work hard - ask Condoleeza Rice or Powell, two black US secretaries of state.

Obama's background - a multi-racial childhood in Hawaii - is as apple pie American as any other background. A good mother, devoted grandparents, the best private school in Hawaii, the American meritocracy finding a way to get the young man to two of the finest universities in the world - Columbia and Harvard - and this is not bizzare aberration in America. This is the way America works.

The hopes invested in Obama are too great for any human being to fulfil. Our cynical secular age belives in almost nothing now except the authenticity of ethnic identity, and in the Obama celebrations they have found an excuse for an orgy of identity celebration.

At the end of the day, Obama will still have to grapple with intractable problems. Can his immense prestige bring Israeli and Palestinian together, stop an Iranian nuclear bomb, revive the American economy, pay for universal healthcare?

Yet the secular sainthood to which the normally cynical secular culture of the West has elevated Obama does indeed contain the seeds of genuine new hope.

These past eight years have been so difficult in part because a large section of American, and international, opinion never accepted the legitimacy of the George W Bush presidency. He stole the votes in Florida, they held. He spoke in terrible Texan accent. His brand of evangelical Christianity was all wrong. But no one in the world - except perhaps al-Qa'ida and the government-sponsored demonstrators in Tehran - disputes Obama's legitimacy, not just as president of America but as a kind of secular pope.

Here's another profound trick. Obama has kept most of the policies - and a startling number of the people - from the heart of the Bush administration.

Millions of people who six months ago hated the US will now be doing what they can to help a Washington administration succeed in the world.

That is the dawn of a bright new day, and a remarkable sign of America's resilience, and perhaps the world's last, best hope.

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