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November 8, 2008 | by  | in Online Only |
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Hope and Fear

This was written on Thursday, under a wave of elation that may yet subside. But while I could cringe at the puppy-dog optimism in here, I’m gonna take a risk and own it.

Yesterday, a friend of mine remarked that the election of Barack Hussein Obama is the first historic moment we have lived through that actually feels good – sure, I lived through the fall of the USSR and Berlin Wall, but I was too young to notice. 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq were historic, and truly awful; China overtaking the USA as the largest manufacturer of technological goods a couple years back was historic, but in a hidden, unremarked kind of way, and I don’t know that it’s a positive thing.

Obama gives me hope. But I’m somewhat frightened of the hope he gives me. When he spoke about his presidency being “the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian , Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled,” I cried because I never expected a US President to speak so genuinely with respect for queer people, to include us in an historic thankyou as if we are not an embarrassment. I think back to the utter cynicism of 2000’s race between the twin evils of Gore the empty block of wood and Bush the walking joke; at the mad arrogance of Bush’s march towards war, and remember that I never thought a US President could ever make me cry with joy.

I grew to an awareness of the world and America’s role within it during the superficial media circus of the Clinton impeachment, but the cynicism I gained from his eight years were nothing compared to the next eight, as Bush, who began his tenure as a clown notable only for statements like “Africa is a very poor nation” and “is our children learning?”, would go on to demonstrate just how corrupt US democracy could be. Defending the torture of prisoners of war just as long as it didn’t cause organ failure; massive tax cuts for the rich alone; unfettered corporate freedom, allowing Enron and Wall Street to swindle the American people; his support for high schools that prohibit mixed-race dating; religious Puritanism that allows Kansas to prohibit the teaching of real science, and bans on gay marriage; and of course Bush’s legacy as a Texan governor allowing virtually unconstrained gun sales and the execution of mentally retarded inmates. All this is over because millions, led by our generation, said Yes, we can put a stop to this; fuck our cynical hip disdain for the system, let’s try to change it.

During election night, a CNN pundit noted that Obama’s election was due to a new youth movement, and that whereas the movement of ’68 – the Yippies with their porcine candidate Pigasus – rebelled outside and against the system, we are now working to right it from within. But this is only half the picture. Between the assassination of Kennedy and the election of Obama, the USA has waited 45 years for an inspirational leader. Kennedy’s election constituted a youth movement for civil rights, acting within the system. It was only his death and the Great Society’s descent into the quagmire of Vietnam that forced the youth movement to reject the system entirely.

And I remember back to my involvement with the anti-globalisation movement of the late ‘90s and early new millennium, our rejection of a capitalism that undermined farmers in the poor world and shifted manufacturing from Detroit to sweat-shop nations without any notion of a minimum wage, all in the name of ‘liberty.’ We fought the system from outside – and lost. For just as hope seemed possible, with the dissolution of the Cancun talks suggesting the WTO could no longer dictate to us, along came 9/11. We couldn’t fight the underlying, fundamental issue of global inequality when we were hit with the need to fight the more immediate issue of an unjust war. Not only were we distracted from the economic battles, we also, despite the march of millions for peace on 15 February 2003, lost the battle for peace too. And slowly, through undergraduate debates and extensive reading, it dawned on me that the anti-globalisation movement got a lot of things wrong. Free trade is not itself the cause of poverty: rather, it is the manipulation of free trade by monopolies; the absence of free migration, meaning that while companies can move production to low-wage areas, workers are not free to migrate to higher-wage nations, which allows the downward spiral of living standards; and finally, it is the fact that rich nations preaching ‘free trade’ in order to remove regulations protecting poor-world farmers then refuse to remove subsidies and protections for their own farmers, that causes inequality. The problem is not globalisation, but unfair manipulation of trade rules – which can be fought within the system, by using the WTO for good – not by attempting to bring it down by smashing the windows of people’s shops. So just as the youth of the sixties moved outside the system when their attempts to reform it from the inside failed, our generation has moved within the system when we realised that throwing stones from the outside was not making anything better.

But hope is a very unsettling thing. Under eight years of the blatantly callous Bush administration, an attitude of lazy cynicism was easy to maintain. If things worked out well, then good; but we didn’t expect them to, so when, for example, Iraq turned into the sectarian violent mess we expected, we could just intone “I told you so.” Now that I actually trust Obama to make things better, what happens if he fails? What happens if withdrawing from Iraq makes things worse? I have to take the risk and trust that he’s right, but if he isn’t I’m going to have to eat the sort of humble pie my conservative opponents have had stuffed in their mouths, to my delight, for so long.

Of course, Obama knows he cannot fix the world – as he writes in The Audacity of Hope, “I am bound to disappoint some, if not all” and although “we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done.” It would be wrong to expect too much – indeed, even though I was unhappy with the state of the world in 2000, things have gotten so much worse in the years since that I would be happy if he merely reversed this slide and got things back to where they were at the turn of the millennium, when despite gnawing poverty we did have a stable global economy and no major international conflict.

As Obama demonstrates in The Audacity of Hope and in his acceptance speech – “to those who would tear the world down, we will defeat you” – he is no uncompromising pacifist, and although part of me worries, I’m okay with this. One of the reasons I flocked to his movement over 2005-6 (besides the maturity of his honest declaration that he had tried drugs in his youth and, unlike Clinton, actually inhaled), was the fact that one of his major advisors was Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. While Power, like Obama, strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq, she supported military intervention in Yugoslavia and has encouraged Obama to support intervention in Darfur, based on her discovery that the leaders of the USA have not only known about every genocide from Armenia and the Holocaust to Zimbabwe, Yugoslavia and the Sudan as they were happening, but they have consistently refused to act until the number of victims in each case had already become overwhelming. Obama will not support the kind of isolationist pacifism that Robert Fisk (and sometimes myself) avows; but he will think long and hard about how best to utilise his massive military resources for good. Yes, he will get things wrong, and yes, in a military situation, this means the death of innocents. But I have to trust his judgement, just as I trust Power’s (sadly, she had to resign from his campaign team in March of this year after an offhand remark in which she called Hillary Clinton a “monster”, but her arguments remain a part of the new President’s philosophy). Whereas McCain wanted to draw out the war in Iraq, ludicrously believed he could defeat Al Qaeda within one term, refused to engage in diplomacy with Iran or North Korea, and sought to remove Russia from the G8, Obama has pledged to talk directly with the USA’s enemies, in the belief that diplomacy is the best option, and in the knowledge that places like Iran – whose voter turnout is usually around 80 per cent, double that of the USA’s, and whose people held massive pro-USA rallies after 9/11 to demonstrate their empathy with the victims of terrorism – are not so different from his own country, after all. Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo Bay and withdraw from Iraq within 16 months of assuming office, moving 7000 troops to Afghanistan, which was always the more justified of the two wars (although it may be no less futile). The challenges are huge, but the leader now has the right attitude to meet them. One French pundit observed that Obama is the America of jazz and the beats, of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., not the America of religious intolerance, processed fat and crappy action comedies embodied by Bush. As Sarah Silverman noted, Americans no longer have to pretend to be Canadian when they travel abroad.

The victory is not significant just because a man who was four when black Americans were finally guaranteed the right to vote has gone on to become their first black President. It is significant because his politics and policies signal a change of direction, replacing fear with hope. And yet I fear for this hope, because now we have something to lose. But fuck it, let’s celebrate. Hells yeah.

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (3)

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  1. A Disgruntled Soul says:

    VOTE MCCAIN!
    NOT HUSSEIN!
    VOTE MCCAIN!
    NOT HUSSEIN!

  2. Electrum Stardust says:

    It was good to see McCain finally managing to cast off his all-black cape and helmet (complete with Hasbro@TM Voice Changer), and revert to his good ol’ self in his (almost moving) concession speech. His childhood heroes must have watched over him with approving smiles…

  3. USSAR says:

    The US is not ready for social policy, Obama will be a one-term president. The weight of expectation is too high.

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