Posts Tagged ‘liberal humanism’


Is the world a different place with Obama as president?

November 5, 2008

5/11/08, Tashkent

The internet is no doubt inundated with reactions to the election of Barak Obama as president of the USA. As an American passport holder who has never self-defined as an American; as an Arabist; as a perpetual traveller currently in Uzbekistan; as a deconstructionist with liberal-humanist tendencies; here is my five pence worth on the issue.

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Round the breakfast table in a small Tashkent guesthouse, we watched Barak Obama give his first speech as the new president of the United States of America. The combination of the historical weight of the election results and the hype surrounding Obama’s charisma led me to question the apparent monumentous value of the occasion: is the world a different place now that Barak Obama is president of the USA?

On one hand, there were moments in Obama’s speech where I cringed at the nationalist rhetoric of the American Dream that has seemingly limitless appeal to the American people. Obviously, Obama sees himself as the epitomization of the American Dream: the potential for any individual to succeed regardless of social background, education, financial status etc. But the American Dream is more accurately describable as an American Myth: positing individuals as solely responsible for their economic and social destinies is a device which serves to lessen their expectations about the services of the state and appeases their frustration at a lack of social mobility… I think that to really effectuate the ‘change’ he celebrates, Obama should begin by debunking the myth of his country…

But, given the constraints and norms of the system and establishment that precedes him, it would be na├»ve to expect him to be such a revolutionary. I suppose that, to a certain extent, the discourse of American patriotism is a rhetorical device used to mobilise popular support, and therefore can be understood. (I have made a similar assessment of Obama’s pro-Israel stance of the past 6 months, see here). Taking ‘the system’ into consideration, the emotions that his election evokes in myself, a young, internationalist idealist, should be measured and not translated into blind hopes for drastic change in the world order (the realization of a viable Palestinian state; the cessation of US neo-imperialism etc). I nevertheless believe that no system, no matter how long-standing or entrenched, is ever permanent. Therefore, some small hopes are perhaps in order….

In that context, the most remarkable aspect of his speech was the extent to which national pride was downplayed in comparison to other ideals. In both his attitude and his words, he expressed the need for humility. Of course, allusions to the American dream littered his speech, and he ended it with the obligatory ”God bless Ameica”, but I nevertheless found that during the whole episode, the rhetoric of national pride was alluded to instrumentally, i.e. it functioned as the means whereby the achievement of a new ideological era, rooted in a supra-national, humanist discourse, could be achieved. Indeed, in his idiosyncratic style that encompasses vivid imagery and personal narrative, intertwined with retrospect and future hopes, it was the principles of a broader humanist ideal that were given precedence over a narrow nationalism. And that is what touched me most.

I have an American passport, but I do not self-define as American. I also have Australian and French passports, and only define as the latter because it is the document that I use in my travels, not because I feel any patriotic attachment to the country. In fact, I do not feel any real nationalism towards any of the countries of which I am a ‘national’. If anything, i have grown to consider nationalism to be a damaging conviction.

Given that predisposition, I am trying to understand what it was about the fact that Barack Obama is the president of the US that resonates so powerfully inside of me.

Is it the poetic eloquence of his oration that stirs my emotions?

Is it the image of the underdog fighting against all the odds to rise to an unprecedented victory?

Is it the mere fact that it embodies a change from the war-mongering pricks that preceded him?

Is it the symbolism of the desire of the population of the Earth’s superpower to move beyond the notions of racial supremacy that, to some extent, inform its internationally aggressive attitudes?

Or is it that he sat next to Edward Said at a conference on Palestine? That he openly welcomed the existence of ‘gay’ people in his victory speech, and expounds an openness to all myriad axes of identity?

Is it that, for me, he seems to represent a viable, compassionate leader who can engender an international order characterised by pluralism, respect and justice?

The optimist in me says yes, the cynic on the other side is still insure…

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So is the world a different place now that Obama has been elected president of the US?

After weighing up both sides of the argument and attempting not to be swept away by the tide of those who proclaim the beginning of a new era, I nevertheless think the world is a different place in view of the Obama presidency. But in the same sense that the world is a different place each morning, in that the sun will rise at a slightly different time each day, that the weather will be slightly different from the day before, and that every person’s individual routine is slightly modified by these minute details.

Accordingly, the influence that Obama’s presidency will have on people around the world will vary accoding to many factors. Some will get a national holiday out of it. Others will get a new ‘African-American’ idol to look up to. Still others will derive a symbol of change for a new American role in the world order based on more peaceful, compassionate principles. But mostly, that influence will be determined according to the policies that he can implement while in power; to the lives that will be impacted either positively or negatively by by the might of his country.

His portfolio over the next 4 years will bear testimony to the extent to which he can achieve the change that rolls forth from his eloquent lips and induces his interlocutors into a trance-like state in which they dream of a utopian tomorrow… In the meantime, optimists like myself will take the historical event of his election as proof that greater, broader change is indeed on the horizon…