Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri

This may give offence

In my view, the election of Barack Obama was a cathartic and irrational process that had to do with not just one, but two of the great issues of the American - and to some extent the pan-Western - collective unconscious.

The first is class. Americans like to believe theirs to be a classless and egalitarian society, and in the main it is - but class does exist. Now Obama is easily recognized as an aristocrat. There is a certain instinctive elegance of bearing and ease of behaviour with which those who have seen, for instance, the late Gianni Agnelli (owner of Fiat and uncrowned king of Italy) will be familiar. Understand, those are external things; they don't make a man any more brilliant, or any more upright, than he would naturally be. But they matter. Barack Hussein Obama is blue-blooded from both sides: his father was of the stock of Muslim merchant princes that dominated the coastline of East Africa (and traded mostly in slaves), and his mother was an American Unitarian of early New England descent, not quite a Winthrop or a Biddle, but certainly of the stock that made America.

In and of itself, this would not matter. Although Americans certainly like their aristocrats, they are not restricted to them, and indeed the greatest American president of all time was the most obviously proletarian - clumsy, ill-bred, funny-accented Abraham Lincoln, whom the English insisted on treating as a dumb yokel till his greatness was evident to the very stones. But an aristocrat - a Washington, a Roosevelt, a Kennedy - certainly makes them feel more at ease. They are particularly welcome in times of transition and change: the touch of an aristocrat makes them feel steadier in the middle of change and turmoil. It is no coincidence that Washington and both the Roosevelts were at the helm at times of great social, political and even constitutional change. The massive presence of Waschington at the head of the table as the delegates discussed the articles of the new Constitution steadied and comforted everyone, and so did the calm, familiar presence of FDR in his weekly "fireside chats".

What makes it significant in the case of Obama is another and even more significant unadmitted American complex - the terrible, paralyzing knot of guilt and unresolved social pathology that arises ultimately from the experience of slavery. Unlike many of my conservative friends, I would say that the social pathologies that affect America's black population to this day do indeed have a lot to do with the overhang of slavery, but that is not important here. What is important is that slavery was from the beginning a slap in the face of the very reason for America's existence. Ever since Tom Paine gave the revolted Colonials an ideology and a reason to fight, the equality of all citizens before the law has been the reason for America's existence as a state. Slavery was the most radical possible challenge to that principle; and the founders knew it. The greatest of them - Washington, Jefferson, Franklin - all detested slavery and looked forward with varying degrees of hope and fear to its eventual abolition. It is not a coincidence that the war fought on this issue remains by far the bloodiest America ever fought. But the wound was not healed. Every American who sees that blacks, in the mass, remain at the bottom of the social structure, suffers a blow in all his sense of nationhood and right and wrong.

For this reason, a credible black candidate for the Presidency - an office that, above and beyond its sheer power, has the most tremendous symbolic value, that of sitting in the seat of fathers of the nation, heroes and martyrs - was always going to have an absolutely magnetic effect on the electorate. But he has to be credible. The leading black politicians until now have been, to be brutal, race hustlers who carry the sense of a ghetto bitterness and lack of prospects; one could no more imagine them in the White House than a Theodore Bilbo or a Huey Long. What Obama took to the election was not any kind of program or policy: he was clearly, from the beginning, promising everything to everyone. It was his obviously aristocratic presence. Biden's early statement about a "well-spoken black" was crude and inadequate, but it was on the right track: Barack Obama was a man of a kind American politics had never seen (although I met his likes here in London), a man both of African descent and of obvious breeding, with the smooth and reassuring surface of someone born to power and influence. Wherever he went, whether he had stayed in Indonesia or gone back to his mother's country, he would have gravitated towards the top of society. Americans instinctively recognized this - and gratefully gave him their votes.
Tags: american identity, american politics, obama
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