09 November 2008

The USA, Free At Last?

John Maxwell

In the first flush of her Cinderella epiphany, Sarah Palin impudently dismissed Barack Obama as a  community organiser. She was right in describing the function, wrong in assuming that scope of his organising was south-side Chicago. It turns out, after Tuesday’s elections, that Obama had been organising his entire national community and perhaps others outside.

Overnight, Obama became the human face of the United States of America; not a red or blue America, not a white or black America but what Obama, in the audacity of his  hope called “the United States of America” –  a construct not of states and institutions, but of people. As his former rival Hilary Clinton declared  on Tuesday night: "We are celebrating an historic victory for the American people."

His own people got the message, as did a substantial proportion of the peoples outside the USA.

Free at Last ?

The statistics tell some of the story:

First time voters Obama won overwhelmingly  – 69% to McCain’s 30%

Men  – slightly more –49% – voted for Obama than for McCain – 48%

Women – Obama won a big maJority of the women’s vote – 56% to 43% for McCain

Ethnicity – McCain won 55% of white voters to Obama’s 43%. Obama won more white voters than either Kerry (2004) or Al Gore (2000)

Obama, as might have been expected, was backed by almost every black voter  – 95% –and  20% more of them turned out than is usual. Obama  won overwhelmingly among Hispanics – 66% –  and Asians – 62%

Age – Obama won 66% of voters under 30, 53% of voters between 30 and 44; tied with McCain –49% each – among voters 45 to 59 while  McCain won the majority only among the oldest voters, those over 60 years, at 52% to Obama’s 46%

Education – Obama won a majority among all classes, with his largest majority 63% among those who were not graduates of high school and between 51% and 53% of high school graduates and  those with some college education and college graduates.

Religion – McCain won 54% of the Protestant vote and 55% of those who go to church at least once a week. Among Catholics Obama won 53% and 77% of Jews gave him their votes.

Location – In big cities Obama won big majorities – 71%, and in small cities, 59%. In the suburbs he beat McCain by two points  – 50% to 48%. Only in small towns and rural areas did  McCain win – 53%.

These figures strongly suggest that Barack Obama has been the most cosmopolitan vote getter in the history of elections in the USA.

And he is the first since Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson whose election  did not depend on carefully selected subsets of the American demography. He has in fact uprooted the carefully constructed Republican blueprint for electoral domination -prejudicial redistricting enforced  by carefully selected judges.

This process has over the last thirty years, has made the US House of Representatives almost immune to change with a majority of seats having been made safe by gerrymandering. In April In New York state, for example, there was great consternation when a Democrat won a seat held by Republicans since 1939. That was my first clue that Obama was likely to be elected President, that there was an insurrection afoot.

I expect that the new US president and the  congress will take steps to abolish this ‘rotten borough’ system and put new life into the electoral process.

One malign result of the process of embedding permanent representatives is that the Republicans have a built in electoral advantage

The most malignant result of this long-term process has been the increasing politicisation of the US Supreme Court in support of a fundamentalist theological agenda, delicately racist and intolerant of modernity.

A Sea Change

On the first day of 2008 I circulated a letter from Michael Moore to people on my mailing list. Moore’s letter , entitled ‘Who shall we vote for?’ was Moore’s evaluation of the candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Moore didn’t settle on one candidate, he seemed divided between Hilary Clinton,  John Edwards and Barack Obama. He would actually gone for Dennis Kucinich if he had any real chance. So would I, and my second choice was John Edwards.

Up to that point I had not taken Obama very seriously, partly because I knew so little about him. But in reply to Moore’s letter I got this


“Hi John-

I agree with Moore up to a point, but what we need foremost in this country, after getting out of Iraq, is the humble reintroduction of the US into the community of nations in the world; and Mr. Obama is the best one to accomplish that.  Hillary is too inside the system, Edwards too focused internally.  Both would be infinitely better than W. But Obama is the future, and he looks like the rest of the world.  My hope is that the kids, Jackson's crowd who are enthralled by him, will actually VOTE!!  All the best and Love-KJA”

Kurt Adams is a commercial airline pilot who has had a long love affair with Jamaica. I was fortunate enough to meet him on one of his periodic visits to this country. He is also a nephew of Kurt Vonnegut,  a  writer for whom I have the greatest respect and affection.

Kurt Adams was accompanied by his son Jackson, a serious but lively young man with wide and various intellectual interests.

So when Kurt told me that Jackson and his friends were impressed by Obama, I decided to look at the man more closely. Despite my ideological preference for Edwards I soon became a supporter of Obama. I thought he was as Kurt said, the future.

Like most Jamaicans my age I have had a long and serious interest in the United States. It would be hard not to.

Fifty years ago, in March 1959, I was on a US State Department fellowship in the United States. I was supposed to have been attached to an American news agency, a newspaper or a television or radio station. Unfortunately none could be found to accommodate a young black male from jamaica.

My fellowship was transformed into a series of visits to various news organisations in the eastern US. My ‘handler’ was a great guy named David Hoopes. We enjoyed an easy camaraderie. just before i was due to leave the US David gave me lunch at a restaurant on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. a place that my black American acquaintances had never entered, despite the fact that Washington had recently been ‘integrated’.  The only blacks welcomed in these places were the diplomats from Ghana and Guinea, then newly independent.

After a lively conversation about my experiences David asked me what I though of the future of race relations in the United States.

At the age of 25 the stories I’d heard in school about race and discrimination in the US had been reinforced by my contacts with black Americans. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was then ‘a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand’.

In my sophomoric certainty I told David hoopes that I saw no possibility of blacks and white coexisting peacefully in the US. In fact I said that the only solution I could see was one put forward by the ‘Black Muslims’ – the nation of islam, who had demanded that blacks should be given two US states to run as their own country.

Times changed, and the civil rights movement changed the United States. In Jamaica we marched with King as he marched on Washington, we mourned and were outraged by Selma, by the Birmingham bombings and the murders of Goodman and Schwerner and Chaney and Medgar Evers and all the others.

I was at the residence of the US charge d’affaires in Stony Hill when he feted Martin Luther king in 1963, when King said that in Jamaica, a black country, he had felt like a full human being for the first time in his life.

The patent racism of George H.W./ Bush and the pusillanimity of Clinton on the question of Haiti was bad enough but the lies, deception and murderous assault  of George Bush on Iraq followed by the  brutal, unthinking decapitation of Haitian democracy were for some of us, the last straws. Rwanda, Darfur, HIV/AIDS were, to mangle a metaphor, simply the scum on top of a noxious brew.

There seemed to be no hope that the United States would rejoin the modern world anytime soon.


Singer Man

Some of Obama’s  intention may be judged by the fact that in his acceptance speech on Tuesday night he incorporated themes and cadences from Shakespeare’s Henry V, from Abraham Lincoln, from John F Kennedy and Martin  Luther King.

Before Obama has even named his transition team, republicans and journalists are busy projecting his future actions and policies. To some he is the all-purpose villain; to others the all-purpose hero. Fortunately for most of us he is clearly his own man

It is clear that he has three priorities; the people, the economy and the world.

As Medgar Evers widow, Myrlie, says, Obama is blessed with wisdom, courage, grace and det termination, among other qualities which equip him to speak for everyone, to become the singer-man for his people’s  idelism, their hopes and deepest aspirations.

Already he is movng on programmes to tackle unemployment, disinvestment and poverty, planning for comprehensive health care, while concurrently dealing with the financial meltdown, coralling the banks and employing drastic solutions to slow down and stop the recession. And while all this is happening he has to deal with ending the war in Iraq and prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

As somebody has said, a great many people believe that Obama has been elected ‘Saviour’

Fortunately for al of us, Obama’s strategic thinking does not depend on the supernatural. His experience and his upbringing all tell him that nothing is more powerful than the mobilised power of the community.

His campaign, with its thousands of volunteers, its millions of small contributors is the best proof of that.

All I hope for is that in this crowded agenda, somewhere, there is space for the reparation of Haiti, the place where universal human rights was first implemented in the modern world, and where, in savage injustice, the United States has, over two hundred years, imposed its will to deny the Haitians their freedom. 

There is nowhere a more urgent or deserving case for redemption  than Haiti. It is time for a change there too.

And that I suppose, makes me another special pleader.

So be it.

Copyright ©2008 John Maxwell


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