07 December 2008

The People are the Change

John Maxwell


I’m sure it is possible to second guess Barack Obama.

I’m sure it is possible to outrun Usain Bolt.

I’m pretty certain I won’t be around to witness either event.

The real value of Barack Obama is the fact that millions of people round the world have incorporated Obama into their own dreams, almost into their own personas.

After the foul miasma of the last few years has begun to clear it was almost inevitable that when our most outlandish wish came true, against all the odds, we would bundle all our hopes and aspirations into the skinny kid with the funny name who spoke of change as if it were important and –  that he meant what he said.

In this atmosphere of swirling myth and springtime tears, it is easy to forget Bismarck’s apothegm: politics is the art of the possible. “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable - the art of the next best” said the founder of Germany; John Kenneth Galbraith’s apparent dismissal of Bismarck is in fact a confirmation –”Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

Thousands of bloggers and people supposedly learned in the craft of politics, have been having conniptions because Barack Obama has not chosen to break out of the American political system in some revolutionary expedition to wipe all slates clean and to dry every tear.

Obama, like Lincoln and Roosevelt before him, or Bismarck himself or Fidel Castro or Jean Bertrand Aristide – is not a freak of nature but the perfectly logical crystallisation of his people’s dreams. And these dreams have always been various, coalitions of desire which can never be wholly fulfilled because some are always at odds with others. The most fundamental ideals of all,  Freedom and Liberty, mean many different things to any different people. Harmonising these contradictions in the interest of the greater good is the essence of what we call politics.

Some pundits have declared that in choosing Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Lawrence Summers among others, Obama has sold out. Sold out to the past, to the Clintons, to the status quo.

They don’t understand Obama – who does? – and they don’t understand politics.

In the American presidential system it is the President who makes policy: foreign policy and domestic policy, social policy and economic. When a President Obama assembles a team he is choosing people who understand  that the US has one President at a time – even when that President is as totally unfitted for the position as was George Bush. I am not being wise after the event: I said so when Bush was about to be appointed to the job by the US Supreme Court.

As I wrote almost exactly 8 years ago, on Friday December 8, 2000 in a column published in this paper on December 10, two days later:

“ Most of us still  know nothing about what is going on [in Florida’s Supreme Court] of course, because our media is too busy congratulating itself to notice the titanic struggle taking place an hour’s flying time from Kingston. Like the people of the United States, we have been carefully screened from the truth. The real George Bush, if he is appointed President, will use his time to destroy the integrity of the country he rules, starting with the Supreme Court. Then he can start on dealing with  the rest of us.  That’s his job, and as the American Press has made plain, nothing needs to be known about him and his  multifarious incapacities because Big Brother in the giant corporations will tell him what to do. We are all in a for a very rough ride.”

We’ve had the ride, and I forecast some of that too, in the same column:

‘The approaching triumph of Greenspan/Ayn Rand capitalism may just be slowed down by the latest developments in the US economy, but that is not cooling down the ardour of the ‘Cognitive Elite’ to gain a handle on the whole business of corporate control of the economies and governance of the world. ‘


Some of us find it really easy to forget unpleasant experience particularly at the hands of someone we were told to trust.  This forgetfulness  allows us to survive all kinds of horrors, but makes it difficult to appreciate just how far the world has travelled since November 4, and how much farther we have to travel.

If we have really observed Obama we might have noticed that he is a man who writes his own script and that he likes to stick to that script, because he knows it makes sense. And he understands too that the best leaders make the best followers, because, more than most, they understand what is to be done. And in Obama they have a leader who they know, from personal experience, is not easily diverted and not willing to surrender his mandate to anyone,

Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s most significant triumph will, I predict, be in Palestine, followed by Darfur, Cuba and Haiti. Just as the anti-communist Republican Richard Nixon was peculiarly qualified to come to terms with China, so, I believe will Hillary Clinton find it possible to secure in the Middle East the peace that Obama wants and the world thirsts for. Barack Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British in Kenya on suspicion of being tied to Mau Mau. It will be impossible for Obama, with his history, to condemn any people or nation to be the chattels of any other nation.

Even in the highly unlikely event that Mrs Clinton wished to design her own foreign policy she would find it impossible in a Cabinet that also includes Joseph Biden, Bill Richardson and Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the UN. These people know how the world works and they all understand as Bush never did, that the United Sates needs, especially at this juncture, to work with the world.

Great orchestras often contain several maestros, but their pride is in the music they collectively produce under a great conductor. But the same orchestra can sound quite different with another great conductor.

‘We are the change we seek …’

Earlier this year I wrote a piece for the University of South Africa’s “African Renaissance Journal” prompted by Obama’s March speech “Towards a more Perfect Union.” In that piece I analysed Obama’s reaction to the kitchen sink assaults on his character, particularly the episode involving the Rev Jeremiah Wright. I commented then that Obama had moved

“… away from defending himself to a defense of his country, with all its faults, as a state which could be made a more perfect union if its citizens moved together to concentrate on the goals that united them, rather than the grievances that divided them. Neither blacks nor whites had a monopoly on grievances against the other, and it was time for each to understand the roots of their grievances and to use that understanding to create a more perfect union.”

I concluded by commenting that ”Americans may at last be becoming more interested in what unites, rather than what divides them.”

At that time I was counting no chickens; the nomination let alone the election, were still months away.

As it turned out, however, the speech was a tactical and strategic masterstroke that, in my view, accomplished something that even Martin Luther King could not have done, nor be expected to have done. It ripped away the political burkas behind which Americans were hiding from each other, exposing them to each other and to the fact, as King had prophesied, that the time would come when a man’s worth would be judged by his character rather  than by the colour of his skin. George Bush and Dick Cheney had a great deal to do with that epiphany.

History was changed when Americans recognised, for the first time at last, that there was no white or black America, no blue or red America but possibly, and with Obama as their singer-man, probably, hopefully, there could be a United States of America

They began to understand that they needed above all, a community organiser who could restore their humanity and their community; who could and would deal with their divisions and their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

The rest is up to the people.

Copyright©2008 John Maxwell


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