November 7, 2008

Same but different.

There must have been much rejoicing in the capital when the final result of the presidential election was announced. People cheering, dancing, carousing in the streets, overwhelmed by the victory that brought the change they desired for so long. No doubt, in some quarters the mood must've been quite the opposite, strikingly quiet and grim. After all, some people's desire for stability and continuity had been quashed.

The run-off saw an activist lawyer squaring off against a former US Air Force veteran, the former representing new blood and fresh ideas, the latter experience and a connection to the past. As results trickled in, it was clear that from the very beginning Mr Toribiong, the lawyer and former senator, had defeated Mr Chin, the former combat pilot and current Vice President. Details are sketchy, for none of the three periodicals produced locally have a website. So foreign observers can at this point only guess at what actually took place in Palau on November 4th.

While considered sovereign, Palau (yes, it does
exist) is still very much a US colony, financially dependent, defended and tied to its master by compact. With a presidential system akin to the American, and a Capitol building modelled on Capitol Hill, the similarities extend beyond a curiously analogous choice of candidates - though one doesn't quite match Mr Obama's charisma, while the other was a much better pilot than Mr McCain. So why should non-Palauans care about the outcome of an election in the distant Pacific island nation? Perhaps for the same reasons so many non-Americans invested themselves in the recent American election.

Many of the non-American observers of the American proceedings would no doubt disagree, citing a multitude of reasons for keeping a close eye on the process leading to what is frequently dubbed "the most important job in the world." Yet, ultimately, the new American leader shares another similarity with his (new) colleague in Palau: both are only supposed to represent the people who elected them.

An American president's job, as the figurehead of the American administration, is to safeguard his fellow Americans and their interests. In that respect, Mr Obama will not likely be different from his predecessors towards non-Americans at odds with Americans or their interests. Which isn't to say that his election is insignificant, but being the first non-white elected leader of any Western nation doesn't extend the job description to suddenly embrace everyone on the planet. To non-Americans the result of the American election, historical as it is, is as much a curiosity as that of the Palauan election.

However, Mr Obama's electoral campaign also differs in having been much more publicised, consequentially raising the hopes of millions of people around the world tremendously. Criticising his policies therefore puts one in immediate danger of not merely being accused of being a buzzkill, but likened to the prats leaving the New York Young Republican Club on the night of the 4th, lamenting the inevitability of a "Muslim socialist" ruining their beloved nation.

A lot of Americans appear to believe that in choosing between a Democratic and a Republican candidate they actually face two starkly different choices. To most non-American observers the two parties are simply different sides of the same, conservative coin. If one were to parachute Mr Obama into, say, a riding in a German federal election, the only party likely to welcome him as a candidate would be the centre right Christian Democratic Union; the Social Democratic Party generally steers clear of candidates who list the Bible as one of their all-time
favourite books.

This difference in perception isn't a measure of how radical Europe has become, but how narrow the political spectrum and how immense the ideological ignorance is in America. From a non-American perspective, the Democrats are to the Republicans what Diet Coke is to The Real Thing: conservatism without the death penalty and with added conscience.

Throughout his campaign Mr Obama was the vendor of change, and in some respect his win already is – in others, it's merely status quo. Even President Bush's speech-writer referred to the historical moment as "a triumph of the
American story." Mr Obama's progress has confirmed the veracity of the “rags to riches” narrative that holds the American psyche hostage in its mythological grip, sustains it, and is the major underlying cause of many of that society's problems.

Do Mr Obama’s supporters truly intend for him to dare tamper with it, and boldly go where few of them are prepared to follow? Or does "change" for them represent a retreat into the familiar, greatest nation on earth, beacon of liberty, free enterprise, and pursuit of baseball, hotdogs, and mom's apple-pie America that only ever existed in their collective imagination? At this point the latter, the re-establishment of the "American Dream" may indeed seem like progress. Especially considering that,
statistically, a child born in Canada is six times more likely to make that fabled class-journey than one born in America.

Real change would mean ridding themselves of the debilitating malignant libertarian streak that always pits the rights of the individual against the rights of society. Real change would mean finally realizing that great societies aren't built by strong individuals but by strong collectives. In order to really change, Americans needs to pull it all down and start again, and in order for that to occur things need to get a lot worse before they can get any better. With Mr McCain as president, they could've got a lot worse faster.

Either way, the “American Dream” is for Americans only. The rest of us sleep well enough without it.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, that absurd libertarian streak has to go. But I want to add, years after this election, another flavor of that day. Many of us who voted for O were greatly relieved that "they" didn't steal another election. After 2 terms of Cheney/Rumsfeld, and a bible thumping pres the 08 election was also like the longed-for fall of a dictatorship/Nixon Watergate retread.



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