Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Schwarz Wie Ich

It is perhaps the most poignant irony of our curious and allegedly post-racial age. The election of our new chief executive understandably elicited panegyric joy in many quarters because of the historically tangled and oppressively sordid treatment of those of kindred skin color and cultural mien. All well and good and it seems to me that the country has been "ready" for a black president for a couple of decades but it has taken time for a personage of sufficient personal and rhetorical suitability to plow his/her way up through the tangle of local, state, and national politics to be in position to take advantage of this putative readiness.

Part one of our irony is of mild interest because Obama hails from the burgeoning black middle class and not the poorer underclass which although seemingly powerless nevertheless drives much of the cultural conversation these days. This should hardly be surprising. Few if any previous presidents sprang abruptly onto the national stage without either having relatively patrician roots ala FDR and Thomas Jefferson or having clawed their their way up the political ladder like Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman. So just as we are completely unlikely to elect a president who looks and sounds like Larry the Cable Guy we are equally unlikely to elect someone who looks and sounds like 50 Cent. No disrespect to either fellow but showbiz operates under vastly different rules than polbiz.

Any presidential candidate must be minimally presentable and articulate or he/she will not have the remotest chance of attracting a majority vote. This is a simple and uncontroversial statement of fact and to think otherwise is extremely foolish. Obama is considerably more than minimally presentable and articulate which led some grumps to kvetch that he was not authentically black enough, whatever the blistering devil that's supposed to mean. A patently absurd, not to mention grossly insulting, slur and in the end had no effect whatsoever thank goodness.

Irony part deux rears its head when attempting to puzzle out one of the central contradictions of our increasingly muddled cultural milieu. To wit: Countless billions of dollars and over a hundred fifty years of educational effort have been expended in the broad, overarching, and thoroughly reasonable project of convincing the white majority population that the not-white minority population is as worthy of respect and freedom from discrimination as anyone. It's been a long hard road to be sure but in large part that mission has been amply accomplished. Having just elected the first minority president should devalue most complaints that this mission has manifestly not been accomplished but of course that is too much for which to hope. Most amusing of all, and heart of the irony, is that after the herculean cultural labor of convincing everyone that blacks are not only just as good as anyone else, and in essence no different from anyone else, big chunks of the electorate have been convulsed with triumphalist satisfaction over the historic election of--someone just as good and no different from the rest of us.

I do not doubt that a goodly number of folks think minorities are in some way more deserving of the reins of power because of having, as a resourceful and determined subculture, found many ways to ultimately triumph over an oppressive historicity. Many think that the long struggle has perforce imbued minorities with a manifest elan vital, a more elemental self awareness, and a deeper attachment to the core of our humanity. Perhaps this is all true and perhaps Obama has benefited to some degree from these imbedded, if rather inchoate, tropes but that residue of perhaps guilt driven goodwill can not, and more importantly should not, last very far into his term of office.

For now is the time to president of all the people all of the time. He must be the leader of the United States of America, the Big Dog with the Big Stick, the stern defender of liberty and law in a chaotic world much of which will have little truck with either, and proprietor in chief of the world's most important economy. That residue of goodwill due to an oppressive history may grease the skids a bit in this country but will have close to zero resonance in the larger world. Obama is gravely misguided if he thinks that the rest of the world ultimately takes cognizance of any fact but that he is the President of the United States of America. Others will tolerate, love, or despise the country for their own reasons and will be entirely unimpressed by his historic ascension and even less by his soothing inclusionist Euro-centric we-are-the-world I'm way cooler, smarter, and nicer than Bush overseas stump rhetoric. All the toothy sharks in the world tank will not be much mollified by throwing Happy Meals in the water.

No soaring rhetoric, Obama's included, is sufficient to make the world universally love us much less universally cooperate with us. It is to be hoped that he realizes that even if the grasp of it rankles or even horrifies that the awesome Big Stick he holds must be seen as ready to be wielded as a backup for the blundering ineffectualities of the U.N. and much of the world's despots' sneering disregard of diplomacy however honeyed the language. So he should chill with the international mea culpas to start with and concentrate less on dancing with the progressives who brung him and more on being a firm responsible no-nonsense clear-eyed leader of the world's most powerful, richest, and yes despite all wailing to the contrary, nicest country.

Also it's the most desirable place to live as conclusively witnessed by the fact that we have a serious immigration problem and a non-existent emigration problem. In 2006 155,000 citizens emigrated from Germany, 200,000 from Britain, and 50,000 from Sweden. U.S-born citizens out-migrating that same year? Under 500-out of a population as large as all three of those countries combined. Unsurprisingly a large percentage of those Euro-emigrants headed here. If Obama is so enthralled by what Europeans think then perhaps he should restrain his impulses to recreate the U.S. in the image of what so many seem to be fleeing. Lastly I wonder if Obama has realized that however enlightened he considers Europe the odds of someone who, as he smugly quipped to a German audience, looks like him, getting elected as leader of any country there are exactly zero. Perhaps U.S. civil rights organizations, having slain most of the dragons here, should start overseas mission programs in Berlin, London, and Stockholm.

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