Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Seminal Moment in History?

It is not often that one can identify seminal moments in history as they are unfolding, but yesterday was one of those days. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America breaks down arguably one of the most significant barriers in the USA, at the same time as inviting us into a new paradigm of political thinking. Given that Obama is only one of five blacks elected to the Senate in its history, his elevation to the Whitehouse is an astonishing leap forward. And in doing so, Obama has inspired average punters in ways not seen on the political landscape in a generation.
Obama’s victory speech last night was masterful in its rhetoric. At times he sounded like the archetypal black preacher in the pulpit. He has brought to the main stage of American culture something that has existed across a broad subculture. Yet for me, the seminal moment emerged from his description of the experience of the 106-year-old Georgian woman, who has emerged from a society in which there were two reasons why she was not able to vote – being a woman, and because of the colour of her skin – into a society where she can vote for a black president. In this vignette, Obama cast his view forward a century and asked what society his daughters might experience if they were to live to such an age. This rare sense of vision and perspective is perhaps the most encouraging of all his calls. Politicians rarely look past the next election, and many seem not to think further than the next opinion poll, and we suffer short-term thinking in so many costly ways. For a leader to ask us to imagine the world in 100 years is to free us from terminal thinking of impossibility, and to free us from immediate responsibility for its fulfilment, but at the same time to energise our imaginations and therefore shape our perspective in ways which begin the transformation.
Time will tell whether Obama makes a good president, although when using his predecessor as a point of comparison, it will be difficult to imagine him not being an improvement. He has, however, set lofty ideals which will be hard to match. He does come to office at a time of deep turmoil and radical reassessment. This should play into the hands of a reformer as the case for change does not need to be strongly made. The question being asked in these tumultuous economic times is, “what change is most needed?” By pointing to high ideals, Obama at least has invited us to look beyond our own self-interest and to consider the interests of our planet, and to reconsider what we value as important.
And importantly, Obama brings to the office of the President a unique perspective amongst Presidents. He brings the perspective of the underside of history, of the marginalised and oppressed voices. While not himself a son of slavery, he has lived as one of a class whose history, ideals, suffering, and imagery has not been central to the experience of its leadership, let alone decision-making, Perhaps here we need to honour the leadership offered by George W Bush, who has recognised the gifts and talents of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice and in some small way provided a model to the American people which depicts capable black leadership… a legacy on which Obama has built.
In recent times, seminal moments in history might well have occurred more regularly, but yesterday will stand as a beacon in marking a cultural shift which cannot be turned back. Whether it marks a shift in other ways for the USA and the world will be learned in the unfolding of the years ahead. The seeds of hope and of a different future were on display yesterday, and I pray that these seeds bear fruit.