[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
“This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.”
President-Elect Barack Obama spoke these words to nearly a quarter of a million people in Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois on a night that I will remember as one of the highlights of my life.
Reporting on the event, even the normally sober Economist Magazine could not avoid tingeing its account with giddiness. Shyly, almost ashamedly, the anonymous author recounts how American and international journalists lost all semblance of restraint when CNN called the race. They came tumbling out of the media tent en masse to join the multitude of revelers.
How could they not be affected? Each and every one of us was changed personally, individually, by this event.
But it would be disingenuous for any journalist to declare from the pulpit of their own column, that – just this once – they’ve forsaken their dais to speak as woman or man. I will not do that. I will instead sit down on the steps to this poor podium. Indulge me while I speak from my own experience….
I was a bit prodigal as a child, reading words from the newspaper before I was four. I remember my mother’s shock when Bobby Kennedy was shot. (I recall less about her reaction to the death of Reverend Martin Luther King – and that in itself is telling.)
Since that day, I have watched as American democracy progressively lost whatever luster it had gained through the efforts of its greatest practitioners. Franklin Roosevelt set an economic example for the world with his New Deal. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights owes its existence to his wife Eleanor. Lyndon Johnson turned his back on the bigoted southern Democratic Party bloc when he signed the Civil Rights Act into law. But from the late ’60s onward, things went downhill.
I was still a pup when the Watergate scandal splashed itself across the world’s front pages, and young enough to naively wonder how the American people could buy into the facile pseudo-logic of the Reagan regime. I couldn’t comprehend how a country founded on the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality could support brutal regimes in Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile and countless other countries across the globe.
But the more I reflect on the events of my youth, the more I realize that the baying maw of cynical opportunism – called Realpolitik when it dresses for dinner – has been with us throughout history. It has always been easier to win the argument with the fist than with reason and the rule of law. Why compromise when you can just murder the other guy?
And that’s just what they did. John and Robert Kennedy, along with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and countless others, died for daring to use reason in place of force.
The very best of them were taken. And they left behind an angry, aimless generation. Without compass, without real leadership, without a guiding philosophy to pull them out of themselves, they opposed the ‘Establishment’ for opposition’s sake. They ended a war but left peace to fend for itself. In the end, they sold everything in exchange for credit, a suburban home and a La-Z-Boy mythology.
Barack Obama and I are nearly the same age. I can’t claim to see into his mind, but I must assume that he and I, awkward, skinny kids puzzling over world events from the sidelines of society, have seen the same patterns. And judging from his words and deeds, I’m inclined to think we’ve reached the same conclusions.
He does not preach Reagan’s mythical ‘Morning in America’. Not for him a ‘Thousand Points of Light’. His rhetoric isn’t the murderous travesty of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’. Rather, it’s the very essence of the original American myth, the City on the Hill. The preamble of the US Constitution speaks of building a ‘more perfect union’, a shining New Jerusalem to act as a beacon to the oppressed in all nations and a refuge for all who reach its shores.
Obama understands – and requires that his followers remember – that this city is neither myth nor metaphor, and cities don’t build themselves. He asks them instead “to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”
Every ni-Vanuatu knows what it means to be discriminated against in one’s own country. They know the trials, the travails and above all the tedium of building that more perfect union. Barack Obama’s election is not just a victory for people of colour, it is a victory of human ideals.
For the first time in a lifetime, Americans looked past their own selfish interests and chose the change they need. For the first time in a lifetime, they have joined hands to clean out the shambles of self-interest and willful ignorance. They have at last begun rebuilding their city on the hill.
We must all learn from this moment. This is the change we need.