No matter how much celebrity they try to infuse him with, Barack Obama remains, somehow, as unassuming — so it appears — as that picture of him, which made the rounds on the Internet a few months ago, wiping his own table at a fast-food restaurant.
Is it all a dream? Has “change” really come to America, and the world, or has business as usual merely shape-shifted?
“ . . . our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please,” Obama said in his inaugural address. “Instead . . . our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy.”
Everyone’s talking the language of hope and tolerance and diversity these days, the language of reaching out and common purpose and, well, common sense. This just in: The “war on terror” was a mistake — a flaming, preposterous idiocy, in fact. “Terror,” it turns out, is a tactic, not an ideology. And not only that, the coalition can’t “kill its way out of the problems” it faces in Iraq. This is the assessment of no less than David Miliband, the British foreign secretary. I kid you not.
In Britain, he’s being accused of supreme wimpdom because he’s only saying this now, as George Bush retires to (cough, gasp) the dustbin of history. Maybe that’s true, but if this is what currying favor with the new guy means, I shed tears of joy that may not stop for a week.
“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to . . . choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
It’s so easy to speechify — that is to say, to lie — about the great ideals of America and humanity. When the rhetoric soars, can the missiles be far behind? Rare is the leader who serves those ideals, not with strutting righteousness and the moral relativism that power bequeaths (we kill only for the greater good), but in the only way they can be served, with humility. Is Barack Obama such a leader?
This is my fervent hope, my marathon prayer — that he means what he says with a complex humility, with courage, with a vision that transcends the pomp and temptations of the presidency he now claims.
And so, “. . . the time has come to set aside childish things.” Perhaps these words represent more than some requisite raid of the scriptural quote vault. Perhaps they even go beyond the obvious and well-deserved chastisement of the anti-science, comic-book-deep (“Axis of Evil”) presidency of George Bush.
The quote comes from 1 Corinthians 13:11. Two verses later, the passage continues: “But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (American Standard Version).
Is it possible Obama meant the connection — meant that Superpower America has to become a more mature global presence by making love, rather than merely threat, bluster and short-term financial and strategic interests, part of the equation of geopolitics?
Simply asking such a question will horrify many people, I’m sure, because “love” in popular, sentimental usage is kind of like weakness. To speak of love is not to speak in what we think of as the language of power, the language of government — the language of “realism.”
But perhaps the failures of the Bush presidency have prepared the way for the nation to understand the failures of realism as currently constituted, as manifested these last eight years by the neocon cabal that called the shots; and to be open to something new.
“And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
Like I say, what if he means this?
I share the skepticism of many progressives, who see, for instance, in Obama’s Clinton-era cabinet appointments and his statements about “winning” in Afghanistan, the actions of a political centrist beholden to the powers that be, who will do little to disturb the military-corporate status quo. Under such a leader, the “Bush legacy” could simply go back to the shadows, where it used to operate, outside public scrutiny.
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