Free At Last! Free At Last!

Whatever you try to say about America, the opposite is also true

In October 2000 I sat in a small apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan, drinking Samuel Adams and watching a televised debate between Al Gore and George W Bush. The outgoing American president, despite his mendacity with regard to his innovative deployment of Havana’s finest, was an articulate and intelligent man who presided over a sustained period of growth, both economic and social. His country, the good old US of A was cautiously regarded as a force for good in the world. This is debatable on merit, but perception is everything. 

It seemed to me back then that for a country of rude health, confidence and prosperity to vote out the incumbent party in favour of an inarticulate, crude, simplistic, draft-dodging alcoholic born-again chimpanzee son of a, ahem, former president beyond credulous. They’d have to be morons, right? Just LOOK at this Dubya guy! He looks like he could beat himself at noughts and crosses!

We all know how that turned out. For the first four years, the world took comfort in the knowledge that Gore won the popular vote by nearly half a million votes, and that Bush made it into office only as a result of suspicious irregularities in the state of Florida, where his cousin happened to be Governor. 

Those small comforts were snatched away in 2004 when, despite the despicable invasion of Iraq and all the horrors that went with it, despite the sleazy tax breaks to the richest, despite Guantanemo Bay, Abu Ghraib, government sanctioned torture, despite everything that was plain to see, he was re-elected fair and square. He won it by selling himself as a ‘war president’ – a sick joke, this being a guy who got fixed up in the National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam and didn’t even show up for that! He beat a guy who actually did serve in the armed forces on the basis that he was a tougher leader! What a county!

It would be nice to pretend that the hammering the Republicans have received is anything to do with the above, and indeed the sense that America needs to ‘change’ perhaps includes all of this subliminally somewhere, but in reality I suspect, as always, it’s the economy, stupid. As soon as people start to fear for the contents of their wallets and bank accounts, incumbents get turfed out. 

Many cynics suspect that the ‘President of the United States’ has little to do with democracy in the first place. I won’t be the last jackass on the internet to pop up with this Chomsky quote: ‘Nobody should have any illusions. The United States has essentially a one-party system and the ruling party is the business party.’

The late Bill Hicks had a routine about a new American president that went like this. Every new president is taken down to a smoky basement and shown a video of the Kennedy assassination from a previously unseen angle. When the film reaches its violent conclusion, one of the shady cigar-smoking men asks the new president if he has any questions. The president asks, ‘Just what my agenda is…?’ 

He followed this up with mocking portrayals of Joe Sixpack. ‘I think the puppet on the left shares my beliefs’ – ‘I think the puppet on the right is more to my liking… oh, wait, there’s one guy holding up both puppets!’

So a lot of people won’t be too shocked if it’s more of the same, albeit with greater subtlety. I’m not that cynical. Barack Obama represents considerable cause for optimism. The sheer fact that he is such a welcome breath of fresh air to people inside and outside the United States will lift the confidence of individuals and companies alike, the ‘yes we can’ motto being adopted everywhere by entrepreneurs, artists and charities. If he’s daring enough to suggest talks with Iran on the campaign trail, he’s unlikely to begin indiscriminate bombing campaigns once in office. Guantanemo Bay prison may not close tomorrow, but there is reason to believe open-ended imprisonment without charge will be brought to heel by Obama.

But that the colour of a person’s skin is as irrelevant in this world as some of us like to pretend. Acknowledge it or not, Barack Obama achieving presidency of the United States of America goes a long way towards bringing Martin Luther King’s dreams to life.

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