Thursday, 6 November 2008

How could an anti-American be so inspired by America?

I'm 25. I remember being 17 and watching America elect George W Bush - or rather, not elect him. I was already a cynic about the world's only remaining superpower, but the last 8 years of my late youth have defined me as a person, and during this time people have known me as an open, vocal critic of the United States of America.

During this year, and as of last night, this has changed.

12 months ago very few people in Britain had heard of Barack Obama. The next president was going to be Hillary Clinton - I knew that, you knew that, and Americans tired of the Bush-Cheney regime knew that. I liked Bill Clinton, and I prefer the Democrats to Republicans, so I was more than happy for Hillary to become the first woman president of the USA. When I heard a black man was running for president too, I was frustrated that the excitement of a black person running would divide the centre-left that wanted to get rid of the Republicans in the White House.

But Barack Obama was not just a black man running for president.

Obama spoke about equality and justice, about the millions of Americans without health insurance in a nation where medical care costs money. Obama spoke about the mess of the Iraq war and the deception that took the US, UK and other countries into it, when few American public officials would be so critical. Obama spoke about race, even giving a speech almost entirely on that subject. Most of all he spoke well, articulately but in a way that anyone could understand and connect.

I am still a critic of America.

During the last 8 years, I openly and honestly defined myself as someone legitimately anti-American - not with the screaming hysteria of flag-burning crowds in some Muslim countries, but with a genuine critical view. America's recent history is littered with attempts to stifle democracy in other countries (CIA assassinations in Latin America), and violent wars and secret bombings of countries that posed little threat (Vietnam, the carpet bombing of Laos). America has pushed its clothes, music, language, heroes, food, ideals onto other countries at the expense of their own cultures. It has harboured racism, bigotry, discrimination and a rejection of science at the highest levels of government. America is the country of Guantanamo Bay and the "war on terror", of Abu Ghraib and secret torture sites in Eastern Europe. Most of all America has promoted a model of liberal capitalism around the world which has increased inequality between rich and poor countries, and rich and poor people. And all the time the people of America seem wrapped up mindlessly saluting the flag, and telling the rest of the world how great their country is without knowing where the rest of the world is.

I have changed, and my views have changed.

These concerns do not give way just because Obama has become president. You could put Mahatma Gandhi in charge of the mafia, and it wouldn't change the structure or the purpose of the organisation.

But over time I have realised my concerns are not with "America". They are with the US government, the US state, and the corporate and religious interests that have dominated the country.

If the people of America don't know much about the rest of the world, it is down to a lack of education, not wilful ignorance.

This is a country that has been held prisoner by an aggressive and negative administration for the last 8 years, and millions of people around the world like me have identified themselves as "anti-American" when what they mean is anti-Bush, or anti-Republican, or anti-war, or anti-discrimination.

Barack Obama's campaign and election has been simply awesome, in the genuine meaning of the word (as Eddie Izzard explains). His campaign has been about working towards a better America. It was as much about the original American ideals of liberty and opportunity as the need for economic equality and education. It was about restoring America's reputation in the world by both reaching out to other countries and doing the right things for the American people. Most significantly, it was built on the donations and work of ordinary people, not big business or evangelical churches. It was about reclaiming the American dream from the rich.

Obama is the first non-white president of the USA. This is a touching, private milestone for America - this is a cleansing of its history of segregation and, I would declare, Martin Luther King's assassination. His skin colour is also important for the world, and hopefully will bring down walls that discourage ethnic minorities in other countries reaching the heights of office.

But Obama's achievement here is renewing America. I would have given anything to be in Grant Park, Chicago when he made his acceptance speech - the sheer joy and hope and happiness could be felt through the TV screen I was watching. Obama is everything America should be, and many things other countries could and should aspire to. Obama's biggest achievement is making a cynic like me so inspired, impressed and amazed by what America can and should be.

1 comment:

  1. Making a new post to add some new considerations to this post, see further above.