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November 07, 2008


Oh, wow, Beth, this has brought tears to my eyes! I know we Canadians are a modest lot, but you have pinpointed many reasons why we should be proud, and be willing to speak up about it to our neighbours, to ask them to look north, as you say. And I hope the Harperites will see this too, and protect and even improve things here, instead of trying to emulate the US model.

Yesssss! Canada is one of the few countries in the world that does seem to have it right most of the time and doesn't brag about it at all. Very sharp people in Canada.

Hope,optimism,integrity, justice...in the darkness of despair these may seem to be merely words...empty ideals. Tuesday night we were blessed with one of those rare moments,which will remain forever in our collective memories. A moment when we could risk believing in a better world for all people....

Hope, optimism, integrity, justice....not merely words they are the heartbeat of all humanity.

I agree with Mr. Siddiqui, and he points out the fallacy of Mr. Cohen’s almost chauvinistic column.

But I still think Obama may rightfully claim that his story is only possible in America. Obama’s story is a good story, and good stories need conflict. A black person aspiring to the American presidency faces odds others seeking high office in more tolerant countries don’t face.

In other words, Obama’s claim is a double-edged sword. In a logical sense, his claim means nothing, since it is impossible for his story to have a different setting, irrespective of other lands’ tolerance toward black minorities. His claim is an easy truism grown out of hard odds faced down and beaten.

Although Obama does not have slavery in his lineage, his memoir demonstrates that his relationship to their struggle has been a personal one, unlike, say, mine. He spent years working in communities of Americans whose forefathers arrived here on slave ships, and he chose to marry into such a family, too. And from the outside looking in, although Obama’s lineage is half white and contains no slavery, white Americans generally identify him racially as black. That’s race biz here.

(Teju Cole’s point in his excellent post on your site is also true:

“Obama is an avatar of a new American story, not one having to do with slave ships, nor one relying on the Mayflower, nor even the wave of poor Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants that the country welcomed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Obama story is the story of immigration in the age of air travel, the kind of Americanism that issues from exchange students and H1B visas and lapsed work permits. This is a form of being American that has been invisible in plain sight. His victory, I would think, should resonate even more strongly with these out-of-place characters who have been toiling in the shadows of the American story: the graduate students with funny accents, the pizza-delivery guys with no papers, Americans, regardless of color, who remember a time when they were not Americans.”

Obama represents both those who toil in the shadows of the American story and those who have been on the wrong end of that story since long before America achieved independence. I’m working with that earlier story here.)

Obama’s speech in Chicago Tuesday night struck some nationalistic chords, as it had to. But Obama’s opening, which Mr. Siddiqui might also have found objectionable, I thought was of the most vital importance.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Roger Taney and John Calhoun argued that the founders never dreamed of black citizenship. The Dred Scott decision is a concise, historical argument that Constitutional freedoms were never intended to apply to blacks. Democrats went to great pains to explain away Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” language in the Declaration, but I believe Calhoun admitted the phrase’s significance but stated that Jefferson was just wrong and that the Declaration didn’t carry much if any force.

The Black Panthers of the 1960’s essentially agreed with Taney and Calhoun’s view of the Constitution and of America. (Harry Jaffa makes that point in his excellent book A New Birth of Freedom).

Lincoln and the Whigs won the War and the argument: the Declaration was inspirational, the Constitution was amendable, and the founders dreamed of an America without slavery when it became politically possible for it to exist.

I am not black, but I think I would find even the Whig position inhumane. Lincoln, representing one of the most racially enlightened national politicians of his day, advocated the resettlement of slaves outside of America even into his presidency.

But the idea that blacks accept what I believe to be historically true – that the founders did intend for blacks to share in the compact – that blacks not only believe it to be true but accept it from the founders, that is, they take it on the chin from that slave-holding lot – to me is an amazing thing.

When Michelle Obama said a few months ago that for the first time in her life she was proud of her country, when Barack Obama said last week that winning the Iowa caucuses demonstrated to him that his faith in his country was not misplaced, they were saying that history was happening, that the founders’ dream was being realized to a new and greater extent. Cindy McCain responded to Michelle by saying that she (Cindy) has always been proud of her country. John McCain responded to Barack by saying that he (John) didn’t need to win a caucus to have faith in his country. And the Obamas couldn’t explain until Tuesday night.

I cried Tuesday, I think, because in a sense we aren’t worthy of a black president, be he a good or bad president. I cried, too, because it was this particular man with his particular story who won.

I think I cried because, for the first time in my adult life, something happened that significantly and suddenly advanced Lincoln’s view of America – that it was dedicated as an infant to a single proposition.

Peter, thank you so much for taking the time and thought to write that comment. You're right, of course, in the first point you make - the obstacles have to be there first for the "only in America" comment to be true. The difference between the perceptions white and black people (or, in my own family's case, Mayflower-era descendants and first-generation Middle Eastern immigrants) have of the country is clearly indicated by the difference between what the Obamas and McCains said.

However, in my case I didn't grow up feeling "proud" of my country in the way Mrs. McCain apparently does, and it wasn't the way I was taught to think either - my very white, DAR-qualifying family taught me to look at history as well as the present, to develop a strong sense of ethics and morality based on reason, and from that basis to hold and enlarge upon what is worthy, and deplore and work toward change in what is (and has been) unjust and wrong. Until we have an educational system and media with an unbiased, non-nationalistic worldview, that's going to be a hard concept for some young Americans - though obviously not the ones who propelled Obama into office, thank God!

I hope the Obamas will have the courage to keep on saying these things, unflinchingly, and eventually to enlarge upon that message, beyond the legacy of slavery into other areas where America has been so very wrong, because the country desperately needs to clear its head of the "patriotism" and "nationalism" that helped encourage 55% of the white electorate to vote for candidates who use patriotic fervor as a litmus test. As an educator, I know you know this -- and also that it's very hard work. You have all my admiration for your efforts. (I come from a family of teachers, which may explain why they were the way they were!)

Your post is a voice of reason and thoughtfulness in what has become an avalanche of expectations. When many cheer the same person and ideas in such an emotional way it is often time to step back and consider. I too breathed a sigh of relief that he won.

Time will tell how much change Obama can bring. Certainly inspiration.

The difference between the perceptions white and black people (or, in my own family's case, Mayflower-era descendants and first-generation Middle Eastern immigrants) have of the country is clearly indicated by the difference between what the Obamas and McCains said.

That's why I really didn't like how the McCains responded. Sure, it was easy pickings politically. But it shows a lack of sensitivity to racial perceptions or a willingness to exploit them. Obama, though, comes through best when attacked. He fights from a defensive position, commentators have said, and only when necessary. He kind of embodies for me the indomitable, mute patience of the enslaved or disfranchised. But thank God he's a fighter, if an unconventional one.

Kia ora Beth,
I was a bit deflated at the results of our own elections here in New Zealand, with a sudden shift to the right, if only for a perceived need for "change" after 9 years of a Labour Government. I fear for our environment and what we are leaving behind in the name of progress and prosperity. We will get the government we deserve.
I have always felt our neighbors to the north have had much to show the world in many ways. I am also feeling very hopeful for a new direction in America, though I think there is a long hard road ahead. It was history. Imagine Lincoln, Jefferson, King, Dubois, witnessing this event.
One area that does concern me in which there is huge progress to be made, in the states, in Canada, all over the world, is still the inequality and injustice to indiginous peoples. I can't help but feel as America glows from this high point that as a people they are a wee bit under elated. Great series of posts Beth, this has been a very informative and inspirational place over this period. Kia ora.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.