It is not a complete man now dominating the affairs of the world from a historic mansion appropriately named the White House, although a case can be made that he comes close enough. Taking the American Founding Fathers’ arithmetic – which counted every slave as three-fifths of a free man – to its logical conclusion, Barack Obama’s human valuation should rate approximately seven-eighths of an American white; the white line of his ancestry elevating his status from the mere three-fifths. In practice, however, the logic of racism renders that line of social bleaching irrelevant. Obama thus remains three-fifths of a man. Morbidly fascinated by the unusual spectrum of the current occupancy of the White House, I co-opted my figure-bound son and ventured deeper into the fractional realm of human valuations. We came up with the following result: given a full-blooded African-American wife, plus their two (approximate) octoroon children, the First Family of the United States of America, so rapturously embraced throughout the world, from the Soviet Union to Papua New Guinea, is a mere .63125 equivalent of the constitutional family unit for a White House incumbency. Yet – annus mirabilis! – not only did the Americans install these fractional intruders, but almost everyone, of every racial stock I have met, and across partisan lines, inclines to the view that, in relation to Obama’s immediate predecessor of eight years, it would be an act of charity towards that last incumbent to merely reverse the figures.
It is indeed a remarkable journey on which the Americans, as one people, have embarked, despite repeated and costly faltering, since Martin Luther King’s Sermon on the Mount – I Have a Dream. The attainment of that dream has become vested in the person of the forty-fourth President of the United States, Barack Obama, a man of supreme self-confidence and infectious human rapport who decided that all procrastination or diffidence had come to an end as he launched his bid to ascend the thorned mountain slopes of Martin Luther King’s vision.
I had the opportunity of travelling across much of the land mass of his nation from the party primaries to the final battle and found this the most distinctive aspect of his presidential campaign, and a window into Obama’s very character: a total lack of diffidence which allows him to detect the moment of a critical mass. It led to a campaign strategy that completely neutralized all considerations, positive or negative, of an ancestry shared with the barely tolerated, and socio- politically marginalized minority group of his nation. Never once did the race card surface in the course of his campaign, except, of course, when others evoked it – ironically his own racial colleagues who tried to suggest that he was not ‘black’ enough to be the flag bearer for what they perceived as the moment of possible racial restitution. Then, his response was quick, effective and dismissive.
Nonetheless, the totality of that – literally – chequered background had dogged his maturation, contributing a crucial dimension to the personal formation and world outlook of America’s forty-fourth president. What the American people – and the world – have surely discerned by now is the multi-textured promise of a national leader whose background has enabled him to identify, on a human level, with the history, mores, cultures, values and aspirations of others, beginning, logically, with his own origins.
Of course many African-Americans, especially today, take pride in tracing their roots. Fortunately for Obama, those roots were very accessible, literally above ground – more sturdy branches than roots – so his quest did not involve DNA, or a journey into the unknown à la Alex Haley. That advantage, in addition to the close, formative contacts with other societies and cultures during the impressionable phase of childhood, makes Obama stand out in stark contrast to his predecessors in the White House. It makes a difference when a journey of self-discovery is undertaken, not as an abstract exercise of lineage curiosity, or to add ancestral texture to the image of an already established political legitimacy – as with Robert Kennedy – but in circumstances that provoke a need to grasp the essence of one’s individuality, as a product shaped by, but also as inquisitor of, one’s very social environment. Needless to say, the parameters of such enquiry need not be racial; in Obama’s case, race was inevitable. It was his lived actuality.
These are indeed strange times for American society. Obama’s candid, unfiltered intimacy with his origins – a vibrant, intensely present past, so vividly captured in his Dreams from My Father – weaves an indefinable aura around the White House about which many Americans remain uncertain, despite the unquestioned enthusiasm that swept him to power. It is not simply that he consciously placed some distance between his candidacy – now incumbency – and the ancient aristocracy of the black struggle, there is also the fact that he is an outsider twice removed. First, one takes note of the heritage of exclusionism that he shares with all others of his racial complexion.The more intriguing dimension, however, is the fact that he is not even a product of the indigenous history of that exclusion, being born and raised outside the slave lineage. Despite shared humiliations – a Kenyan grandfather, revered as a village elder but a lifelong ‘boy’ to his British employers – Obama has no claims on the full scatology of the black American memory. In addition, his habit of introspection, of micro- dissection of obser ved individual and group conduct, attitudes, responses and motives, appears to have placed him on a personal trajectory where, unlike many of his racial compatriots, he admits no simplistic, black-and-white answers, preferring to delineate the fault lines between pros and cons, however stridently projected or simply habitually embraced. That’s the way it is; that’s the way it goes. Not for Obama, right from college days, leading to his abandonment of a legal career for a deep immersion in community activism.
It went beyond lessons from his father’s tribulations at the hands of his own kind, where Africans were already in control of their own affairs. Obama simply asked questions that others preferred to brush aside. His ruminations on race issues are an endless revelation. Sometimes they read as if he has internalized his legal training – a flurry of Obama vs. Obama encounters, cross-examinations, one Obama appearing for the plaintiffs and yet another for the defendants.
Bringing this habit of mind to issues has left commentators in no doubt that, in Obama, the White House is restored, after a near decade- long hiatus, to a ‘thinking’ president.
If they still doubt it, Africans do not, certainly after his address on the Ghanaian platform in July this year. Few American presidents have tackled the specifics of a continental dilemma with such eloquent directness, even as he placed the issues within a universal context of responsibility and evasion. The following is vintage Obama, and it is clearly an applied extension of his formative lessons on race, as narrated in Dreams from My Father:
Now, it’s easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict.The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many.
Substitute ‘a colonial map’ with the geography of slavery and the consistent fidelity to the deductions of those years of immersion in America’s own sociology is transparent.
I consider the American nation extremely fortunate. The god of timing was definitely on its side. For a nation that has preached diversity more in the breach than in the observance, the election was indeed the moment of positive reversals, but not simply as a one-off, isolated gesture. So much potential resides in a personality that has been shaped by childhood recognition of a diverse world. The ability to act upon such data intelligently is a different matter, and what the American electorate began to deduce, at first with some scepticism but early enough along the campaign trail, was that this ‘unknown quantity’ was both knowledgeable and knowing. His opponents realized this much too late. In addition to his mental acuity, he had done his homework, and in some depth; a disciplined routine that was abundantly manifested even before he began his post-election outreach to the various warring blocs – including the religious – that have coalesced to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Cold War.
A fortunate timing for the nation, no doubt, but despite his evident self-confidence, if Obama had a choice, this would not rate as the most auspicious time to be elected into office. Or perhaps he relishes that fact. He comes through sometimes as one of those cases of benign masochism which revels in daunting challenges. Still, a nation once universally deemed powerful but clearly declining – first morally, then materially – bogged down in external wars of dubious motivation and questionable judgement, reviled on several fronts, even among traditional allies, is not the ideal initiation ground for an untested candidate, most of all an outsider with centuries of prejudice against the very composition of his humanity. There are sectors within the United States, even today, where the mere thought of the rise to the highest office of such a candidate is not merely unthinkable but treasonable.
And yet it happened, the culmination of putative efforts in the direction of a national redemption, the repudiation of a centuries-old mental conditioning. It promises an end to a career of costly contradictions – the closure of the abyss between catechism and practice: ‘the land of the free’, ‘all men are created equal ’, the American Dream; all contributory mantras to the faith that makes immigrants brave oceans and cross deserts, suffocate in containers, dodge rabid bloodhounds and their vigilante handlers on border patrol – the last oblivious to the irony of their own claims to indigenous citizenship within a mongrel nation. Still, these are the contradictions which, as experienced by the outside world, have earned the nation a suspect regard, despite her obvious wealth, power and advertised openness. Now, with the unprecedented mongrelization of power at its very pinnacle, the once disapproving world permits itself to sniff an incoming season of change, remains suspended on a bridge of great expectations. Alas for the border patrols, their legwork is certain to be kept even busier than ever.
For the African continent, such expectations may be said to fall into several categories. First, there is the sense of proprietorship, a natural reaction, given the background of the incumbent. With that sentiment of ‘owning’ a part of this individual goes – or at least went – the mood of quantifiable expectations: that the African continent would become a priority with the new American government, and not merely in rhetoric, but in deed. The more politically pragmatic have warned that the man called Barack Hussein Obama was elected as, and will remain, president of a distant country called the United States, not of the African continent or any nation within it. Not to be denied, however, is the political fillip that could be seized upon and exploited by nearly everyone on that continent – itself a continent of blighted expectations – galvanizing movements for democratic and participatory civic life. Its best expression is perhaps encountered in a song that immediately hit the airways in Kenya, Obama’s paternal country, after his election. Its lyrics went thus: It is easier for a Luo to become president of the United States than of his own Kenyan nation. African leaders such as Robert Mugabe, Jammeh of Gambia, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and others of that ilk know that this is not a lament but a challenge. The dictators and despoilers of the African continent are no longer at ease.
Most noticeable is the change in the accustomed tone of earlier presidential visits. Obama was not unaware of the special advantage of his African origin while on African soil, and the only question was to what effect he would use that right of belonging. The signs were already clear. Obama’s policy statements on America’s new regard for, and attitude towards, African and other zones of misgovernance were the mere expository icing on the cake. As with Iran, the consciousness of a potential ‘Obama effect’ was manifest from the moment of recognition of his closeness to power, and undoubtedly began to create contradictory, unpredictable responses within different zones of illegitimate or irresponsible incumbencies. Some, like Zimbabwe, will perhaps continue to pursue face-saving formulae to rein in their excesses; others, such as Iran, have speeded up the battening of hatches.
For the African continent, his very choice of Ghana – more than merely implicitly loaded with the rejection of self-preening ‘giants’ such as Nigeria as an ‘obvious’ first port of call – was already eloquent, but Obama is not the kind to leave loopholes, even for a glossed or denied inference: ‘We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly, and to isolate those who do not, and that is exactly what America will do.’
Backed by unmistakable references, and even the occasional direct naming, Obama’s Ghana address was the infliction of some unpalatable home truths on home grounds. Not content with giving faces to individual efforts – non-governmental – that sustain the banner for positive change by naming them in his Ghana address, Obama sealed his open snub to corrupt and undemocratic governance by ensuring that some prominent opposition voices from neighbouring Nigeria were openly invited to his Ghanaian banquet. Such gestures guarantee, at the minimum, symptoms of disorientation, even temporary seizure among the cheerleaders and upholders of a corrupt state. They act as a curb on the flaunting of impunity. Again, this was a first. Traditionally on such visits, any concession to opposition voices studiously avoided gestures that might ‘give offence’ to the incumbent power, however nauseous its existence – a tokenist mention here and there, or a commiserating handshake and a few seconds of platitudes, nothing more. Barack Obama has broken that mould; the effects should not be underestimated.
Outside the African continent, there is no question but that a number of repressive forces are in a quandary. The easy recourse to the negative emotionalism of the past – i.e. identifying ‘World Enemy No. 1’, then heaping the internal problems of nation, region or religion on that one source – will clearly undergo some attrition. The restless forces that challenge corrupt, unrepresentative power within such troubled regions no longer feel isolated, and will prove far less inhibited by routine demonization of the ‘common enemy’ just outside the door. The features of a once starkly projected foe, in diabolical outlines, become blurred when unexpectedly progressive pronouncements, backed by motions of reaching out, issue from the home of the Great Satan. ‘Let’s-wait-and-see’ periods will vary from place to place, from situation to situation, but the facile definition of a global adversary will clearly undergo some loss in credibility. Quite accurate, in my view, is an analysis of the Iranian situation that I have encountered: that the ham-fisted manipulation of the recent presidential elections by the theocratic dictators was a predictable response to the potential threat of what is termed ‘the Obama effect’. The Iranian rulers are confronted by a phenomenon whose effects, in global politics, are as yet difficult to gauge but impossible to ignore. The vast slave encampment known as North Korea has already taken fright and reacted in the only way its leaders know – bluster and threat – creating a momentum that spells grave danger beyond that region.
Even within the United Nations I suspect we shall see workings on the subjective level among Third World, and indeed ‘non-aligned’, nations, born of sentiment, undoubtedly. Voting patterns will undergo noticeable changes, the votes of African nations – ‘traditionally’ allied with the rest of the Third World – can no longer be taken for granted. Overtly expressed or not, there will be the factor of sentimental identification – all other considerations being equal of course – with the balance tilted in favour of the American president over issues that can hardly be regarded as minor or inconsequential. I believe we shall observe more listening than ranting. Bloc automatism will be whittled down and may even become a thing of the mindless past. It goes beyond sentiment, however; there is the awareness that, after a prolonged hiatus, a sense of vision has returned to the American presidency, and that efforts to redress the errors of the past merit dispassionate attention. Indeed, that shift was apparent long before Obama’s landmark Cairo speech in June.
That speech brings us back to what one is moved to identify as a conditioned empathy with a lived reality, especially in the sphere of traditions – conditioned, indeed reasoned, because such empathy stems from experience, not from any abstracted idealism. This is clearly a crucial asset that the head of a world power must possess. At the same time, however, it constitutes its own peril, capable of breeding an all too ready accommodation with contestable aspects of such traditions, and the opportunism of their proponents. Nowhere is such a danger more likely than in the case of a leader who is determined to end the dismal record of a nation that attempted so arrogantly to be not only the world’s policeman but its political moralist. The gesture towards conciliation, within the rubric of the traditions of other lands, other societies, and their applications, was of course unexceptionable, and Obama was right in his Cario address to erect a bridge across differences.
However, the limitations of that speech, in which he cast the hijab as a personal choice protected by law, are glaring. The world has numerous interlocking constituencies well outside those of nation boundaries, and when a constituency in question accounts for no less than fifty per cent of the world’s population – its women – there is great need for circumspection.
The right of women to veil or not veil is not in question; indeed, is not the question.The question is whether or not any practice is transparently founded on choice or imposition.The veil, even beyond its function as a physical act of separatism, is a metaphor for much else that is actual, some of which involves consequences predicated on freedom and slavery, life and death, and thus impinges on the province of human volition and dignity. We are living in a world, sections of which, unfortunately, take pride in perpetuating traditions of sectarian control, marginalization and dehumanization made possible only through the denial of choice to their citizens; where members of that ‘lower constituency’ are harassed, publicly lashed, imprisoned, stoned to death – sometimes for showing an inch or two of flesh beyond the eye slits graciously permitted for the practical purposes of navigation. It would have been preferable had Obama either avoided the veil as a sign of his affirmation of the right to cultural differences or else proceeded to make a determination also on issues of personal choice and group compulsion.
If Americans dubbed Ronald Reagan the Great Communicator, Obama is fast proving to be the Great Expositor.Thus profound issues such as the existential condition of women in society – any society – deserve more than a point of view dictated by only one ‘tradition’, most especially when there are also available contradicting traditions within that same Tradition. The Talibanic view of women is a far call from the Moroccan or Algerian, the Indonesian from the Iranian etc., and the human arithmetic of Obama’s ascension must be held to apply universally, or not at all – one-half of the world’s population cannot be equal to only three-fifths of the rest, and far less in many instances.
And then there are the minuscule fractions within each constituency. The Somali jihadists have introduced public amputations of hands and feet as punishment for petty theft, a habit that stigmatizes, by association, even victims of abnormal circumstances – war, accidents, disease etc. In any case, this form of punishment calls into question the very act of permanently disfiguring a human being for one infraction or another. No, these are certainly not issues in which an American president should become personally embroiled, but the evocation of an aggressive symbol of subjugation, such as the veil – and its variations – cannot help but expand the parameters of its cultural significations and consequences for a section of humanity. In Somalia, for instance, in areas already controlled by extreme zealots, stoning to death for adultery is a mere stone’s throw away from the present. No, interventionism is not the issue.What matters is the consciousness that wherever a field of discourse provokes such considerations, the articulation of a credo that gives no joy to the enemies of human dignity becomes a moral obligation.
Once evoked, the ramifications of such a symbol as the veil fall within the realm of legitimate discourse. The undeniable differences within even so-called traditions call attention to a large variety of options in interpretation and practice, even within supposedly hermetic theologies. That gesture of moral relief to the endangered species within societies of inequality was an avoidable omission in a context that was, after all, of Obama’s own instigation. Sadly, it was left to President Sarkozy of France to seize, within that same month of June, the high ground of egalitarian morality, as he bluntly voiced his detestation of the ‘degradation’ of women through sartorial confinement.
There will be, unquestionably, more moments like this and, paradoxically, perhaps more so for the Obama leadership temperament than for the less idealistic, sensitive or discerning. However, in the years to come, as the world moves to judge whether the Great Expositor from Chicago has fully mastered the navigational skills required for the passage between Scylla and Charybdis, it is the existence of a consistent, clear-cut political philosophy, progressively enunciated, with its promise of finely calibrated action, that will continue to ring in the ears of a troubled world, from the Congo to Beslan, resonating with a deep urgency that is most pertinent for the African continent:
That is why we must stand up to inhumanity in our midst. It is never justified, never justifiable to target innocents in the name of ideology. It is the death sentence of a society to force children to kill in wars. It is the ultimate mark of criminality and cowardice to condemn women to relentless and systemic rape.We must bear witness to the value of every child in Darfur and the dignity of every woman in the Congo. No faith or culture should condone the outrages against them . . . When there’s a genocide in Darfur or terrorists in Somalia, these are not simply African problems – they are global security challenges, and they demand a global response.
Photograph © Win McNamee/POOL/CORBIS