Barack to Reality
Obama's victory didn't magically eliminate America's problems and enemies.
Yes, yes, yes. I, too, took pleasure in standing in line and in exchanging pleasantries and greetings with the amazingly courteous staff at my polling station and the many citizens of my delightfully diverse Washington neighborhood. I, too, am still wearing my lapel sticker, with the jaunty words "I Voted." And I found it pretty easy to cast a vote that told the Republican Party, for which I recommended a vote last time, not to try any of this shit again. No more McCarthy tactics; no more stumblebum quitting of the campaign trail and attempting to pull out of the first presidential debate in order to wind up voting to save Lehman Bros.; no more driveling Christian fundamentalism; no more insinuation that only those silly enough to endorse them are "real Americans." No more sneers at San Francisco as if it weren't a real American city. McCain and his preposterous running mate will just have to believe in an afterlife in which they can live down the shame of what they attempted this year.
But I might possibly have voted for them all the same, clothes pin clamped over my nose in the voting booth, if only because of the crucial struggle for a free Iraq and an autonomous Kurdistan. And, in such a case, I would have been very annoyed at the suggestion that my vote was a racist one. "Historic," yelled the very headline across the top of my morning newspaper. (Just the news, please, if you would be so kind.) Would the letters have been so big for the first female vice president? And isn't it already historic that millions of white Christians voted, win or lose, for a man with one Kenyan parent, that parent having been raised as a Muslim?
So let us not over-egg the pudding. And if you think our own press and media are too uncritically adoring, just spend a second or two exposing yourself to the overseas version. On election night, I spent a little time on British and then on Australian television. For expressing a few mild doubts about the new president-elect, I was forcibly reminded in one case that the first 14 (I think it was) presidents of the United States could have ownedBarack Obama, and was informed in the second case that just 40 years ago, he would not have been allowed to vote in the election, let alone win it.
Well, as it happens, our new president has no slave ancestry, and neither branch of his parentage could have been owned by anybody, or at least not by anybody American. (Muslim-run slavery, though, is an old story in Africa as well as a horribly contemporary one.) And there were not a few elected black American representatives 40 years ago, even if mainly in Northern states. The objection I make is therefore twofold. First, the election of Obama is the effectnot the cause of the changes. (One of my questioners appeared to think that our president-elect had been responsible for the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.) Second, a Republican victory would have had absolutely no effect on the legal or political standing of black Americans, which is a matter of our law and our Constitution and cannot be undone by any ephemeral vote or plebiscite.
The recognition of these obvious points should also alert us to a related danger, which is the cousinhood of euphoria and hysteria. Those who think that they have just voted to legalize Utopia (and I hardly exaggerate when I say this; have you been reading the moist and trusting comments of our commentariat?) are preparing for a disillusionment that I very much doubt they will blame on themselves. The national Treasury is an echoing, empty vault; our Russian and Iranian enemies are acting even more wolfishly even as they sense a repudiation of Bush-Cheney; the lines of jobless and evicted are going to lengthen, and I don't think a diet of hope is going to cover it. Nor even a diet of audacity, though can you picture anything less audacious than the gray, safety-first figures who have so far been chosen by Obama to be on his team?
There is an element of the "wannabe" about all this—something that suggests that, if the clock were to be rolled back, every living white person would now automatically stand with John Brown at Harper's Ferry and with John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. All the evidence we have is to the contrary: Abraham Lincoln ringingly denounced John Brown, and John F. Kennedy (he of the last young and pretty family to occupy the Executive Mansion) was embarrassed and annoyed by the March on Washington. In other words, there is something pain-free and self-congratulatory about the Obama surge. This has happened before, of course, with the high-sounding talk about the "New Frontier," the "Great Society," and "Morning in America." It's just that this time it's more than usually not affordable. There are many causes of the subprime and derivative horror show that has destroyed our trust in the idea of credit, but one way of defining it would be to say that everybody was promised everything, and almost everybody fell for the populist bait.
More worrying still, there are vicious enemies and rogue states in increasing positions of influence throughout the world (one of the episodes that most condemned the Republican campaign was its attempt to slander Sen. Joe Biden for his candid attempt to point this out), yet many Obama voters appear to believe that the mere charm and aspect of their new president will act as an emollient influence on these unwelcome facts and these hostile forces. I can't make myself perform this act of faith, and I won't put up with any innuendo about my inability to do so.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Scott Olson/Getty Images.