The contrast with Philippine elections couldn’t have been sharper. It wasn’t just the speed with which the results were being tallied that was the source of much head-shaking over our own slow-as-molasses count, nor with the way the US media were providing information on almost everything related to the elections, including a celebration in the village in Kenya where Barack Obama’s paternal grandmother lives.
More critically was the grace with which both winner and loser greeted the results a source of near-wonderment. In Phoenix, Arizona, the Republicans’ John McCain quieted his nastier supporters by calling his rival “my president” and noting the significance of his victory to US racial relations. Unlike Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who once declared that she was president only of the Cebuanos who had supposedly given her their votes in 2004, in Chicago, Illinois, Democrat Barack Obama praised McCain’s service to country, and vowed that he would be the president of those who didn’t vote for him as well as of those who did.
The campaign had also been run on issues, despite some mud-slinging, McCain’s disastrous choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for running mate (“opportunist and irresponsible” was how the New York Times described it), and efforts to pander-–mostly on the Republican side–to the worst instincts of the ignorant. (Think of the attempt to tag Obama a “socialist” and to link him with “terrorists”.)
Overall, however, debate on the financial and economic crisis, energy dependence, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and global warming did drive the campaign, if only at the level of how best the US can approach these issues without compromising its interests. What’s more, the Obama victory was as much the result of astute planning as of a grassroots movement that included segments of the US Left.
Some of Barack Obama’s campaign pledges—withdrawing US troops from Iraq within 16 months, closing the US detention center in Guantanamo where prisoners have been tortured and kept in appalling conditions, reducing US carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, opening talks with Iran and Cuba—did come across as radical, but only in the United States, the only liberal-democratic country on the planet where “liberal” is a bad word among a large number of people.
For the rest of the world these pledges seemed only reasonable, and in fact hardly address the need to halt the immense destruction, widespread poverty, large-scale violence and unremitting environmental degradation US wars and corporate interests have unleashed on the world, which were so brutally evident during the eight benighted years when the madmen of empire ruled the US through George W. Bush and Richard Cheney.
No matter. The world should be grateful for small mercies. US progressive circles have been critical of Barack Obama for being a middle of the road Democrat, compared to, say, Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich, who sought but did not get the Democratic Party nomination for President. These critics say Obama’s likely to forge compromises with the Republicans for the sake of their know-nothing constituencies to whom John McCain’s capture in Vietnam overshadows the immorality of the war for which he flew bombing sorties on the villages of Vietnam’s poor, and to whom Sarah Palin’s vast ignorance is a virtue they can identify with.
That may indeed be the case, Obama’s call for unity being at least one indication that he’ll be reaching out to the Republican Rightwing. But Obama’s election was several times significant anyway. He’s not only black. He also retains links with the country of his father, where his paternal grandmother still lives. He has also lived in Indonesia, where he has a half sister by his Indonesian stepfather. Although Hawaii, where Obama was raised by his maternal grandmother, is a US state, it’s vastly different from the mainland states for the breadth of its multicultural experience and environment. Obama is thus that rare breed among US leaders: someone who’s been immersed in a variety of environments to have hopefully been endowed with a sense of what the world—its variety, its vastness and its peoples’ aspirations–is like, and an appreciation of what binds all humanity together.
Compare this to McCain’s doleful focus on his Vietnam war experience and Sarah Palin’s having obtained a passport only two years ago. Or, for that matter, with George W. Bush’s lack of awareness that there’s a world outside the US. The central irony of US global power is after all the unremitting parochialism of too many of its citizens and leaders, to whom the US is the world.
In short: there’s some possibility, despite Obama’s being a middle of the road Democrat, that he will not use the military power that will be at his fingertips as clumsily and as abusively as Bush and as, to some extent, William (Bill) Clinton did.
Unlikely that he will use that power to change the world of injustice and misery over which the US presides as overlord, US interests being premised on keeping the global order the way it is. But he could usher in an era in which the more vicious aspects of that order—the torture of prisoners in the “war on terror,” the brazen commitment to strike with nuclear weapons first to forestall presumptive attacks, the blackmail and threats against recalcitrant governments, the trampling on the sovereignty of independent states, and the support for tyranny so long as it’s committed to US interests—would be less emphasized, and the ideals of independence and democracy given more prominence, if only in words. There’s at least the hope that, as the Republicans once pledged, but went on to show how wide the gap can be between word and deed, the world can be a kinder, gentler place.
This brings us to the question most thinking Filipinos watching the results of the US elections via CNN were asking the other day. When will our own time of hope be? A black will be in the White House in January through an election that for all its mean moments did throw out a despised regime. Burdened with poverty, government corruption, official mendacity and plain stupidity in high places, are most Filipinos green with envy.