Thursday 6 November 2008

Otoom on Obama

They may not have danced in the streets as they did across America, but a collective sigh of relief ran through the governments around the world.

Becoming increasingly uncomfortable with local and foreign US policies, a John McCain raising the spectre of another hundred years in Iraq and his gun-slinging, moose-shooting comrade whose only difference between her kind and a pit bull, in her own words, was the lipstick, was viewed with alarm.

In an unprecedented move the twenty-seven member states of the European Union signed a letter to Barack Obama within hours of his election win urging him to take Europe seriously as a partner. The French foreign minister's words emphatically directed to "our American friends, not America" spoke volumes. The EU being slow and cumbersome? Not this time, baby.

Talking about a water shed, a new era, a seismic shift, are no exaggerations. The new wind is sensed by Obama's followers, by his opponents, and most of all by the man himself.

The outcome of these elections defined the break from the familiar as only a spectacle representing a nation of three hundred million can. But the undercurrent, the broad cultural river which carries the daily affairs along on its stream, did not really need that latest turn to define itself.

Human affairs are dynamics which demonstrate the growth of clusters, the emergence of new domains, their eventual branching away from their source, to enter a renewed cycle of assertion and growth. They can be observed at any scale at any time, only the size and the content changes.

The United States was the cultural child of Britain, coming from a broader European heritage and Anglo-Saxon parents. As any healthy child it eventually sought independence, fought for it, and won.

Just as independence brings freedom, it also puts distance between the former home and itself. The lack of direct access to maturity is balanced by a sense of adventure and the drive for a separate identity. The generations that followed filled that new space in the name of the youth now on a path towards finding himself. The lessons were hard, often disastrous, and many a times caused a shaking of heads at such naiveté.

Yet as powerful a conceptual tool as the functional perspective is, one must not overlook the content. In tandem with the growth came the developing composition of American society, broadly summarised in terms of its three main elements: the original Anglo-Saxon demographic, its Hispanic counterpart, and alongside African-Americans.

None had the benefit of growing up among its traditional cultural peers, all needed to forge a new self in a society as wild as it seemed unbounded. Under such circumstances anything can happen, and it virtually did.

While the Anglo-Saxons revelled in their self-defined power the Hispanics worked to gain their share, but neither possessed the sheer urgency to escape the tyranny imposed by an age of enslavement. Step by step the former slaves fought their way from the burnings, the lynchings, the separation.

This century saw the degeneration of the American ruling class, its foreign excesses and its anti-social greed grown locally but affecting all of us. In those broad terms the comfort of luxury was no match against the vigour that comes from knowing first-hand what it means to have nothing.

The results from a competition between the laid-back rich and the hungry lower class manifest sooner or later. At first no immigrant struggling in a chaotic neighbourhood can take on the establishment, and no labourer sweating on a plantation can even hope to offer serious resistance to his masters. Only gradually does the balance of power shift, but it does.

And now, what does the future hold for a nation that is coming to terms with its new identity?

Previous expansionism, a concept which tells not only of strength but also of further opportunities to test its still existing sense of adventure, is not an option for a system that seeks to consolidate itself. A more local view will replace it, a perspective that is more focused on internal affairs than the outside. With the evolution of the self comes confidence, a security that stems from beginning to understand the newly-gained self.

Whether the outcome will be measured by the degree of influence in world affairs, so familiar to a certain older generation, remains to be seen. Today's world is a different place from what it was a century ago. Surrounded by the age-old, self-sustaining cultures of Europe, China and India the new America will not only need to negotiate its way through sophisticated interpretations of a common reality, it will also have to draw on its still developing inner resources to grow a confidence in matters of perception.

Already there is talk of the Age of China, supplanting the Age of America. Islam poses a cultural threat going beyond the effects of localised acts of terrorism. And trade, that medium which controls and channels the wealth of individuals as well as nations, can be a source of power if based on real goods but can also lead to destruction when harnessed to contrived phantasies.

In the end race, skin or hair do not matter. It is the mind at any scale that defines its owner.

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