Sunday, July 27, 2008

Obama & Europe

Tibor R. Machan

Cologne, Germany. It`s like Susan Neiman and I travelled on two different continents during the last couple of weeks. In her Sunday July 27, 2008, Op Ed column in The New York Times, Ms. Neiman says that "it`s hard for me to find a European, aside from two Harvard-educated friends in Paris, who confessed to excitement — not just about the visit, but the prospect of an Obama presidency." So she acknowledges that Senator Obama produced something of a frenzy in much of Europe but then maintains that no one here has much confidence in his prospective presidency.

My own experience, after a week in Switzerland and then one in Heidelberg (at the University there), is quite different. Most of the Europeans, actually nearly all of them, eagerly expect a Barack Obama presidency. This may be partly because so many of them dislike George W. Bush and do not imagine Senator John McCain to be any different from him. I suggest this in light of the fact that those with whom I have spoken about the upcoming US presidential election exhibited nothing but delight at an Obama victory. Yet this is not because of any enthusiasm about his policies. Indeed, hardly anyone gave any indication of knowing about what the Senator might do as president other than not be enthusiastic about "staying the course" in Iraq. No one hereabouts seems to like that war, that is evident.

But apart from this aspect of Senator Obama's candidacy there is little else that the Europeans I know and have been talking to about this say they welcome in the man they are nearly certain will be the next president of the United States of America. No, it is all about what is probably best considered a sort of feeling they have about how swell it would be to have the Senator in the White House. Indeed, my impressions is that what Senator Obama promises for these Europeans is finally to take race of the agenda of American politics. Whether this is realistic or not, it seems to be what a great many people here expect.

But such an expectation is naive. The measure of racism that exists among various Americans isn't so superficial as to disappear with the ascendency of Senator Obama to the US presidency. Were that the case, racism would have disappeared a long time ago. Sadly, America's racists, as indeed the world's, are mostly unshakable in their conviction that something is very wrong with the people they demean. The only other place where I have detected that kind of racism is South Africa and among Europe's anti-Semites. So I am afraid that however much Senator Obama's candidacy and likely victory in November amounts to a hopeful sign, much more in-depth change needs to occur for racism to stop being a significant aspect of American--and indeed world--culture.

What is actually disappointing in Senator Obama's candiacay is his rather shallow discussions of racism, for example in his speech in Berlin. And perhaps that is deliberate. Altogether too many Europeans share a certain aspect of the racism that is still part of America. This is the idea of tribalism or clanism, the view that human beings belong to various groups by their very nature. In Europe there is altogether too much talk of ethnic identity, both by those who are victims of such thinking and those who engage in it. Individualism, the best antidote to collectivism, has by no means swept the continent and, sadly, it seems to be disappearing from America as well. Those who would be the best source of teaching about the way individualism counters collectivist thinking--namely intellectuals at universities, newspaper and magazine editorial departments and think tanks--still embrace the prejudiced notion that individualism is something that produces acrimony within human communities. They, therefore, never miss the opportunity to denigrate it, to besmirch it, as if it and not its opposite, namely, collectivism (in all its forms) were the real scourge.

Senator Obama could in fact be a major influence both at home and abroad in spreading Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous doctrine about what should really count as we think about human beings, namely, "the content of [their] character." Each person ought, accordingly, be judged as an individual who either possesses or lacks admirable character traits, never mind all the talk about "identity" and even "culture." Those are very divisive aspects of anyone when treated as prominent.

So although most thinking Europeans, contrary to Ms. Neiman, do embrace Senator Obama as America's next president, they do it mostly for what might be considered a sort of reverse racism: he is going to make it appear that race no longer matters. If it were only true! For that what we need is for a figure like Senator Obama to discuss racism in more fundamental terms than he has done so far.

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