29 August 2008

Who knows? Time, perhaps, to find out...

There are some questions which are important, maybe crucial, yet have such a cultural load to carry that to ask them is difficult or impossible. Often it is easier, or at least more acceptable ... or perhaps I really mean less risky ... for outsiders to ask such questions. Unlikely though it might seem, a couple of comments by Jim Putnam (of Thinking through my fingers), in his current series of autobiographical retrievals, decided me to write this.

Two important questions, whether voiced or not, are loud in the air at the moment: is the USA ready for a black president, and is Barack Obama ready for the presidency?

The first is a legitimate question for any country which has not yet confronted a circumstance which runs against a prejudice. It would be a legitimate question if Britain saw a potential black prime minister, just as it was (with adjustment to gender instead of colour) between the time when Margaret Thatcher ran for leadership of the Conservative party in 1975 and her becoming prime minister four years later. To ask it does not suggest that the questioner is prejudiced; just that s/he recognises the unevenness with which the world around her/him sheds its prejudices

Yesterday, a colleague answered the question "Is America ready for a black president", from a student, with the reply "if it's not, it fucking well ought to be". That's true but not terribly helpful ... and, more important, doesn't answer the question.

My own best stab at an answer would be to say, in the fare of both questions (is the US ready for Obama, and is Obama ready for the presidency?), "probably not – but then, nobody and no society is ever really ready for change – the measure is how well they deal with it when it has happened". Change happens successfully when we are near enough to being ready; it fails when we are too far from that readiness.

Which brings me to Jim Putnam's comments: "I realized that my job required maturity, and almost immediately discovered that I had enough to do it. ... There were glitches, but there were also successes. People don't, it seems to me, just step over a line and are suddenly mature. Age has little to do with it, and in my case there were considerable movements into and out."

If the US electorate returns Obama to the presidency, then the US will have become ready enough for a black president. If they don't, it won't – yet. If he survives his first term, both physically and politically, then the US will have become mature enough to keep the change.

Obama himself will demonstrate within that term whether or not he has been able to become ready for the presidency. It's all very well for opponents to say that there is no room for on the job training: but what human being is ever experienced enough to say that s/he can take on a job s/he has never done before, and will not need on the job training? Any president who thinks that s/he doesn't need an hefty helpings lot of on the job training shouldn't be let anywhere near the job.

I am viscerally opposed to everything that Margaret Thatcher stood for; but I believe that Britain passed a valuable hurdle when it elected a woman to its most powerful office. The same will be true when it elects a nonwhite candidate to that office. The same was true when it elected working class representatives instead of landed ones. It will be true again when a nonwhite candidate makes it to 10 Downing Street.

Whatever the outcome ... Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and even, now, Sarah Palin, have already shown the USA to be a different place from what it used to be.

1 comment:

Dr. C said...

These are worthy comments on the current election in the US and I agree with them for the most part. The hooker in this case though has little to do with Obama's race. (he is, after all, half white) but much to do with the alternative. A McCain/Palin administration at this time in our history would not only be an economic/military and social disaster, it would have extremely grave consequences for the world. The possibility that a person who as testy and hot headed as McCain or is as inexperienced and naive as Ms. Palin might have ready access to the nuclear codes must surely strike a quivering note in our collective brain. It is interesting that a culture as regimented as that of Germany (with its history of Teutonic Knights and Prussion armies) could elect a female head of state. Maybe we do have a chance of electing Obama and pulling our tush out of the embers.