|Exactly what do we mean when we say that Barack Obama has made history? For the professional historian — because he has studied so many cases — the answer is double-edged and scary.
For it is clear that, whatever the history-maker has done, he has done it in opposition to a solid status quo which — precisely because of the breakthrough — is redoubling its effort to roll back the wheels of history.
Barack Obama has done what no other black American has ever done. Yet this is historic merely because, despite amazing futuristic techno-scientific achievements, his country’s mind remains enslaved by the most primitive tribal ideas about colour, gender and religion.
That is the dilemma that will face my friend’s son. By making history, he raises to its zenith the expectations of the mass of humanity throughout the world, especially among what Americans call “people of colour.”
The expectation is not merely that he will be elected. Much more important is that, if he is elected, things will change overnight. Women, fringe sects, ethnic minorities, blacks — the whole kit and caboodle — will finally feel that they really belong inside what playwright Zangwill called The Melting Pot.
But even this desire must be concretised. A tempestuous wind called Katrina recently revealed to a shocked world that hunger still rasps millions of people in the richest country in history and that the poverty line still dangerously coincides with the colour line.
That the “coloured” mass will be moved safely above the poverty line is the most important expectation that Barack’s election will symbolise. But, of course, it will be a tall order. No individual — no matter how committed — can ever deliver such goods.
For, as Rutherford Hayes, one of America’s own presidents, once observed (daring to edit the apotheosised Abraham Lincoln), the District of Columbia’s is a “…government of the corporations by the corporations for the corporations…”
One of Barack’s great merits is that, while he is profoundly conscious of the people’s debilitating wants — their biological, mental and spiritual gnashing of teeth — in his nomination acceptance speech, he amply showed that he is also keenly aware of Hayes’ adage.
Joel Rogers and Joshua Cohen — two of America’s own distinguished political scientists — show, in their book On Democracy, that no denizen of the Oval Office has ever dared to move drastically to loosen the economic tyranny of the corporate family.
The best that anybody can do — if he wants to be elected or re-elected — is to pay lip service to “less government” and poverty alleviation at home and to the commitment, ever since Woodrow Wilson, to democracy, human rights and national self-determination in other countries.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx asserts that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. John F. Kennedy made history by becoming America’s first Roman Catholic president. And he was the first post-war candidate to fire the world’s imagination with wonderful vistas of the future.
He failed to deliver and ended up in tragedy. But aphorisms by individuals are not gospel truths. Marx’s epigram often comes to pass. But it is not an iron law. As members of a thinking animal, we need not automatically fit into the intellectual pigeonholes of analysis even by a political historian like Marx.
The upshot is that one can consciously and deliberately avoid repeating negative history. And, even where national or international circumstances should force one into repeating history, the repetition need not be farcical. This admonition is particularly germane to Barack.
Among the campaigners for the White House, none — certainly not Kennedy — has ever risen to the intellectual heights of Adlai Stevenson, that other son of Illinois. But Barack is also extraordinarily intelligent. And he is second only to JFK with that “human touch” which Stevenson so lacked.
In other words, Barack combines the intellectual force (which was so absent from the White House especially under Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush) and what Shakespeare called “the milk of human kindness” (of which, in post-war times, Jimmy Carter has been the only epitome).
But all were in office by virtue of the constitution, a document by which Thomas Jefferson and the revolutionary “founding fathers” do not even pretend to protect anything else but the corporate family’s property and “liberty”. Adherence to that constitution, then, is the best that we can expect of Barack.
Nevertheless, because he is not likely to treat any race with deliberate injustice, Barack Obama — like Jack Kennedy and a future Hillary Clinton — will have helped to liberate America from the racial, gender and sectarian dragon which has hag-ridden and debilitated that society for so long.