When people preface a statement with the phrase “Words can’t express…” you know you’re going to hear quite a few words, and this won’t be an exception. I snapped awake at four A.M. London time last night to see where the election stood and got the news that Obama had just gone past the 270 electoral votes needed to win. A huge weight slid off mental shoulders, a weight built up over the eight groaningly awful years when the U.S.A. had been pushed into a terrifying decline by leadership incompetent and unethical to a point words can’t express. These were years when I got out of the country whenever I possibly could, ashamed of what my nationality had come to stand for in the global picture. Two stolen elections, an intransigent monopartisan Prez, WMD’s, the fictional “yellow cake,” the preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation against the will of the U.N., Abu Ghraib, the endless occupation, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and thousands of Americans killed or maimed for life, the Patriot Act I and II, phone-tapping, people detained at Guantanamo without habeas corpus or access to counsel, the refusal to sign Kyoto Accords and simultaneous undermining of environmental regulations at home, the Enron implosion, the Administration’s “outing” and dismissal of Valerie Plame, the politically motivated dismissal of legal personnel by the Attorney General, scandals revealed and then buried by the press, the abandonment of the poor of New Orleans devastated by hurricane and flood, the gutting of social programs, the showering of tax breaks on billionaires, financial deregulation and the unleashing of greed and resulting credit collapse in the financial sector… words cannot express. And it's drawing to a close, hallelujah!
BBC coverage gave me a picture of the wild mood of relief and celebration in America. Yet what comes as a delightful surprise is the exhilaration I’ve seen over here. The U.K. and all of Europe are jumping up and down and cheering. It’s as though Obama had been elected President of the World. Which, in an odd way, he has been. I find this humbling. The truth is, much of the globe deeply admires and enjoys the good things that U.S.A. has brought to the global table. It’s quite clear that people everywhere hope the President-elect can restore to full operation the America that they like and have emulated throughout the 20th century. It’s not just Americans who wanted America back. BBC channels were interviewing all sorts of people here for their reactions, and one incident reported was that a black child walking down Oxford Street, when he heard the news, said, “I’m going to be the first black Prime Minister!” Which means that Obama’s example has become a focus of aspiration not only for Americans but for people of color all over the world. Fixing historical pivots or turning points of any kind are always a bit arbitrary, but maybe we can say that today marks the end of the long, inhumane colonial imposture, based on the concept of a superior white overlord and an inferior dark underling.
When the January inauguration takes place, it will be almost exactly 400 years since the first Africans were brought as captives to North America. The story of their slow, agonized liberation is one of the great epics of modern history, to be placed beside other struggles of a like character, such as the emancipation of the Jews of Europe, the varied peoples of India, of Southern and Northern Ireland, and former colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. An epic deserves a resounding conclusion, and that conclusion comes with the new Administration. Although. We should know in advance that there will be some disappointments, Obama will not manage to do everything we might want him to do. He is a human being, not Superman, and from the Bush Administration he inherits the biggest governmental and economic disaster since the Hoover years. I intuit that he is more Centrist than Left. He has Congress to deal with, fifty fractious states, and a judicial branch mostly put in place by the previous Republican Administration—facts that for good or ill limit his influence. But his value as a symbol is unquestionable. The change he will bring will come partly by the decisions he makes, but also simply by his historical identity. Being a redemptive symbol is no small thing. If an African-American can be President, why not a woman, why not a Jew, why not a Native American, a Latino, an Asian, and why not a gay person?
If we turn to the arts, this may be the best moment to advance a theory that has been on the back burner of my mind for several years now. When the government of a nation is as terrible as ours has been for eight years, the arts necessarily suffer. During the Bush years American artists lost their confidence. The fiction that America and its cultural productions stood for freedom and justice was exposed as a fraud. Most artists thrust their heads safely in the sand and produced art that made no reference at all to what has been going on, winning for themselves some sort of sponsorship from the right wing, and at the same time a pitiable irrelevance. Others—the minority—responsibly tackled the problem of making art and witness, imagination and criticism, somehow coincide. We have a few glowing examples of an engaged art made in the past eight years. But here’s the painful paradox: for whatever reasons based in human psychology, art whose prime motive force is didactic doesn’t inspire complete and unqualified assent. Art is most itself when it praises and when it consoles. How, during the last eight years, could American artists find much to praise in America and to console us for what it had become? Perhaps, perhaps, a new era is being ushered in, when it will be possible not to feel shame and anguish about our nationality, or at least not so much as to prevent us from working well and rediscovering the confidence that made American cultural productions as bold, original, strongly constructed, and liberating as they have been for nearly two centuries. I heartily hope it will be so. Words cannot express how much I hope it will be so.