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Barack Obama and the Idea of America

by Benjamin Ramm



Sí se puede
Yes, it is possible [colloquially translated as ‘Yes, we can’]

Si se puede
If it is possible (i.e. without the accent over the ‘i’)

In his 2004 essay ‘The Idea of Europe’, George Steiner savours the semantic shifts that shape and solder civilisations: “It is an exaggeration”, he remarks, “but a suggestive exaggeration, to affirm that a false translation of Greek ‘being’ into Ciceronian Latin determined the destiny of Europe”. In forging the future of America, Barack Obama must be wary of such slippages; earlier this year, his campaign team omitted that crucial accent (Sí) in a television advert targeted at Latino communities, perhaps infusing a hint of doubt into the compelling message that ‘It’ – the abundant society, the immigrant Eden – is possible.

Steiner’s Old World explorations may also shed light on elements of Obama’s candidacy, and his ability to conjure an idea of America at once distinct from its forebear in philosophical outlook and yet derived from its intellectual ferment. The Europe evoked by Steiner is Geschichtsmüde – weary of history; a continent haunted by its heritage of “war, famine, deportation, ethnic slaughter” and with an acute sense of its own ending (“that famous Hegelian sunset”). America, by contrast, is all “sunrise and futurity” – the very image chosen to promote Obama’s campaign – and the promise of eternal dawn (Adlai Stevenson: “There is a new America every morning when we wake up. It is upon us whether we will it or not”). In America, it is not so much that History is “bunk”, as Mitt Romney’s hero once remarked, but that it is subsumed into a narrative fixated on the future; for Obama speaks not of history, but of America’s ‘story’:

In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope...we will begin the next great chapter in America’s story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea: Yes We Can.
                                                                                          (New Hampshire concession speech)

To reflect on a nation’s ‘story’ is to intimate at an alternative reading of the past, one dedicated to moving beyond recrimination and remorse. The European, who yearns for union, stumbles instead over piled bodies of histories: “from Sarajevo [1914] to Sarajevo [1995]”, writes Steiner; the Balkans is testament to the road more travelled. Some of America’s fictions, such as its ‘discovery’ myth, are doubtless dangerous elisions, born of a ‘creative amnesia’ that facilitates her ‘eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’. But it would be wrong to suggest, as George Packer did recently in the New Yorker, that “Obama almost seems to be trying to escape history”: rather, his movement is about the re-centring of this ‘story’ in the nation’s political landscape; about the refashioning of America in the image of ‘America’. This concept – of a country conceived through the affirmation of universal rights – sustains its patriotism despite the PATRIOT Act and Guantánamo Bay: in fact, the more America violates this vision, the more the idea of ‘America’ is vindicated. (And so paradoxically, perhaps, the fewer violations that occur, the more this beacon dissipates...). Most European nations, especially those created through separation, annexation or mediation, possess nationalisms less resolute than the United States; and yet, the seemingly insoluble ‘Moment in History’ that is America is in real danger of passing – for the rise of China challenges not only the supremacy of American power, but also the primacy of its ‘story’: the East Asian model is unsentimental, for example, about many First Amendment rights. Subsequently, there is a very real sense that what Obama calls “Our Moment” may yet prove to be the final opportunity to script America’s future.

Mark Twain once observed that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. Forty years after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Obama’s message has chimed with the optimism of an earlier generation eager for change, one which exuded what R.F.K. described as the ‘spirit of youth’: “not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease”. Bobby’s infectious energy, his striking sincerity and quiet confidence all resonate in Obama, together with that emphasis on “moral courage”, on restoring definition to the American project and correcting the country’s ethical compass. In what he calls America’s “saga” – a term which evokes the familial and the epic – such opportunities demand to be seized, as John F. Kennedy noted in a television debate with Richard Nixon in 1960:

I think that the tide could begin to run against us, and I don’t want historians ten years from now to say, these were the years when the tide ran out for the United States. I want them to say, these were the years when the tide came in, these were the years when the United States started to move again.

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