Reasons to be Cheerful

[Some thoughts on the election of Barack Obama, edited from my post on the Empty Space message board]

…Although there are reasons to be concerned, and the Obama presidency can’t possibly live up to all that’s expected of it, I think there are more reasons for optimism than for pessimism.

I keep looking back to the 1997 Labour landslide (to the tune of “Won’t get fooled again”), but I think there are important differences. Obama seems more intellectually curious than Blair, and more of a pragmatic realist than Mr. “no reverse gear” (though of course it’s hard to gauge these things until the policy-making gets underway). Crucially, Obama has been elected at a time when America is at its lowest point in over 50 years, whereas Blair came to power when the economy was already climbing and everyone was talking about “cool Brittania” ruling the waves. Blair squandered opportunities because he was too scared of upsetting the gravy train, too worried about losing his grip on power. Obama has a far greater opportunity for making radical changes, if only because he has less to lose.

It’d be foolish to expect overnight miracles, but there have been some very interesting and positive signs since the election result. The most obvious thing to me was the return of loud American accents to London – signs of a people coming out of hiding, no longer ashamed. I also detected a new sense of pride in black people I saw, whether friends & colleagues, strangers serving me in shops, or just kids hanging out around the housing estates of White City (now there’s an ironic name). There also (though I could be imagining it) seemed to be a greater two-way respect, and a greater willingness to communicate between white & black. And I think this is echoed throughout the world, with countries from France to Iran happy to praise Americans for their choice of president.

I’m not someone who believes in seismic overnight changes in public opinion and behaviour. Generally, I think that the mood of society changes at atomic level, and it’s only over years, decades, even centuries that we can spot big changes. For example, same-sex relationships have become increasing accepted over the last 20 years, but it’s hard to think of any particular day when everyone woke up and said “you know what? Gay people are OK really”. In science, it’s said that you have to wait for a generation of scientists to die before any radical new theory can take hold. I don’t think that Obama’s election suddently makes the world an OK place, but I do think that it’s accelerated the changes which are very gradually breaking down racial prejudices across much of the world, and it bodes well for future generations (should we manage to keep the world in one piece for them…)

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