'I, Barack Hussein Obama...'
A cathartic moment, a sudden change of vista and a vision of hope -- the election of Barack Obama as the next US president was all these things, despite some ominous signs of things to come, writes Hamid Dabashi*
On Tuesday, 4 November 2008 at 6:57 am, I cast my first and only vote during my American sojourn for Barack Hussein Obama. You are the second person to vote, sir, a young Korean-American official told me at Election District 88 where I live with a smile, as her African-American colleague took my New York State driving licence and looked up my name on the roster of registered voters.
Another African-American official guided me to the polling booth and made sure the black plastic curtain was tightly drawn behind me. I looked at the oversize machine up close and personal. I had never seen it before -- this old and revered democratic machinery, so full of historic memories hidden in its sinuous mechanisms, now facing me like an aging giant, with, embedded in its grooves and wheels, the anticipation of that beautiful autumnal day.
In New York, we are told, this was to be the last time that these old-fashioned machines were to be used. I did not know how to use it. Did someone use this machine to vote for Dwight Eisenhower in November 1952, when I was just one year old? Did he know that the president he helped get elected would (a few months into office) deny me the chance of facing one of these machines in the Iran of my youth, so that I too would learn how to use it?
I turned around and through the plastic curtain asked the official behind me how the voting machine worked. She looked at me with a poker face and said there were instructions to my left, "sir." Read them! I did. I first had to draw the curtain behind me, the instructions said, then pull the red lever on the machine all the way to the right. I did that too. There was a mechanical assuredness to the move -- it opened the gate of choices in front of me, foreign and familiar. Then mark your selections on the panel in front of you, the instructions said. I did that too, by turning a small black switch in front of Barack Obama's name ("Hussein" was missing), right on top of Joe Biden as his Vice President and a list of other Democrats running for office on the same ballot.
After making my selections, making sure that a dark black X (just like Malcolm's last name) was in front of Barack Obama and Joe Biden and all their other Democratic buddies, I had to turn the long red lever all the way left, the instructions said, and so I did. The machine now sounded "locked." My choice was registered. I voted for Barack ("Hussein" missing on the ballot) Obama.
The New York day on that fateful Tuesday morning was long and electrified -- everything was abuzz with the thing called "history." Above all, children were visible on that fateful day -- parents taking them along to take their pictures on voting lines, against campaign posters -- for posterity. Rushing, meanwhile, to polling stations, rescheduling their day based on the length of the line they had to wait in, all the while arranging to have a few friends over for takeaway Chinese that evening, while glued to the television screen as the electoral votes were counted, waiting for Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida -- the swing states that could go one way or another -- their parents waited until exactly 11pm Eastern Standard Time when Wolf Blitzer at CNN and Keith Olberman at MSNBC went cosmic and declared Barack Obama the elected president.
From our apartment windows on the Columbia University campus on the Upper West Side of Manhattan we could hear the gradual but steady outburst of joyous screams, spontaneous songs, initially murmuring, but, like Ravel's Boléro, ever so slowly beginning to crescendo. The melodious joy began in Harlem to our east and north and slowly spread citywide. Ella Fitzgerald was in the air, as was Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
All the way from Harlem to Times Square, young people were pouring into the streets, cars and trucks blowing their horns, the privacy of homes and the solitude of living rooms nowhere near enough to contain this explosion of joy. In more than 30 years of living in this country I had never seen anything like this -- an instantaneous outburst of inarticulate happiness, a gushing forth of ecstatic delight simply to be alive at this dawn of a renewed covenant with history.
It was the end of a long day for ordinary folks, after a far longer number of years and decades and a catastrophe called "George W. Bush," but what a blessed sight for the world finally to heave a sigh of relief, to awake from the nightmare, and to see the light, that good can happen! It was a cathartic moment, a sudden change of vista and a vision of hope -- for all of us to have been around, to be here at this moment, to see this come to pass, and to imagine (in our fondest dreams, if not our damnedest delusions) America other than it has been.
OBAMA MAY NEVER do a thing he has promised -- but that will detract nothing from tonight. For tonight he belonged to eternity, to the succession of African slave ships brought to this shore, to the millions of African-Americans upholding their dignity against racism, sustaining their struggle, facing bigotry fiercely and awaiting victory. Along with millions of others, Jesse Jackson, an aging warrior of the Civil Rights Movement, was crying on television for the whole world to watch: the tears of African- Americans, young and old, remembering their parents' sufferings, their bondage, their history, and now this cathartic moment. What an unsurpassed honour to have been alive, to have been part of it, to have witnessed it, to have cast a silent and humble vote for it!
This night belonged to Malcolm X, to W E B Du Bois, to Martin Luther King, Jr, to Booker T Washington, to Frederick Douglass, to Harriet Tubman, Miles Davis, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and it belonged to every defiant soul who has stood up to the tyranny of white racism, has said no to injustice, and has upheld the dignity of an entire people on behalf of humanity at large, just in order to stay alive and see the dawn of this day.
From the economic meltdown of the nation under the rapacious capitalism that Milton Friedman had prescribed, to the Neoconservative imperialism that the Bush administration had heralded, this new generation has much to rethink and even more to redress. In these terms, the victory of Barack Obama is a momentous occasion for Americans to reclaim their country and seek to place it on a more just and equitable path both internally and globally. Will Obama succeed? Will he be the new face of American imperialism, or will he face the monumental challenge of leading his country back to humanity, to share in its responsibilities and perform its duties? No one can answer these questions, and they should only be raised after saluting the cathartic liberation of African-Americans, the redemption of their perseverance and the vindication of their rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As an emancipatory signifier, Barack Obama runs ahead of Barack Obama the politician, who can never catch up with what he has unleashed. During this election year, I have already written twice against the position of Obama on Palestine. Both these occasions have been heart- wrenching for me -- attacking the symbol of what I hold dearest in the country I have adopted and my children call home. I look at Obama and I see Malcolm X -- resurrected, refined, with a gentility and generosity in and about his soul that my lifetime hero never managed to convey. I look at Obama and I see W E B Du Bois -- returned to lend the catholicity of his learning, the generosity of his global vision, and the sharp whip of his critical intelligence to his African great-grandson. There is a synergy between him and the rest of us, remembering what he must, if not what he does, represent.
The vote I cast for Obama has been a lesson in humility for me in a world that is so crowded with harsh realities that there is always the danger that one's clean-cut convictions will degenerate into paralytic inaction. "I will not vote for Obama. I will vote for Ralph Nader," declared a prominent American liberal in a speech he delivered at a conference at the Palestine Center in Washington DC in October, where I also gave a talk. Obama's chief Middle East advisor, he rightly said, is Dennis Ross, and Ross is an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) man, and the co-founder of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
OF COURSE: what else is new? But the henna of that sort of Neoliberalism, of what passes as "left" in this country, has no colour for me. These people are the same folks that believe that the US invasion of Afghanistan was a "just war." Their vote for Ralph Nader was a vote for George W Bush in 2004, and in 2000 it cost Al Gore the presidency. This is no judgment on the cause of Ralph Nader, who has for a lifetime been a voice of reason and sanity in this country, and precisely for that reason has had less than a snowball's chance in hell of being its president. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the centre of American politics has swung so much to the right that it will take generations to set it back to any meaningful centre. The time for ideological purity and political impotence has long since lapsed.
Obama's AIPAC speech is one among many stains on his character and his campaign. His dismissal of his lifetime pastor Jeremiah Wright was even worse. His speech on Father's Day, siding with the most racist stereotypes of black males as the irresponsible fathers of single mothers' children, was even worse. But what do you do with the explosion of a joyous scream on the face of a teenage girl in Harlem, bursting into tears when Obama is elected president? Expect sustained and relentless mobilisation to make her (not Obama) see and identify with the suffering of her Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian, or Lebanese sisters and brothers?
There is much about Obama that will remain a stain on his campaign, the most important being his pandering to the fictional "Jewish vote." As I have said repeatedly, Palestine remains the absolute limit to his moral imagination. But the other side of the equation is that nothing he has done to convince that cabal of American Zionists has actually convinced them. They have conveniently placed themselves in both camps -- with the Israeli agent-at-large Joe Lieberman in McCain's camp, and with Dennis Ross in Obama's. So, the American electorate could take its pick -- McCain or Obama -- AIPAC was already there.
But there is always a flip side to the presumption of power. When Obama went to Florida, yet again to try to convince voters that he was really for Israel, he was told in a synagogue that they would vote for him only if he "changed his name to 'Barry.'" Obama again ran for cover, this time by changing the etymology of his first name (Barack, from the Arabic trilateral root BRK, meaning "Blessed") from Arabic to Hebrew: "I think people shouldn't worry about the name," he assured the members of the synagogue, "because my understanding is that in Hebrew it actually means 'lightning'. You've had a prime minister named Barack in Israel. It should be pretty familiar to this audience."
Obama's supporters, chief among them the millions of young and progressive Jews deeply troubled by such racist behaviour in their name, will give an abundance of explanations as to why he has acted thus. But there is no explaining away the fact that at the most glorious moment in this nation's history, pro-Israeli fanatics have opted to mark this history with their own mendacious banality, bringing it down to their own level, just as the soul of the nation wanted to soar. Call yourself "Barry" if you want my vote. Barack Hussein Obama did not change his name to "Barry," and he was elected the next president of the United States. Where does that leave the members of that synagogue in Florida? Barack Hussein Obama won Florida, in no small measure because of the heroic and exemplary activism of generations of progressive Jews.
Ultimately, I voted for Obama for all the right reasons, reasons that in the course of the grueling presidential campaign were turned upside down and turned into causes not to vote for him. I voted for Obama because the noble anger of Malcolm X resonates gently in his two books ( Audacity of Hope and Dreams from my Father ), and no matter how hard he now tries to conceal the cadences of Malcolm's voice and speech patterns we can still hear the Muslim revolutionary emerge from under Obama's sweet and gentle demeanour.
I VOTED FOR OBAMA because for two long and formative decades he was graced by the prophetic voice of Jeremiah Wright, the liberation theologian who lent Obama the title of his book -- "The Audacity of Hope" -- and preached to him in the abiding moral voice of a nation in search of its better angels. I voted for Barack Obama for the courage he once had to seek the company of Bill Ayers, the defiant voice of the Civil Rights Movement, whom John McCain and Sarah Palin called a "domestic terrorist." If Bill Ayers once saw something in Obama worthy of his friendship, then there must have once been something good in Obama.
I voted for Obama because he once sought the friendship of Rashid Khalidi and through him sat at a table with Edward Said, and his ears must still resonate with the voice of the Palestinian dispossession the way that only Edward Said could articulate it. Obama may have judged it expedient to forfeit the company of those voices and visions for that of the AIPAC apparatchiks that have now gathered around him and will inform his foreign policy in their region of interest. But when he sits in the Oval Office with Dennis Ross and other AIPAC agents to decide what to do about Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan, I can only hope and imagine that the ghosts of his past -- from Malcolm X through Jeremiah Wright to Bill Ayers and Edward Said -- have left in him a smidgen of decency and courage.
Like millions of other nameless and voiceless Americans I have no power to summon Obama into a synagogue (or church, or mosque, for that matter) and have the rudeness to tell him I will vote for him if he changes his name from Barack to something more palatable to my taste. I would have voted for him if his name had been George W. Bush and he had had the same audacity of hope. All I had was one vote, and like millions of other ordinary people in my city I cast it for him. I voted for him because the undying moral subconscious of Americans has kept him company throughout his life. If in his readings and writings, in his community activism and political aspirations, he has kept the company of the best, the noblest, and the most courageous that this nation has had to offer -- from Malcolm X to Jeremiah Wright to Bill Ayers to Edward Said -- then they too must have seen something worthy in him. If he sought their company, and they thought him worthy of theirs, he has more than earned my vote.
Will Obama be the new face of American imperialism, or will he bring America into the fold of humanity at large? It is too early to tell. But already, days into his election, there are two ominous signs. The first is the appointment of Congressman Rahm Israel Emanuel, an Israeli citizen and Israeli army veteran, and a man with a position on Iraq and Palestine that is to the right of that of George W. Bush, and whose father was a member of Menachem Begin's infamous Irgun forces during the Palestinian Nakba. The second sign is equally troubling. Upwards of per cent of African-Americans who voted for Obama in California also voted for Proposition 8, making it impossible for gays and lesbians to exercise their civil liberties and legally register their marriages if they so wished.
In other words, the same voters who wholeheartedly made this cathartic moment of having the first African- American as president have possibly now denied American gays and lesbians in California their most fundamental and inalienable human rights and civil liberties. One might think that these issues are minor and incidental in the larger scale of things. But they are not. In the same way that the Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian, and Lebanese predicament is integral and definitive to American foreign policy, so are gay and lesbian human rights to the safeguarding of Americans civil liberties.
Rabbi Michael Lerner has also pointed to another link between the appointment of Rahm Emanuel and the depressing message it sends to anti-war activists and activists on domestic issues. "It's not just the pro-peace and reconciliation forces that are unlikely to be given a serious hearing in a White House in which Rahm Emanuel controls who gets to talk to the president," Rabbi Lerner warns. "Emanuel will almost certainly be protecting Obama from all of us spiritual progressives and those of us who describe ourselves as the Religious Left -- so that our commitment to single-payer universal health care, carbon taxes for environmental protection, a Homeland Security strategy based on generosity and implemented through a Global Marshall Plan, will be unlikely to get a serious hearing in the White House."
But be that as it may. On this momentous occasion, though "in equal scale weighing delight and dole," this liberating election must first and foremost be celebrated and not marred by any premature and undue hesitation. This moment belongs to African-Americans and to the generations and centuries of suffering they have endured. The celebration comes with a clear understanding that the colour line is no longer the problem of the twenty-first century.
Any concerns at this moment will have to remain theoretical conjectures in anticipation of the months and years that will follow that fateful day of Tuesday, 20 January 2009, when one singularly charismatic African-American will stand on the historic steps of the United States Capitol, with his hand on the Bible, and swear his oath of office in the voice he has learned from Malcolm X: "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear..."
Along with the millions of ordinary, decent, courageous, and hopeful Americans who have voted for him and made this moment possible, the world has every reason to join the occasion and listen to the assured nobility of that voice. Even more than to that solemn oath, the world will hold Obama accountable to that voice.
* The writer is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University in New York.