What’s all the fuss about Barack Obama? The Democrat Illinois Senator keeps popping in our Australian media, a rising star who made it without much money or publicity. He’s young, handsome, African-American and half white. He’s also a writer who communicates in a plain, straightforward style about the major issues confronting us today.
His first book Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) is an autobiography, and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream concerns itself with Obama’s political thought. The latter has been described as a thesis submission for the U.S Presidency.
The title does put you off – it sounds like something out of Oprah’s book of the month club (she happens to be a big fan), leading you to think it’s going to be a book chocka block full of feel good motherhood statements. Yet by book’s end, I was completely won over. And saddened. Why can’t Australia’s Liberal or Labor parties produce a Barack Obama? Why can’t we have an Opposition that is, well, like an opposition? Labor’s candidate for the seat of Bennelong, Maxine McKew, claims to find Barack Obama an inspiration. Maybe we should cross our fingers and hope she can pull off a miracle and win John Howard’s seat.
The Audacity of Hope is not a revolutionary book, with neat and clever policy prescriptions for every conceivable issue. It doesn’t rattle with a leftist fervour, or march with right ring certainty . Nor does it garrison itself behind an ideologically set in stone position, firing pot shots at political enemies. In fact, The Audacity of Hope almost reads like a doubter’s companion. Barack Obama doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and admits to the possibility of making mistakes. At times his honesty can be quite disarming.
In the prelude, the author describes a brief meeting with a journalist who praised his first book, and wondered whether he would now be able to write as interesting a second one. Obama interpreted this as meaning, will I be able to remain honest now that I am a U.S senator? ‘I wonder, too, sometimes,’ he tells us. ‘I hope writing this book helps me answer the question.’
The book is divided into seven chapters covering subjects such a family, faith, race, politics and of course, what U.S foreign policy should be, something perhaps that Howard and Rudd should be paying more than a cursory glance at. Imagine should Barack Obama win the presidency, and Howard win a fifth term. Howard will find himself making quite a few zig-zags on Australia’s foreign policy.
Barack Obama’s overriding philosophy is that the left wing, right wing political divide has people so bogged down and blinkered that any kind of real debate or dialogue is now impossible.
The pro-choice camp will not listen to pro-lifers and their valid concerns. Gay activists demanding gay marriage will not hear their opponents. Black leaders cannot appreciate the fears whites may have when it comes to affirmative action. Critics of George Bush will not try to understand his motivations.
In one of the most arresting lines in the book, Obama states starkly what is everyone’s political responsibility: ‘No one is exempt from the call to find common ground.’
Elaborating on this theme, he says:
‘That’s what empathy does – it calls us to all to task, the liberal and the conservative, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.’
Australian readers will probably find the chapter on faith most instructive. American religious zeal is something that most bamboozles us about Americans. We don’t have the same thing here. We don’t have fierce culture wars over abortion, gay marriage and intelligent design.
Obama discusses the history of religion in the United States, claiming there has been no recent resurgence of belief over the past so many years, but rather that it has always been there, merely misread by the wishful thinking of certain sociologists and commentators. The libertarian sixties never did defeat America’s religious values.
Barack Obama himself was not brought up himself in any particular faith. His father was a Muslim turned atheist. His mother was a bookish skeptic. Rather than bring up her son Christian, she educated the young Barack in all of the world’s religions. ‘In our household, the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-Gita sat on the shelf alongside books on Greek and Norse and African mythology.’
Despite this, Obama himself found God in the black church, and can thus relate to and understand the high level of religious feeling in the United States. ‘I was drawn to the African-American religious tradition to spur change,’ he writes.
This has brought him into some conflict with his co-religionists. On abortion, he believes there should be an emphasis on reducing pregnancy terminations, but ultimately defends a woman’s right to choose. Gay marriage he does not support, but sees no reason why committed gay couples cannot enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexual couples.
In short, Obama believes every issue should be decided on its merits, using common sense, not some blinkered left / right wing ideology. Nor does he believe in demonising political opponents, insisting that we listen and be courteous when encountering an opposite view. We are not always right in our arguments, and should be prepared to change our minds over issues.
Obama was an early opponent of the Iraq war, believing it was ‘dumb’ and ‘rash’. This is not to say he does not believe in military interventions. ‘There will be times when we must again play the role of the world’s reluctant sheriff. This will not change – nor should it.’
‘I would also argue that we have the right to take unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security – so long as an imminent threat is understood to be a nation, group or individual that is actively preparing to strike U.S targets.’
Even though Obama maintains the U.S should have this right to strike unilaterally, he believes multilateralism is a better way to go, and that building global support for U.S goals should be a major plank of U.S foreign policy. A Barack Obama administration would be all about consultation with the world, not the ‘you’re with us or against us’ approach of the Bush administration.
Barack Obama’s stripped back, no frills, common sense approach to politics reminded me of a slim volume of essays by political scientist Christopher Lasch called The Revolt of the Elites and The Betrayal of Democracy. In that book Lasch was highly critical of the left wing (whose major failings he described as the welfare state) and right wing (free markets), saying they had destroyed any type of public debate. Religion, Lasch also wrote, was completely misunderstood by its critics, whose philosophies had nothing as good to replace it with.
Lasch described the political debate thus:
‘The old dispute between left and right has exhausted its capacity to clarify issues and to provide a reliable map of reality. In some quarters the very idea of reality has come into question, perhaps because the talking classes inhabit an artificial world in which simulations of reality replace the thing itself.’
Barack Obama does not offer earth shattering political visions; you can’t ever imagine an ‘ism’ ever being attached to his name. If that ever happened surely he could be discounted a failure.
What he is trying to do is start some type of real dialogue – free of cant, free of dogma. A dialogue where the views of ordinary citizens are welcome, and where they help to actually create the society they live in.
If financial contributions are anything to go by, it seems that for the moment Barack Obama has built a genuine grass roots campaign. Some $10 million of his $33 million campaign donations for the second quarter of this year have come from contributions of $200 or less – a figure that has stunned many campaign finance experts. Could this be the start of something big?
Call me naieve, but I’m hoping Barack Obama becomes the fourty-fourth American president. He’s no political saviour, but he could point us in a better direction.