Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Barack Hussein Obama: A European Perspective

Picture from the guardian.co.uk
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The following article was published in a thin book of stories about Barack Obama's rise to power. After receiving my contributor's copy and after digesting my disappointment with the poor editing of my article, I'm posting it here in its original form for those of you who are interested. The article is touchy in that it borders on airing my political views. As the purpose of my blog is not political, I promise this will be the first and last post of this nature. Then, back to the road and my life as a silly adventurer.
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Last year was nothing less than a twelve-month Obamathon in Europe. The news in Germany, where I live, was dominated by the US Presidential race. Talk-show routines and advertising campaigns parroted the slogan “Yes We Can!” until most viewers were saying “Oh, Please don’t.” Just as every European country has its Britney Spears and its CSI-type television drama, politicians even began marketing themselves as their country’s Obama. In Germany’s case, it was a slightly overweight man with glasses and the charisma of vanilla yogurt. But at least for the first time in a long time, Europeans seemed to be saying we were doing something right.

As a US-American living in Germany for the last fourteen years, I went through Bill Clinton’s embarrassing ordeal and Al Gore’s saddest, George W. Bush’s unwon wars and Barack Obama’s victorious inauguration—all from a European perspective.

When Al Gore lost his bid for the Presidency, many Europeans shook their heads and wondered what was happening to America. Why had we elected a man like George W. Bush? A person, at least in the eyes of many Europeans, so unsuited to lead a country. “A country deserves the leader they elect,” the Germans said, remembering, and accepting the responsibility for, their own mistakes. So when now-President Barack Obama’s campaign began to gather momentum, people all over Europe began to hope for a sea change in American politics.

On vacation in Rome last summer, I was confronted by a stern group of Spanish tourists: “You are going to vote for Obama, aren’t you?” one of them “asked” me. She certainly saw a glimmer of hope for the world in Barack Obama. What’s more, she saw an Amercian politician who thinks more like she does. Her vehemence, however, was obviously more censure of Bush and the Republican party than praise for Obama.

I teach English in a large, international organization with employees from thirty-five countries in Europe. When I ask them what they think of President Obama, their reactions go something like “Anything’s better than Bush!” (the French); “Let’s wait and see” (Germans are always so cautious); and “Hoorah! Your first black president. It’s a miracle!” (practically everyone). This emotional reaction is not so different from that of many Americans. In the middle of the night when I got up to check the election results, I cried. And then I cried with Jesse Jackson during the inaugural ceremony, then during the parade, then even after I turned off the TV, then the next day when I was talking to my students. I’m crying as I write this right now.

During the election, however, my students were keenly interested in what I had to say about the candidates. I’d never felt so forced to have an opinion about anything in my life. (I’m not married, so I don’t have to answer questions like “Does this dress make me look fat?”) Last year my students bombarded me with questions like “Do you think your country is ready to elect a black person to the office of President?” and “Do you think Obama has the experience he needs to tackle the financial crisis?” and “Isn’t this exciting? What do you think about Obama’s latest book? Well, Chris? Well?” Often I was surprised to discover that my students were more excited—and better informed—than I was.

The overwhelmingly positive European perspective on Barack Obama is relevant since many of the reforms his administration wants to introduce have been working relatively well in Europe for quite some time. Europeans, unfazed by the word social, have scratched their heads for decades wondering when the US is going to see the logic of universal health care. Europeans are used to paying higher taxes and contributions to insure adequate health care, free university tuition, and safe highways. Oh, they grumble about high taxes and the availability of quality health care, but they also have sayings like “If you don’t pay much tax, you didn’t earn very much money either.” The point is, even with its problems, mandatory health care for everyone seems to be working for most Europeans, so they see a step in this direction positively; it is, after all, a step in their direction. In President Obama, people on my side of The Pond see an American politician who’s more European than most Americans, kind of like Boston is more European (the Germans adore Boston).

To more fully understand the European perspective on President Obama, first we need to understand their opinion of Americans in general—essentially the stereotypical American to whom many Europeans are comparing Obama. Europeans tend to generalize—unabashedly—much more than Americans do when it comes to their own subgroups. The Italians are passionate and funny but always late; the French work to live; the Germans live to work. The Nordic folks are obsessed with going to the sauna, but they’re great with languages. The British can’t cook. The Polish steal cars. That’s not fair, but stereotypes are rarely fair. A grain of truth means a silo of lies. Right? Still, when someone comes along to blast through the stereotype, it’s refreshing. And what is the stereotypical American in the eyes of the Europeans?

Many Europeans see the stereotypical American as a naive, overly consumptive prude who talks like he’s gnawing on a whole pack of chewing gum. We talk too much about ourselves and compliment others too much—using poor grammar. We’re condescending in situations when we really should keep our mouths shut. If George Bush put on a few pounds, he’d exemplify what Europeans find so upsetting about our country. In Barack Obama, they sense that America can stretch beyond this stereotype. Perhaps they even see the possibility of cultural rapprochement?

But they can’t help seeing something else as well: they see a black man with a name that sounds a lot like Osama. We see it too, so there’s no point ignoring it. Unofficially, a lot was made of this unfortunate rhyme during the campaign. Ill-informed folks all over the US began to bring up Barack Obama’s past in Indonesia as if this were sure to drive nails into his coffin. They even laughed and called him Barack Osama, which of course was an insult to Muslims as well as to the President-to-be and his family. Obama, Osama. Rhyme is powerful. We couldn’t help hearing it, but in the end I believe reason—even more powerful—won out.

What’s in a name anyway? My name means “follower of Christ” (Christopher) and “little rock” (Allen). Does this mean that I’m a Christian and pebble-like? Since our President’s name has been so central: Obama comes from a Kenyan Luo language (Arabic-based) and means “slightly bent or twisted”; Hussein is definitely Muslim and means “good” and “handsome”; Barack is very old, can be interpreted as coming from Arabic or Hebrew and means “blessed”. Except for that twisted part, all this sounds pretty good to me, and in the end the name sounded pretty good to a lot of people. But why? The fact that Barack Hussein Obama was elected President of the United States when the West is at war with Islamic extremists can be attributed partly to America’s extreme disappointment with the Bush administration. Europeans often see US-Americans as a people of extremes. It’s always been black or white for us. Nothing in between. Nothing?

Race, at first the elephant in the room during the campaign, became more and more important as it grew into an asset. Suddenly, we were all witnessing history. I didn’t like it. In Europe, less and less isolated from the frenzy of American TV as the campaign swallowed up every second of air time around the world, I began to see much more than a Euro-friendly, black politician with a Muslim name. To me, despite the color of his skin (his lips are a little blue in fact), I began to see Barack Obama as a person of mixed race. I like this. I love the fact that his background includes different religions, different cultures and Hawaii. I love the fact that he’s intelligent and not afraid of health care for everyone. I like the mix, but do I trust the politician?

Political discussions in Germany almost never focus on the politicians themselves. Chancellor Angela Merkel—the most powerful woman in the world—has been the most interesting German politician in a very long time, mainly because at the beginning of her career she looked like a dowdy housewife. Leave it to the Germans to romanticize their own blandness. Chancellor Merkel, from the former GDR, became Germany’s first female Chancellor after a long political career in the portly shadow of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Her legacy will start there, but she will also be celebrated as a politician who earned the respect of many Europeans as a great negotiator and a leader of integrity.

I believe the person Barack Obama represents the mix of America—not to mention the world—better than any “leader of the free world” ever has. When it comes to the President Barack Obama, the Germans have the right idea: respect must be earned. For sure, his legacy will start with the honor of being America’s first black President, but this should not be his legacy. America will be watchful. I’m sure President Obama will want to be judged vigorously according to his performance rather than his colors.


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Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type