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think different: the new american

November 5, 2008

The night when Barack Hussein Obama was elected as the new U.S. president, adding new meanings to the American identity, I prefer to look at some photographs from the past. And then accompany them with few comments of scepticism.

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Lee Friedlander (Paul Tate, Lafayette, Louisiana 1968)

Watching the elections through the BBC channel, it impressed me how two Republican representatives reacted to Obama’s victory, when the journalists put them under pressure… The first one, a well-dressed white woman,  (after commenting how worried she now was about the new political landscape) she called it – in the end – an example of the american dream. In America, the land of opportunity, everyone truly has the chance to make it to the top. And then she laughed about it. The second one, a white mid-age man with a thick moustache, big glasses and a strong voice, (after an emotional monologue merely interested in proving everyone wrong, especially if dared to describe this as a slide victory), he finally uttered that at least no one can accuse USA for being racist any more. And then he laughed about it.

I’m afraid that these comments are so contrived and misleading that cannot easily get excused. Even after we grant for the anxiety of those individuals, who suddenly were losing their grip on power.  Because, there is nothing more dangerous than simplifying and reducing reality into a view which hides half or most of it!.. These comments – in their desparate and selfish attempt to twist the meaning of the elections into something positive about themselves – are simply part of a deception (why do politicians feel the need to do that?). One mere example, such as Obama’s success, as we all know it does not reveal what really happens, neither constitutes a rule. The ‘american dream’, a well-circulated and generalised myth, has certainly never been shared equally among the candidates; neither americans ever had a similar start or outcome (see the social effects of differentiated education, capital, social connections, first immigrant generation, incarceration, disability, etc). As we also know, one piece of evidence (Obama’s victory), despite how striking, does not invalidate all the other patterns of problematic evidence, neither does provide any ground for arriving at causal conclusions.

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Margaret Bourke-White (Bread Line during the Louisville flood, Kentucky 1937)

To offer here one example, think of John Major, who became a British Prime Minister in the 1990s, despite of his rather lower social background. This however did not mean that the possibility for upward social mobility in the social order, shared by the people of lower strata, was any high. Neither that they had any equal opportunities to access valuable resources, as much as the more privileged social classes! In fact, the opposite was true during the second half of the last century (for example, the studies have shown that approximately only 1 in 6 university students have a working class background). All the same, and without underestimating the symbolic value of voting an African American as a political leader, this does not mean that racism has suddenly evaporated from American society!… (For a general sociological introduction see a wikipedia article about social mobility here)

So, I prefer to remain sceptical to all this. For many people this now seems as the beginning of a new era. It might be. It might be not. Politicians and media corporations tend to throw smoke over our eyes – in order to protect their interests; people hardly ever come close about realising where social and political power really lies and how it is interconnected; and most of our society seems to work today in order to erect banners with rhetorical catchy phrases under charming commodities, rather than dealing with the complexity of our problems and our ideas, and the constant conflicts shaping social reality.

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Lee Friedlander (New York 1962)

“Think different” which is the title of this post, highlights the emergence of a new mind set, for example one against social prejudice, fear and exploitation, and in favour of democratic social change and social rights. However, during the last decade, as you probably know already, “think different” has also been the advertising slogan of a well-known corporate business, which is – arguably – hardly associated with any social ideals, apart from promoting a seemingly attractive marketing platform for selling its products! So, what is the ‘real’ meaning of this phrase… which one is what?

If anything, when people say ‘oh this would help race relations’ I find myself wanting to whisper: You know, “race” does not really exist.. yes, it may sound almost unbelievable but actually “race” is no more than an outdated ideological construct… and yes, I know, this fact alone will not resolve too many problems…

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Lee Friedlander (Virginia 1961)

Clearly, I am not denying the opportunity for social change driven by people’s movements, but it seems to me that societies are not simply predisposed towards promises of democracy, liberty, and equal opportunity: They also appear needing to periodically experience the euphoria of a promised change.  I believe that we all do need in terms of democracy, peace, liberal rights, and equal opportunity right now, and so I welcome the glimpses of a world change relating to today’s historical event, the “audacity of hope” in Obama’s own words, but I remain deeply sceptical to messianic figures.

Nevertheless,  the United States electorate should be proud for their new president. For this sole instance – even if just a moment in history yet – is breaking off from a very long and claustrophobic perspective of politics (see relevant post below). Just to a limited extent, part of the great historical sins of our past are also addressed now. For example, the fact that white people were writing about the new constitution of the human rights – just few generations back – whilst they had black slaves, and never saw that as a problem. They were actually useful in carrying the pens and papers around… Such has been the extreme blindness of our so called Western civilisation.

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Rosa Parks sitting on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956. (© Bettmann/Corbis). On 1 December 1955 she refused to give up her bus seat to a white bus passenger in Montgomery. She was arrested but this action started a chain of events that brought about the end of legally enforced segregation of blacks and whites in the US.

A supporter said during an interview, how glad he was for Americans changing their image, both of how they see themselves and how the world is viewing them. I think he was right. But there is more to every image than simple representation. Now, the chase between reality and perception is on again!

© Posted by C.S.

kal_economist_6nov08_300px(09 Nov 2008) PS: It seems that others share a sense of scepticism as well. See, for example, Kal’s cartoon from The Economist (08/11/2008). It appearss to warn against the widespread bliss.  The task ahead is difficult even for the talented. If anything, simply because ‘the world is a mess’ (p.25).

***

Relevant post: ‘Candidate with a cane’ (28/04/2008) about the politically constructed image of F.D.Roosevelt

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 29, 2010 1:54 am

    If only more than 42 people would hear about this!

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