The Election: Belief?

By Lou Rowan
with Leslie Kaplan, Françoise Palleau-Papin, Brian Marley, Ken Edwards, Paul Griffiths, and Keith Jebb *



The history past eight years (or is it 16, 20, 44, 52?) has been constricted by politics playing to our worst impulses, and our reporting media have been so pruriently complicit--that now we find ourselves believing in a politician?

It may make that much sense.

Maybe we've just rendered inoperative ee cummings' epigram,

a politician is an arse upon
which everything has sat except a man

American travelers outside business circles have a common experience beyond our borders: hosts politely testing our attitudes to Bush & Co., hosts relaxing when we show good faith by denouncing our leaders.

I did readings in France and England just before the election. Their media covered the events more cogently than ours; anticipation was intense everywhere we went. At the University of Paris Marc Chénetier asked me how I can write satire in a country that satirizes itself. But he was among the many of us wanting Obama to close the deal.

Michael Rothenberg has requested a report on European responses to the election, a job beyond my expertise, but I've gathered reactions from writers and intellectuals both sides of the Channel. You'll see a preponderance of hopeful takes on the new administration's request that we believe:

We are SO HAPPY, I think this is a very important historical moment, 'Times they are a-changin'....The words Obama said in Philadelphia and in Chicago are real words, with meaning....Even if things aren't going to be easy, already this has happened ! It's an example, for over here too. As you see I'm enthusiastic !
— Leslie Kaplan, novelist, playwright, France

Because of the time difference between France and the U.S.A., I went to bed when people were still voting. And when the radio alarm went off in the early morning of Wednesday, November 5th in France, it was still late at night on that wonderful Tuesday, November 4th in the U.S. My husband automatically switched it off. In my half awake state, I asked him to leave it on. We got the news right away, in mid sentence, the sense of excitement and the exultation were so clear. And although I know Obama's election is not a race issue only, I must admit that my first thought went to Martin Luther King. Lying in bed, I thought he must be turning over in his grave. He had won! So many years after his assassination.
You have to see my background for that; when I was about ten years old, I went to Catholic Sunday School to prepare for my first communion, and I still remember gluing photos of Martin Luther King on my copybook, and writing down what he had done and that he had been killed for his fight. In the big, awkward handwriting of a ten year old, I wrote down my indignation. How could anyone do such a thing? This was my Catholic girlhood in a white middle class suburb of Paris, not far from our own suburban ghettos full of North African immigrants who were considered second-class citizens at best.
Then I rushed to the television to watch CNN, not my favorite channel but the most necessary one at that moment. I saw him in Chicago, delivering his speech. It was a rerun soon after, not the actual moment. And I cried in front of the television.
He was in Chicago, where I lived for a year when I was twenty-one, as a teaching assistant in an exchange program, 19 ago now to be precise. He spoke from what I considered the heartland not only of the U.S. but of my life, that year abroad having mattered so much in my personal development. All these coincidences mattered to me in my complacency, but I knew that my emotion was no hysteria. It was the exhilarating realization that right had won. It went beyond politics, it did not vilify Senator McCain. And it went beyond the people who had voted for Obama. It spoke to everyone, to all peoples, and to me intimately. Wrongs had been righted. There was hope that I could stop being tired, defeated or cynical, that I could still believe in the future no matter how much I disliked my own current President, because no matter how grim the economic circumstances and how violent the wars between nations, within nations even, enough people could vote right and bring about this ethical revolution.

Our children felt it too. They were not with us that morning, but it was the first thing they spoke about that evening when they came back from their holiday away from us. They were happy. At age 10 and 12, they too got it, that indefinable feeling that something right had just happened.
— Françoise Palleau-Papin, Associate Professor of American Literature, University of Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle.

After Dubya Bush's disastrous terms in office, it's a pure joy to see that America has looked beyond its prejudices and elected Obama, a man who appears to have a much more balanced appreciation of America's role in the world than his predecessor. The arrogant bully-boy tactics that have passed for American foreign policy during much of the past decade will, I hope, be replaced by true diplomacy. Obama has serious domestic problems to deal with, most notably the economy, but out in the world there are two major problems he also has to address: Iraq and Israel. The invasion of Iraq was not only ill-conceived, it was unjustifiable and almost certainly illegal under international law. One could argue that it amounts to state terrorism. Having made this terrible error of judgment and brought Iraq to its knees, America, along with its subordinate but equally culpable partner Great Britain, has a moral obligation to rebuild the country's infrastructure and make whatever reparation is possible. But this in itself won't heal the wounds in the Middle East. America's largely uncritical support for Israel must cease. Israel views itself as a nation beleaguered by hostile neighbours, which is correct, but the blame lies almost entirely with Israel itself, which in its aggressive expansionism and dehumanizing treatment of the Palestinians within and without its borders has behaved like a rogue state. If Obama can do something positive about Iraq and Israel he'll go down in history as one of the great world leaders. I suspect he has that potential.
–Brian Marley, novelist, playwright, essayist, U.K.

Opinion polls show Obama would have won the election even more decisively in Britain, and it is not a surprise to read that bit of news. I cannot remember when the name and the standing of the USA have been dragged further into the mud - not even at the height of the Vietnam war - than during the past eight years. And so the result, as well as being a tectonic shift in American cultural politics, comes as an enormous relief to many of us in the UK. But here, amid all the speculation about the chances of a British equivalent of Obama being elected in this country, the elephant in this particular room is this: our head of state is a white, upper-class woman who got the job by reason of birth. She holds office, not for four or eight years, but until she dies; when she will be succeeded by a white, upper-class member of the same family. Truly, it has never been completely appropriate for us to sneer at American prejudice, ignorance and racism. We may have never much tolerated bible-punchers or gun-toters nor (officially) had apartheid-style policies in multi-ethnic Britain. But in many respects, in November 2008 we are several hundred years behind you Americans.
— Ken Edwards, poet, novelist, editor, U.K.

Reactions? Two. This will be better. Things can only get worse.

One salutes a noble man going into who-knows-what catastrophes, present and to come.
— Paul Griffiths, novelist, music scholar and critic

Grim thought: Reminds me of the election of Jimmy Carter--the weight of liberal expectation that broke him.  Is it even about Obama being black?  When he's got a white machine to run?

Less grim thought:

The time when the neocon monetarist dream turns into a lucid nightmare:  the first time since I studied economics at high school when a Keynsian can dare speak his name.  I wasn't impressed by the 'change' mantra (what change?  what ideology?) but this--a charismatic politician with a decisive left-of-centre agenda, at precisely the moment when people demand such policies.  That's perfect timing, the justhappeningtoalreadybethere thing.

Grimm thought:

"But Senator Palin, what big teeth you have!"

I guess the cab-drivers would put it more pithily....
--Keith Jebb, poet, U.K.


Obama appears to have written his books and to have labored over the words Leslie Kaplan and Françoise Palleau-Papin applaud. Can we trust him and his colleagues to act with humanity, no matter how much dross they've shoveled to make careers?

Take Eric Holder. He facilitated the venal pardon of Marc Rich, a wingéd tenor in the choir of Clinton financial angels. But shouldn't we be more concerned that Holder did the usual DC shuffle to a "powerful" law firm after his government "service" in the Justice Department? His clients include Chiquita Banana, direct heir to the United Fruit Company complicit in so many U.S. invasions and manipulations of Central and South American societies. Will this conventional amoral DC career (differing from his boss's rise from community organizing) impel Holder to abet, for example, the "war on drugs" destroying so much of Latin American society, and so many of our poor neighborhoods?

Like his boss, Holder seems decent, well-meaning. He has upstanding credentials, and a generally-progressive take on the issues. Does "change we can believe in" mean that the new group will change its own past practices?

America's aggressive mix of imperial cunning with barbaric ignorance may be unique. Can we wake from the tawdry nightmare of our modern history to confront neglected issues like hunger, poverty, peace with intelligence and courage? I want so much to believe our European friends are right about Obama: they tend to know us better than we do.

* Leslie Kaplan and Françoise Palleau-Papin write in French, but were kind enough to submit their responses in English.