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A Stunning Contrast
Last uploaded : Tuesday 8th Jan 2008 at 15:10
Contributed by : The Editor


7 January 2008


There is a weird synchronicity to the events of this week : elections in three countries thousands of miles apart and spanning three great continents have caused major political earthquakes.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan has thrown that nation’s election agenda off course and the country has been on the brink of civil war since the 27 December murder in Rawalpindi.

The synchronicity -- to wit, irony -- of the American Presidential primary race set against the murderous violence in Kenya is the story that intrigues me to the core of my being.

For years many Britons on both the left and right have thrown at me the legacy of racism and slavery that forms part of the history of my native United States of America. Recently cries of ‘racism’ and of the USA being an uncontrollably violent society have dominated the conversation in social situations; I try to remind my London critics that the tragic massacre at Virginia Tech was an isolated case in a huge nation with thousands of peaceful university campuses. I also remind Londoners who think I come from the most racist nation in the world that Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon seventeen years ago and that Britain does not have anyone in public life of the stature of Condoleezza Rice, nor has it produced a Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton or Oprah Winfrey. (If the USA is so relentlessly racist, how did Oprah become a billionaire and how have so many black entertainers and entrepreneurs become internationally esteemed? )

In Britain in 2007 there was an unprecedented rise in teen crime and homicides. ‘The Evening Standard’ newspaper recently listed 257 gangs operating in London and the Home Counties. Race relations are not good in Britain.

And so it was on 3rd January 2008 that Iowa, the whitest state in America perhaps second only to snowy Vermont, voted with overwhelming enthusiasm to elect Barack Obama, an American with a Kenyan father, to be their Democratic Party’s choice for the American Presidency.

There was for me an immediate irony to all this: there was Kenya in the same week breaking apart at the seams in -- dare I say it -- tribal violence that had been pent up for generations. The riots and bloodshed, culminating in the burning alive of fifty souls in a barricaded church, were for all intents and purposes inspired by the belief amongst opposition supporters that their candidate, Raili Odinga, had won the Presidential election and that the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, had stolen the election. As of this writing 350 are dead and 250,000 homeless in a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis.

Many Britons asked me in 2000 why America had not erupted into near-revolution when the ‘hanging chads’ debacle had unfolded in Florida and the Supreme Court had essentially decided the outcome of the Presidential election. Why, they asked, did Al Gore not call for a million person march on Washington? Why had the people of the USA not come out onto the streets to protest and even cause violence and mayhem? Indeed, my Democrat friends were beside themselves with fury over the Republican-dominated Supreme Court having been allowed to decide the outcome of a Presidential election. (At the time Christopher Hitchens had reported in ‘The Evening Standard’ that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had vowed not to retire until she was sure a Republican was in the White House.)

The last time the United States erupted into full-scale civil unrest was during the Civil War in the 1860s. The anti-Vietnam war riots at the Democratic convention between hard-hats and demonstrators in Chicago in 1968, and the inner-city summers of what James Baldwin called ’the fire next time’ were the closest the country came to large-scale civil disobedience. When four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970 I remember wondering if the country would erupt into full-scale street warfare. It never happened. America went on functioning and Americans focussed on the life cycle and the Thanksgiving turkey. As Donald Rumsfeld said at one of his sorely-missed press briefings, Americans have a strong centre of gravity.

It is therefore fascinating for me to sit here in London and watch the television screens fill up with discord and violence in Pakistan and Kenya whilst happy Americans in states as radically divergent as New Hampshire and Iowa make their aspirations heard with order and discipline; their voices say they want a President who came from humble beginnings and is a fresh face in the crowd. Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama fit this mould.

For me the powerful irony is the Kenyan background of Barack Obama. On our television screens this past few days we have seen endless tableaux of brutal violence between Kenyans. One wants to reach out and shake them and shout, ‘Look at what one of your brethren has achieved in the United States! Look at how peacefully white America has expressed a revolutionary change in its attitude towards race! Look at this state filled with white people voting for this son of Kenya!’

Who was amongst the first to fly to Kenya this week to try to mitigate the rise in violence? US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jandayi Frazer met President Kibaki on Friday 4 January. She, a supremely confident black woman, brought with her the self-assuredness personified by America at its best. Can the Britons who berate me about the lack of ethnic minority leadership in the United States tell me how many European minority men and women have the power and influence of the Powells, Winfreys, Rices and Obamas of this world?

About thirty years ago a stunning film, ’The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ was broadcast on American television. In a tour de force Cecily Tyson played an ancient African-American woman, born in slavery, who had lived almost a century without seeing a true leader emerge worthy of being called a Messiah for her people. Whenever a new black baby was born, she would look at him and murmur, ’Is he the one? Is he the one? ’ The film was searing and moving. It was made at a time when black-white relations were at a miserable low. The babies were born but there was no hope. The film left one in tears. The events in Iowa this week have brought its message full circle.

Obama has struck a chord with Iowans that may very well resonate across the huge American expanse. He has stressed American-ness, rather than race or creed. He makes crowds feel that he cares about them. He comes from a background to which more and more Americans relate; he was not born into wealth and his mother ended up raising his as a single parent.

I saw Barack Obama speak in Philadelphia in 2004, just a few streets away from Independence Hall, where the Great Experiment had started in 1776. He told a story that shook me to my foundations. He said that he had witnessed burly white men campaigning for him in Illinois wearing Obama buttons and cheering him on the stumps. A mature citizen had told him that those same men had been young, bigoted rednecks forty years ago but that they were now passionate supporters of Obama. He told the story with charm and without bitterness. He made us feel he held no grudges about Jim Crow but wanted all of us to be part of the dream of Jefferson, Franklin and the Founding Fathers.

Looking at Obama from the viewpoint of the right, his visit with Kenyan opposition leader Odinga in August 2006 was seen as a friendship with a fellow Luo tribesman who has evinced sympathy for the inclusion of sharia law in Kenya. Many in the United States worry that Obama may even be hostile to Israel and might dismantle that alliance. These are real concerns that exercise the conservative wing of the American electorate.

There is a distinct possibility Michael Bloomberg will be drafted in as an Independent. The American press, unlike the British media who revel in ‘Jewish’ and ‘Zionist’ labels the minute a Jew enters politics, will dine out on Bloomberg’s great successes and not on his Jewish connections. Like Obama, Bloomberg does not dwell on his ethnic origins but sees all New Yorkers as his family, the way Obama sees all of America as his. Then there is Mike Huckabee, the son of impoverished hillbillies but a man who has struck a chord with what is emerging as a new America.

In 2006 something happened that the British media missed; in fact, there was virtually no coverage of the midterm elections in November 2006 hence Britons knew little of the revolution that took place. Not only were the Republicans thrown out of control of Congress but Bernie Sanders, ’Democratic Socialist,’ was elected junior Senator from Vermont. He is the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants and a former member of the anti-Vietnam War Liberty Union Party. A Socialist in Congress? This is not the stupid, Zionist-driven, reactionary nation characterised over and over again to me in London and Cambridge soirees.

Whatever the outcome of the primaries the dynamism of the television debating process far outshines any public discourse leading up to British elections. Kenya and Pakistan have been convulsed in violence because of elections but the United States is bounding along with dignity and energy as it shows the world how the democratic process is meant to evolve. Hopefully this magnificent sequence of events will silence at last the voices who love to make me feel I come from a violent, uncouth and unintelligent nation of racist nincompoops. Whoever wins the nomination, be it Italian- American Guiliani or Kenyan Barack Obama or blueblood Hillary Clinton or Jewish Michael Bloomberg, this year will show the global community that the melting pot of America is thriving and evolving and can only be a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.
Carol Gould's new book, 'Don't Tread on Me,' about anti-Americanism, is to be published this year in the UK and USA by Social Affairs Unit and Encounter Books; she is also the author of 'Spitfire Girls,' about the women transport pilots of WWII.


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