In black, white and grey
By M.J. Akbar
Now that the hurly burly's done, now that the battle's lost and almost won, it all boils down to this. Can white Americans who are more white than American, defeat a black-and-white candidate with an "Arab" name for what is still the most powerful job in the world?
Barack Hussein Obama is not black: his mother was white, and he was brought up by his doting white grandparents. He is a child of modern America, increasingly mixed genetically, aspirational without being domineering, convinced that George W. Bush is the last of the 20th century Mohicans, that wars are not a solution, and that the world can only function as shared space between nations that may not be equal but have an equal right to a voice at the table. I write this from America; and this is the most heartened I have felt about America in many years of travel and discussion. It is wonderful to witness the curative powers of democracy, and the resuscitation of liberal values that made America a positive force for so long –– before it was consumed by the predatory greed of special interests that devastated both their own nation and the world. The pain of Iraq and Wall Street has opened American eyes, enabling it to see within for the inspiration to see ahead.
Washington is rustling with the sound of Democrat CVs being rescued from office dossiers, but the Republicans are not giving up without a vicious last stand. Senator John McCain's language has been deliberately downsized for a bar-room shootout between "white" and "black" as he stokes racism even as he affects an injured innocence when accused of the tactics of the "nigger-hating South". Before his last debate, he promised to "whip" Obama's "you know what". They understand "you know what" in the middle space of the American electorate. Sarah Palin's face flushes in excitement as some in her rallies rouse their passions by demanding Obama's death despite the presence of media. McCain clarifies later that he is proud of every single person who comes to his and Palin's rallies. Facts are not permitted to get in the way of the message. He chose to distil his economic plan through the symbolic mention of "Joe the plumber", who was earning $250,000, wanted to buy the business and live the American dream without paying any extra tax. The "socialist" [arguably a word even dirtier than "black"] Obama was destroying Joe's dream by spreading Joe's wealth in a class war. A day's research proved that Joe was no plumber [he did not have a licence]; that he earned only $40,000 a year; and that he owed the government taxes. As campaign strategy this was shambolic. Has this fazed the Republicans? Not in the least. The desperate can never be embarrassed.
Will this work?
No one is sure. Who can gauge the depth of subliminal fears? Opinion polls, at best, can only go by what people say; they cannot really measure what the voter believes. The voter may not even be aware of his true beliefs until the moment he enters the polling booth, with only fear to keep him company.
McCain has not accepted defeat and Obama is far from declaring victory. There is one revealing difference though. Over the last few weeks, McCain has turned grumpy, angry and shrill; and Obama has grown calmer, assured and even learnt to laugh. His smile was always attractive but he simply did not know how to laugh. He is learning.
He has been blessed with extraordinary, even unbelievable luck. Hillary Clinton should have stopped him long ago; the Democratic machine never expected Obama to last beyond the first few primaries. She mismanaged her way to defeat. McCain had the clear advantage for reasons expressed [experience, war heroism] and unexpressed [racism]. He was up in the polls by six points after the Republican convention. And then came Hurricane Wall Street.
If the terrorist in the last American election was an Arab with a long beard and wide turban nestling in the mountains of Pakistan-Afghanistan, this election's terrorist is an American in suit and tie with an expensive briefcase, a horrendously huge salary, an expansive apartment in Manhattan and permission to party just after he has been gifted $85 billion: the Wall Street executive. This chap frightens and angers the American voter at this moment.
Since Republicans need to redirect anxiety towards the stereotype they have discovered a "terrorist" friend of Obama called Bill Ayres who belonged to a violent sect called the Weathermen in the Vietnam years but has refashioned himself as a respectable professor in Chicago. The trouble is that he looks what he is now, a friendly, mild-mannered, well-meaning academic, which rather defeats the purpose. He is not even black, let alone an Arab. However, McCain and Palin can barely hold their breath as they gasp that Obama consorted with an America-hater.
It would be comforting to report that the future of the world was dependent on more serious considerations.
But you realise that the ground has shifted when Donald Trump, maverick construction and gambling magnate, and hardly an ex-Weatherman closet Communist, wants to impeach George Bush because, as he told a news channel, "He got us into this horrible [Iraq] war with lies… It wasn't Saddam Hussein that took down the World Trade Center … in fact Saddam killed terrorists because he did not want them in his country… Now Iraq is a breeding ground for terrorists… What have we created [in Iraq]? A mess. The day we leave, forget it!" This may not work as an essay for The Brookings Institution, but on the nodal points of policy Trump could not be more correct.
Curiously, it is Bush who seems to have recognised the huge folly of warmongering, having prevented, in his last months, Israel from an unilateral attack on Iran, come to an accommodation with Hezbollah through Qatar, opened negotiations with Taliban through Saudi Arabia and recognised that the only exit from Iraq is a gradual creep-out, vacating space for largely pro-Iran elements to stabilise the country.
But as Bush comes to his senses, McCain takes leave of his. The American Republic should never be left to the Republicans.