As long as we’re still covering the various reactions to Obama’s presidential victory of last week, let’s be sure not to miss the musings of Berlingske Tidende’s Poul Høi, who in his reporting and now in his own blog Amerikanske Tilstande (= “American Conditions”; here is the homepage), has had interesting things to say about the US – inspired by his on-the-scene reporting – for a number of years now. And in reaction to this historical election result he doesn’t come up short: his latest post is even entitled Obama and Sambo.
(Maybe I should have just stolen that title to make a more eye-catching heading for this blogpost, but I decided against it. By the way, the only other European columnist I can think of that I would want to watch specifically for any reaction to the election would be Agnès Giard, sex-blogger for France’s Libération, whom I have certainly covered before. But it seems politics generally lie outside of what she regards as her journalistic remit; the article she happened to post right after the election was actually entitled Declaration of love to the zombies. So there you have the link, although I’m not going to deal with that one, you’ll have to read the piece in French yourself. But no, rest assured that it has nothing to do with any politician, whether American or not.)
Why are you Europeans so interested in an American election? That’s the question Høi says he has been asked all the time, both by Americans he knew and those he didn’t but just happened to run across in a bar during time off from his reporting duties for Berlingske Tidende in the States – but in the latter case probably only after his new buddies finally noticed his accent and were moved to ask “Are you from France?”
That they are even asking this question – I mean “Why are you so interested?” – reveals (or confirms) something to Høi, namely “the American ambivalence towards the Old World.” And he goes on; check this out:
Americans are the newly-rich members of the family, who have nothing against posing with their giant, expensive house with newly-acquired art on the walls, but at the same time crave acceptance from the rest of the family, as they continue to doubt slightly their own table-manners.”
“Why are you so interested?”, then, according to Høi is a question that is trying to elicit two answers, often at the same time: 1) “Of course I’m interested, because everyone in the world is!” and 2) “Yes, I’m interested after all, believe it or not, for the following flattering reason . . .”
Alright then, but: So why are you Europeans so interested? Høi provides three reasons:
- American elections are always compelling, by definition. No one, anywhere, who is plugged into the events of the day can afford to be indifferent. (In other words, answer #1 above – “Of course I’m interested . . .”) One really could not have been indifferent even to Clinton vs. Dole in 1996, claims Høi.
- We’re interested because American elections are unusually decisive by European standards, and thus they enable Europeans “to live out our own political ideas” – yes, even more than they can “live them out” in their own, native elections! Høi certainly has an interesting point here since it’s true that elections in democracies running a parliamentary rather than presidential system of government together with some variant of proportional representation – such as is the case in his native Denmark, also in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and certain other European states (e.g. certainly Italy) – usually turn out to be a matter, as he puts it, of just “plus or minus ten percent,” i.e. results that bring only small changes to the make up of a governing coalition and/or government – such little payoff for all that trouble and expense! (But that is much less true in France, for example – a presidential system more similar to that in the US – or actually in the UK, which ostensibly is parliamentary but is in reality highly “presidential” in the impact of its national elections primarily because of its “first-past-the-post” electoral system, combined with what is in broad lines still mainly a two-party structure. Of course Høi is abstracting from these counterexamples in order to continue setting forth his point.) Whereas, on the other hand, the momentous potential for change that Obama’s election has brought about is obvious to all; as an appetizer, there are even reports already about how his transition team has identified 200 Bush-issued executive orders that he will be countermanding on 20 January or soon thereafter.
- Finally, this election was especially interesting, Høi declares, frankly because over here in Europe the picture of the United States as one mighty racist society still endures. Indeed, Høi does not put it in such terms, but it’s quite likely he feels that Europe considers the US to be more racist than Americans do themselves. So naturally, contemplating the candidacy of Barack Obama, very many European felt, as Høi puts it, that “it would do the Americans a world of good to get a black president” (amerikanerne ville have rigtig godt af at få en sort præsident). And now they have.
So Where’s the European Obama?
But then Høi wants to turn the question around: “When will a European land, even a little one, even Denmark, get a head-of-state with a skin-color that strays from the pale end of the palette?” And he adds to that a recitation of the various outright-racist European public reactions to Obama’s election that occurred (which you can read about in English in this Washington Post article), going on to claim that “[t]his is why Muslim immigrants are much more successful in the USA, much better educated, much richer and much more content with their new conditions than those in Europe – and the reason is that the old-rich part of the family [see the "American as newly-rich family members" metaphor at the beginning of this post] is better at issuing good, therapeutic advice than it is at following it.”
This is nonsense – mostly. It’s certainly true that Muslims assimilate to society better in the US, and that important lessons are there to be shared so that they can start assimilating better in Europe. (And such lessons are being extracted and promulgated – such as in this book, Het land van aankomst (Dutch only), by Paul Scheffer, which I own and have read, and which made quite an impact on the Dutch scene last year.) But Barack Obama is not any Muslim – honest! – but black, and black people did not assimilate very well in America for quite a long time – from 1619, when the first slaves arrived at the Virginia port until . . . well, when? Just to pick a historical end-point, should we perhaps choose the 1964 passing of the Civil Rights Act? Except that we know (and Michelle Obama can tell us, as with her Princeton senior thesis), that the discontent of black Americans within their society lasted much longer than that, in fact for most even to this day.
So as for those racist rejoinders to Obama’s election in Europe reported by Høi (and the Washington Post’s correspondent): Austria, Poland, Germany? Nothing really remarkable there, they’re about what you could expect statistically, in terms of the incidence of wackos, from an economic/political area (I’m speaking here of the EU) whose population is even greater than that of the US itself. (By the way, I don’t even include Berlusconi in that list-of-racists – it is obvious that this was just another one of his awkward attempts at humor.) But more generally, let’s consider Høi’s almost-agonized question of “When will there be an Obama-like breakthrough in European politics?” That will eventually come about, and when it happens, it happens. But it is nothing really to worry about, because there is by no means the societal history of racism within Europe that its occurrence will be able to serve as such a rejoinder to, in the way that Obama’s election has served as a momentous rejoinder to the history of American racism. European civilization has, through history, hardly been even nearly as racist as has the American.* So a European Obama, whenever that happens, will hardly be as much of a big deal.
* “But MAO,” you may object, “it was the Europeans who started the slave trade in the first place!” Quite true; but that doesn’t change the fact that, since they banned slavery (doing so earlier than did the United States), the Europeans have been less racist. If he were still alive, I would simply refer you to James Baldwin – or, to really warm your cockles, to Josephine Baker. Perhaps you’d prefer to listen to Billie Holiday singing to you about the South’s Strange Fruit?