Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We will all remember where we were today

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It's worth saving this article by Polly Toynbee on this historical day:

"There has never been a day like it for Britain's postwar generations. As that inauguration speech echoes out, the globe itself seems to inhale a mighty, collective intake of breath, frighteningly audacious in its hope.

A BBC World Service poll shows a tidal wave of optimism about what Obama will do, spread out across a rainbow of nations. Here is the world's wish list: first save global finance from ruin; next get out of Iraq; then fix the climate and bring peace to the Middle East. Yes he can, is the world's expectation.

How does the man's arrival feel here? A day like no other, in a time of multiple crisis like none other. In the years of plenty, the British since the war have known little political excitement. Novelists and playwrights scrabble about for drama: the miners' strike, the three-day week, Aldermaston and Greenham vie with the IMF's humiliating bailout or Margaret Thatcher's greed-is-good big bang years, alongside the day we crashed out of the ERM, or Labour's glory night in May 1997. But these are meagre political offerings through the years of fluctuating affluence.

The IRA and now Islamist terror terrify - but they feel external, not integral to domestic politics, even if both are bloody paybacks from our past. The cold war came and went without the nuclear apocalypse we grew up expecting any day. When the Berlin wall came down, the great rejoicing was primarily a drama belonging to other people; it was not the end of history either. We fought a surprising number of small wars, hardly ruffling the phlegmatic British body politic: the Conservatives did not fall over the Suez debacle, and Blair was re-elected despite his Iraq disaster.

We have not lived in the interesting times of the Chinese curse - but in banal times where politicians needed to be no better than they were. No great crisis summoned a Winston Churchill or a Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That uneventfulness has blunted our politics: people barely vote or express a view, while blase cynicism substitutes for thought, passion or partisanship. Parties clustered in the dead centre are dead on their feet, and no one cares much, except to sneer at politicians' expenses. The bitter truth of deep inequality has been disguised by an era of cheap imported goods and the anyone-can-make-it celebrity myth. An American model of each individual citizen for himself, each individual citizen the architect of his own life's trajectory, has conquered old notions of solidarity, not needed in good times.

Look across Europe and little comfort can be drawn from any country's leadership, rendering its collective voice feebly uninspiring. In crisis, the EU risks pulling apart, not together, with rising nationalism and protectionism. Who do you call? The Czech Republic's current EU presidency? There has been little here to inspire political hope.

But now Obama comes out of nowhere just when good politics has never mattered more. A complete collapse of the global financial system is not unimaginable. In uncharted waters, billions and trillions gush from governments everywhere, frantically shoring up banks that squandered trust. One thing looks grimly certain, however we get out of this: future deep debts threaten public services, long-lasting unemployment, real pay cuts and changed prospects in need of a new politics.

The climate crisis is seen to be worsening with every new report, but worldwide action is still negligible and negligent: the Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen last week warned that only four years remain before an irreversible threshold is crossed, leading to raised sea levels that will drown many major cities.

In Gaza, the horror of so many dead Palestinian children is a monstrous challenge to greet Obama. If ever the world needed saving, it's now.

So here comes the man who says he can. It's an American mystery that this great pool of genius has usually thrown such minnows into the White House. But the monumental present danger has summoned forth a man who promises the intellect, character and power of persuasion to match the hour.

On this day all alive will remember where they were when they saw Obama sworn in, when they heard him speak. I shall be in a Commons meeting room - where Dawn Butler, the black MP for Brent, will be launching "Bernie's list" to promote black candidates - with crowds of mainly ethnic-minority young Brent people gathered to watch Obama's speech. Since the rise of Obama, the MP says, throngs have come forward to join her campaign.

I shall also see Chuka Umunna, the exceptional Labour candidate for Streatham, south London, address students in Brixton - students whom he finds are as eager as never before to think and do politics. "Obama has changed everything. You can't overestimate the effect," he says. After time on the Obama campaign, Umunna says that the man's blackness is only one wonder: "He has changed the possibilities of politics itself." Winning while promising to tax the rich, cut tax for the poor, tackle the climate and reverse Bush's foreign policy, he has made the impossible possible.

Let whoever will be cynical do so today: they will have their I-told-you-so moments. Political passion is unfashionable, risky, naive and destined for disappointment. Enthusiasm is rare in British politics, but today is a reminder that it is always worth celebrating the better over the worse. The hope is not just for what the man will do, but that his brand of politics rubs off on politicians everywhere. It wasn't until Obama was elected on a tax-the-rich ticket that Brown and Darling dared to follow suit, 11 years late. This is a day for politicians to take heart and dare to challenge recycled focus group prejudice. Copying Obama needs to become a global habit.

In a revealing unpublished interview with the Obamas more than a decade ago, Michelle feared that he was "too much the good guy for the kind of brutality and scepticism" of politics. Ruthless calculation is indeed a necessary part of the art, but he seems to have that steely determination too. There is a limit to how moral any effective politician can be: ask that nice Jimmy Carter. Yet this is the day to honour the practice of politics as a high calling, where the power to inspire can swell the hearts of the world. Here at home, a respite from Britain's lazy political cynicism is in order.
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-- Polly Toynbee -- The Guardian


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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Let all of us wish him god speed.

Peter said...

Yes, let's hope, let's hope!!

... and yes, we will will remember this moment (who rememebers where he / she were when Bush swored in 4 years ago?)!

A very good article!