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Learning the lessons of Barack Obama: Yes, we still might

Learning the lessons of Barack Obama: Yes, we still might

Friday 5 August, 2016
The last year of Obama’s presidency may turn out to be his most important, not for what he achieves, but for the lessons he leaves with us.
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I know he’s already got one foot out the door and can barely wait to go surfing in Maui. And I know he’s been an ordinary, if not average President over the last eight years. But Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention made clear why we still look to him for answers and even guidance on what to do in these confusing times. Where most of our leaders rule by fear mongering and playing one person or one group against another, Obama does the opposite.

In fact, he urges us to do the same, and gives us the words and the tools to help us pull that off.

If you replace the designation “America” with “the planet”, this is what Obama’s message is: First of all, the world is not going to hell in a hand basket at all. Sure, Obama says, we’ve got problems, but a lot has been done already and we can be optimistic “after all we’ve achieved together”. Of course, we are not perfect, or living up to our founding creed that all of us are created equal, let alone that all of us are free in the eyes of God, but that is, and always will be, a work in progress. The more difficulties we face, the more we are challenged to do better; to be better. The world is a great place, a strong place, not a divided crime scene, as Trump and some others say. And what is even better, is that we the people have the power to improve it even more. As long as we don’t sell ourselves short by believing we are fragile and frightful, we have the capacity to shape our own destiny.

What is needed for that, Obama says, is courage to stay true to the great experiment in self-government. “Don’t boo – vote!” Obviously, the business of democracy can be frustrating but we have to realise that it is not a spectator sport. All of us need to get involved and that is great, because it gives us, as everyday people, the power to do something, to change the world. It has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us, but what can be achieved by “us”, by every shade of humanity. If we really look around, we can’t help but see ourselves in each other, recognise the common ground and reject cynicism and fear and summon what is best in us. As long as we really comprehend that the power to make or break our world is ours, there is good reason to be hopeful and more optimistic about the future than ever before.

We are all mixed, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. That should make hatred of difference complicated, because what we are resisting is, in fact, a part of ourselves.

When Obama came to power eight years ago, British writer Zadie Smith wrote a story about him in the New York Review of Books. According to Smith, Obama was born, like most of us, in “Dream City”, “a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion”. Look at him, Smith said, this man who was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, the son of a black African father and a white American mother. Look how “scrambled” he is and how he turns that personal story in the narrative of all of us. We recognise the emotional and psychological veracity of Obama’s words because “most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives”. What he does do is point to our “collective human messiness”, so we are reminded of the fact that we are all, now, different things at different times and hardly ever just one thing. What the Trumps of this world are trying to do is pretend that “we” are one simple entity, and “they” another, while, as Smith writes, in the modern world “everything is doubled”. We all have “plural selves” and fit in multiple groups.

I am, for instance, a migrant. But I am also white and have some grasp of the English language. In Australia, that makes me only half a migrant, because a “real” migrant is supposed to be anything but white. One of my friends, whose grandparents came here from Lebanon a long time ago (but who was born here – as were his parents) still has to explain (on a daily basis!) that home is Australia, and always has been. Because he looks different, a difference is presumed; because I don’t, people get confused when I open my mouth and an accent comes out. Another example: Pauline Hanson voices opposition toward anything that doesn’t appear to be dinky-di-Aussie, but the first two of her children were fathered by a Polish refugee, Walter Zagorski, and are therefore at least half-something else. Unless Hanson loathes her own offspring, she must be, whether she likes it or not, partly open to otherness.

And so it is with most of us. Looking at somebody and thinking you know what you see is no longer a viable option. The old binaries have become not only difficult, but almost impossible to maintain. We are all mixed, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. That should make hatred of difference complicated, because what we are resisting is, in fact, a part of ourselves.

So what Smith and Obama are talking about is plurality, and the acceptance that we are all complicated, double–or triple–headed creatures. Plurality is great, because it means that we have, as Smith says, “many voices” and can understand the other, because we are partly him or her ourselves. Which, in turn, means that fear is not only unnecessary, but fairly ludicrous, because we are the other and the other is us, if you still follow what I am saying. In short: because we all have a difference in us, that is what unites us. There is no straight-jacket of identity, and by saying that we are one thing only (Australian, white, female, male, straight, gay, old, young whatever), we are selling ourselves short.

Once we realise that, the sky is the limit, and we can, as Obama implores, become “we the people” who have the “capacity to shape our own destiny”.

If we allow it to be, life can be a game of addition instead of reduction and loss. Yes, we can!

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