Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama and a new world

I was 15 when the photo appeared, in Life magazine, I think. Barack Obama was six.
It was a black and white shot of a Mississippi sheriff named Lawrence Rainey. He was beefy, bald guy in uniform, something between a grin and smirk over his long chin. Black cowboy boots, with short socks, so you saw a patch of white hairy shin, as he sprawled with one leg crossed over the other, his right hand dipping into a pouch of Red Man tobacco, a chaw in his cheek.
He was sitting in a courtroom. Around him were grinning co-defendants, all charged in the murder of three young civil rights workers.
The picture showed the men believed they had done nothing wrong. And that they would get away with murder.
And the two sheriffs and gang of Ku Klux Klansmen who killed the three men were almost right.
The state wouldn't charge them. It took three years for the federal government to bring charges of violating the dead men's civil rights, by killing them.
Only seven of 18 men charged were convicted. No one served more than six years in jail.
The photo was one of those defining images - of hate and power and a place where the most basic rule of law was unknown. Where you could be killed by the police for talking about human rights.
That was 1967, not long ago really.
And now Americans have elected a black president.
It's remarkable. The United States has carried a stain since its birth, because the founding fathers accepted the continued slavery of blacks, many of them with shame. The country fought a bloody Civil War over the issue, but never really dealt with racism and an apartheid-like segregation. (Not that Canada does not have its own ghosts.)
The civil rights movement was one of those rare, morally pure causes. And it attracted people willing to die for the cause, like James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the murdered civil rights workers.
And yet within Obama's lifetime, America has changed, beyond what I ever expected.
"Change" was the Obama campaign theme. That's encouraging too.
The United States has always had its dark side. American exceptionalism - the belief that the U.S. is unlike any country in the world, better in a profound way - has justified some terrible intrusions into other countries.
But in the last eight years, it has truly lost its way. A war based on lies, huge tax cuts for the already rich, indifference to survivors of a devastating hurricane. A financial free-for-all that brought riches to a handful before its collapse cost average Americans billions and plunged the world economy into recession. Prison camps with no rules, and torture.
Change seems like a good thing.
Who knows how much change Obama will be able to deliver. As I'm writing, it looks like there will be enough Republican senators to block any major initiatives that they oppose.
And his options are going to be limited. The U.S. is a financial mess and running ridiculous deficits. The government will have little money to spend on new programs.
What does it mean for Canada? Obama talked about opening the North American Free Trade Agreement, but his quarrel is with Mexico, not Canada.
He'll launch a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Canada would then face pressure to continue to fight beyond 2011.
And Alberta's tarsands might be in trouble. Obama has pledged to reject "dirty" energy sources, one that require excessive greenhouse gases.
Obama's focus is going to be largely internal. Canada's challenge will be getting any attention.
But who cares?
Obama represents, in some ways, the triumph of a vision. The civil rights movement was a dangerous, uncertain struggle. The election of an African American, despite all the prejudices and racism that are part of life in the U.S., and Canada, is remarkable.
Footnote: It's 8:01 and CNN has just declared Obama the new president. The election does raise some interesting questions about what voters today are looking for in political candidates. Obama's calm, consensus-based approach to politics, his ability to build a broad base of support, united in hope, changes politics.


Anonymous said...

You can see the Rainey picture here:

fyi: Tonight Mississippi voted 57% McCain, 42% Obama (99% reporting).
We will see in the days ahead how the votes break down.

skdadl said...

I know that photograph. Red Man tobacco -- it just stuck in my mind and has never gone away. I knew I was looking at murderers who thought that what they'd done was funny, and I stared and stared.

Funny what stays with you. Red Man tobacco. The bastards.

Anonymous said...

Has the US really changed? I sure hope so. We used to work with the American navy in the mid 60's. One evening in the Officers Mess, a southern gentleman called one of our crew a "nigger", so another of our crew thumped the jerk and the spit hit the fan.

We saw a diving line in the snack bar and you couldn't ride just anywhere on the bus.

Today I met a retired US Marine. We started talking ur our military background. He mentioned a guy who refused to buddy up with a fellow who was black. The senior guy had him do a large number of pushups and told the guy, that the guy he was calling names, might well save his life so get into the real world. So things have changed but racism is everywhere in assorted amounts. sad but true. Obama will have some big issues as Paul says, and hopefully the colour of his skin won't have some people trying to undermine him.