POLITICS NOVEMBER 8, 2008
It is clear that Barack Obama is neither an angel nor a man sent from heaven.
Nor is he the honorary European floating through the fantasies of French leftists--that must be cleared up if we want to avoid some nasty morning-after wake-up calls.
The fact remains that Obama's election will affect us in at least three concrete ways, making his victory one of those improbable, incomparable moments that mark a complete break with previous history. It is unmistakably an iconic event.
First, an Obama presidency will be a decisive turning point in dealing with the "racial question" in the U.S. Of course, few think that racism will actually disappear from the collective national imagination. One only needs to travel around the country to observe that the black candidate's rise in power has had, as a corollary, the commensurate rise in activity by radical elements nostalgic for white supremacy and good old segregationist times.
But we must listen to what Obama says about this division and the dramatic way it has, over three centuries, structured American society. We must listen to him when, in each of his speeches, he quotes the country's original motto, "E pluribus unum," which Virgil first made famous and means "Out of many, one"--or, more specifically, "Our nation is made up of more than its parts." And we must consider the taboo he is now breaking when he speaks directly to black people, calling upon them to stop saying that racism is at the root of all their problems. This is not new thought. It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message in 1967 and 1968, but it is a new way of thinking at a time when so many recent speeches have made race the crowning element of a person's identity.
Second, an Obama presidency will give hope to a United States that, during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, began doubting itself and its famous "mission." Lately Americans seem to have forgotten how essential that mission was to the rest of the world. Then again, Obama will not be performing miracles and few expect him to erase in a matter of days the damage of those aberrant years of economic ultraliberalism. But most believe that he is the man who can swing the political pendulum back toward a Rooseveltism that will be more attentive to the forgotten and the ignored.
And we cannot doubt his sincerity when he repeats tirelessly that he will not be the president of one America (blue, progressive) over another (red, conservative), but that instead he will try to make sense of the strange beauty of this country without a name, but not without a vocation, these United States of America. The McCain-Palin ticket saw the "American dream" as a golden age we must somehow find again. Obama sees it as a new age to be invented, a work ever in progress, a project; not a "pastoral" per Philip Roth but a political and social invention, a frontier that moves and must always be traced anew--and in this he is clearly more faithful to the pioneer spirit that makes for his country's greatness.
Third, as to his relationships with the rest of the planet, the skeptics may repeat ad nauseam that an Obama presidency will not change America's status as a hyperpower and the disapproval that power evokes. But try to imagine how America's image will change with Obama assuming the presidency, the representative of a minority that up until recently could not vote. Try to imagine his presidency through the eyes of someone from the Congo who was once convinced that there were not one but two different humanities; with the eyes of a Sudanese man who, when the U.S. asked his government to stop the massacre in Darfur, saw in that request the manifestation of the neo-colonial racism of petty whites. Imagine Obama making a speech in Kabul. Or delivering an address to the Iraqi nation, which has become convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the White House has been in the hands of a Texan clique that came to steal its oil. Try to look at him as he will be seen in racially diverse countries such as Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela.
Anti-Americanism will not suddenly, magically disappear. But it will have a harder time surviving and it will be forced to revisit its sales pitch. Will there be a planetary shock wave? Another New Deal, a geopolitical one? One thing is certain: The new president will feel a meta-historical weight on his shoulders. Never before has an American election aroused in the rest of the world a hope at once so crazy and so reasoned.
Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against The New Barbarism, was published in September by Random House. This article was translated from the French by Sara Sugihara