Monday, 31 December 2012

The event of 2012: Obama's re-election

Before wishing everyone much pleasure and success in 2013, and in the midst of all the retrospectives for the end of the current year, I want to concentrate on just one of its many events: the re-election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States.
Obama: his re-election the defining moment of 2012?
This was in a way more remarkable than his original victory in 2008. That was won in the shadow of the lamentable presidency of Dubya Bush, a front-runner in the race to be the worst in US history. Facing him was a ticket which included Sarah Palin as possibly the worst candidate for vice-President: Aaron Burr was even creepier, hard though that may be to believe, but was probably less intellectually challenged.

So the first Obama victory might have owed a little to chance. To be re-elected, though, was a confirmation that enough at least of the US electorate really meant it.

That’s a great outcome, and not just because Obama is one of the brightest US Presidents there have been – though certainly he benefits by comparison with his predecessor – and, if the Tea Party can be persuaded not to take the country over the Fiscal Cliff or some other precipice – he may yet achieve remarkable things. What’s even more fascinating is what it says about how far the US has come.

Back in July 1776, one of the outstanding figures in history, Thomas Jefferson, drafted the Declaration of Independence. The first couple of paragraphs are extraordinarily impressive – you’ll remember all that stuff about ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ – but then comes all the stuff people tend to ignore because it is, frankly, rather dull: a long list of all the grievances of the British colonies against the British King.

Thomas Jefferson: admirable, though not without faults...
For instance, ‘he has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures,’ we’re told, and I have to say that as a rallying cry to armed revolution, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, doesn’t it? These days we have a European parliament that travels, with all its papers, from Brussels to Strasbourg ten times a year and though that’s led to some pretty horrible consequences (e.g. UKIP) it still hasn't gone as far as a descent into bitter war.

Interestingly, not all the grievances originally intended for inclusion by Jefferson were adopted by his colleagues. In particular, they left out one that starts:

‘He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.’

Great, isn’t it? Denouncing the slave trade as un-Christian. It’s like telling today’s Christian right to be nicer about the rights of, say, Moslems.

Now Jefferson of course never freed himself from slavery, even fathering several children on Sally Hemings, who as well as being his slave was even, by today’s standards, under age when he first began his long relationship with her. However, it is admirable that he at least rose far enough above the sentiments of his time to want to denounce the trade in slaves.

His colleagues would not go that far. Jefferson's denunciation was cut from the final draft of the declaration, and this was not without significant consequences.

In 1857, 81 years later, with the country Jefferson helped found slipping inexorably towards Civil War, a powerful push in that direction was provided by a majority decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case. In the judgement, Chief Justice Roger Taney pointed to the founding documents of the United States and in particular to the Declaration of Independence, declaring that they made it clear that blacks:

‘had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.’

Roger Taney: vilain of the piece. And doesn't he look it?
Hardly what Jefferson intended in his original draft, but what far less noble men among his successors made of the final version. Blacks had no rights in law; whites had no obligation to treat them with respect.

It took 155 years to achieve the re-election, and not merely the election, of a half-black President of the United States. But given Roger Taney’s words, the road travelled is still extraordinary, even in such a time.

Enough on its own to make 2012 a seriously important year.

And now, as promised, I wish you all every possible prosperity and joy in 2013. Wouldn’t it be good if it contained at least one event as outstanding as that one from 2012?

No comments: