Ideas before identities

By Anthony Philbin on September 4, 2008

Historic moments have a way of sneaking up on us.

Who among us, I wonder, didn’t feel something akin to goose bumps as the reality of Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination for President settled in upon them last week. One moment we were in the midst of just another U.S. presidential campaign, admiring yet another over-packaged, albeit ‘well-cadenced’ politician, and the next we were witnessing nothing short of the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s triumphant vision of justice and equality in America. As a candidate of colour accepted his party’s nomination to vie for the role of President of the United States, it was as if suddenly, amidst all the recycled infotainment and vapid ramblings of the bottomless news hole that we’re subjected to day-in and day-out, here was something real, and true, and even, perhaps, something good.

Here was a country asking of its citizens that they place a man’s ideas before his identity—the very act of which initiates a cycle of reflection that doesn’t end until one is struck by the meaninglessness of so many of the artificial barriers (white/black, Tory/Liberal, Christian/Muslim) we erect in the path of true cooperation and true compassion in both our public policies and our private lives. Just when we thought the U.S. was down for the count, being eaten from within by furtive and ignoble men adept at steering trillions in public tax dollars into private coffers and public wars, here was a culture that could yet find the courage to dare its population to refuse itself potentially one of the great leaders of our generation—simply on the basis of the colour of his skin.

For many of you as for me, Obama himself remains very much an unknown quantity. Yes he rouses emotions with his preacherly intonations and impresses with his easy grace. Yes he comes from humble beginnings and therefore demonstrates the potential to be a truly compassionate leader. Yet his effectiveness at delivering on legislation and truly enacting the dream he has presented, his ability to rise above the media circuses and scandals that will beset him and those he holds near, these and other challenges lie in wait for him as they lie for everyone who would deign to be president, and so the jury will have to stay out on him until time and fate have had their way.

At times, while listening to Obama wax inspirational and beckon for that ‘Yes we can’ brand of change that has become his hallmark, I’m reminded of certain separatists in Quebec who have learned over time to keep their dream of independence far away on the horizon—always frustratingly free of specific detail and just oh-so out of reach—even as it is managed by its operators to manipulate public emotion and secure political control. Obama’s dream of change is often just as hazy and just as free of specific detail, but for the time being we need to give him the benefit of the doubt until his political mettle has been tested and his legacy defined in the victories or defeats, or perhaps simply benign inefficacy that may await him.

What interests me more about Obama, and is of greater value than the man himself to our world and its quest for a higher, more global form of civilization, is the historic fact of his nomination and its political meaning both within and beyond the United States.

The choice of a national population to elevate a member of a minority race to vie for a nation’s leadership position is no small matter. The fact of it occurring in the most powerful country in the world is that much more relevant still. Across the U.S. and around the world, the potential represented by Barack Obama is now resonating with the powerless and disenfranchised, giving hope where there was none and enabling uncomfortable, troubling questions, not only about racial barriers to advancement but about all the economic and religious and political barriers that currently bar the way between those who have power and privilege and those who do not.

If, in a few short generations, a people can rise from enslavement to see one of its own become a champion of champions, the most powerful man in the world, then what people in what country will not now feel doubly inspired and empowered to claim a similar destiny as their own? For those of us in the western world, consuming 80% of the planet’s resources on an annual basis while representing only 20% of its population, this kind of empowerment needs to be noticed.

Obama’s nomination is first and foremost about elevating an individual’s ideas above their identity. It’s about all of us now having the potential to see what’s right and the power to do what’s right for our world no matter who we are and where we come from. By embodying this shift in how Americans have chosen to look at themselves and their world, Obama and his nomination represent for everyone, everywhere, a new hope that we can learn to see beyond the petty identities and hierarchies that we so often put in the path of our compassion and our generosity.

As one of this paper’s editors I’d be remiss not to point out that the elevating of ideas before identities is one of the guiding principles behind the founding of The Métropolitain. As Montreal’s first truly bilingual newspaper, The Met challenges our readership with every issue to live up to the standards inherent in the history of our city and in the mutual respect Montrealers so often demonstrate to each other and yet too often take for granted. Just as The Met demands of its readership to journey to a new moral high ground where a person’s ideas matter more than the language those ideas are voiced in, so the newest Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States is challenging his country and the rest of the world to start holding ideas above race as well.

It is a small leap from race to creed, and from creed to nation, and if we’re lucky we’ll all live to see those false differentiations fall to the wayside like the hollow and ultimately meaningless artefacts of a childish worldview that they are. Barack Obama the man will not bring about all of this himself, but in his nomination we have perhaps seen the first in a long series of steps that will need to be taken on our path to the more just and inclusive level of human civilization that we too often lose sight of.

Lump in the throat indeed.


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