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Bob Ostertag

Bob Ostertag

Posted: November 7, 2008 03:47 PM

First President of the World


OK, I know I am way late for the party here. Everyone has already made their comments about Obama's victory and the smart money has gone home, leaving me to talk to a table full of leftovers and dirty dishes.

Sorry, but I couldn't help it. It has taken me this long to even begin to process the last few days. Tuesday night was more of a mixed bag of emotions than I anticipated. When I finally got home around 11pm I was overcome by a wave of sadness so powerful that I couldn't face being alone and went back on into the ongoing party that was filling the streets of San Francisco. I figured my sadness was from caring for a dear friend who is in the terminal stages of cancer and was unable to fully appreciate the historic moment, but yesterday I spoke with another friend who had his own wave of sadness and tears Tuesday night. One cannot grasp all the implications of Obama's victory without simultaneously acknowledging all that has been lost over the last eight years. Beginning with the thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who have been cut down in a misguided, and more importantly, completely avoidable war.

Way back early in the primaries, I wrote that a "perfect political storm is forming around Obama: outrage at the Iraq war, generational shifts in key American communities, and the extraordinary charisma of the candidate himself, among others. But none is more important than the arrival of such a fresh and appealing political persona right at the moment when Web 2.0 social networking has matured to where it is a viable political tool."

While my forecast of the perfect political storm was correct, I had no idea what the storm would actually like and feel like when it broke with nearly overpowering force Tuesday night. How many historical threads were running through the eye of the same political needle that amazing night? A generational earthquake in American politics. The body politic of the USA finally gagging on the base hatreds of the last 8 years and expelling them in a stunning catharsis.

I was completely punrepared for how vividly the whole sordid history of slavery in this country suddenly came into focus when Barack Obama took the stage in Grant Park. Centuries of suffering seemed to follow him to the podium.

Two weeks before, in a lecture at the university where I teach, I had shown the students photos of American lynch mobs, like this one from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, taken on July 19, 1935.

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Or this one, from Marion, Indiana. August 1930.

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On November, 4, 2008, Barack Obama won 65% of the vote in Marion, and 58% of the vote in Fort Lauderdale. What an epic trail of tears from the lynching trees of the 1930s to Grant Park in 2008.

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How extraordinary that the historical thread of Africans in America, which itself spans several continents, would pass through the eye of this needle at the very moment that the Internet had created a true global political stage. It was as if Barack Obama was being elected president of the world. And in a way he was. As a Canadian friend said, "These American elections are going to have a much bigger impact on my life than the Canadian elections that just happened." I suspect that for many people in the world, this is true. Who Americans choose as president will be more important for their lives than the national politics of their own countries. But of course, only Americans get to vote for this world president. Everyone else just has to cross their fingers and hold their breath.

Last winter I was in a remote part of India. When I arrived in one particularly small village, there was a little hubbub about the unusual visitor and various children were dispatched in search of the one villager who spoke English. When the young man was ushered in, he immediately blurted out, "So, are you for Hillary or Obama?" Of course, the right answer was Obama. This was a village that had only recently got electricity. In fact, electricity and the Internet had arrived at the same time. Now even this little village accessible only by canoe was sucked into the global discussion of American politics.

And on November 4, the whole world was happy. Well, maybe except for Sarah Palin. Somehow, I got the feeling that even John McCain was happy: happy it was over, happy he was not going to be president, happy that he would never have to speak to Sarah Palin ever again, and yes, happy that America had elected a young black man instead of an old white man.

Are there precedents for this sort of global happiness? The fall of the Berlin wall comes to mind. But that was pre-Internet, and the real implications for the world's peoples were not as vast. The end of World War Two? Of course, the suffering inflicted on the world by WWII outpaces the damage done by GW's gang by many orders of magnitude. But there was no global media through which people around the world felt as if they were all participating in one grand even.

No, Tuesday night was, I think, unique on planet earth.

The moment that will stick with me most occurred as I was heading home on my bicycle and the boisterous crowd on the sidewalk spontaneously surged into the street, stopping traffic and unintentionally trapping a taxi cab in the bedlam. Moments like this are always a bit tense, when a driver suddenly realized his is trapped. Bad things can happen. The door flung open and the driver leaped out and up on the hood where he began to dance in a very African sort of motion that one could easily imagine he had brought with him to San Francisco from his home country. What a joyous moment.

Who knows what comes next? I can imagine a future in which Barack Obama becomes a great American president and leaves a lasting legacy of change for the good. And I can just as easily imagine it all coming undone, particularly if he chooses to escalate the war in Afghanistan as he has stated he will. But the future is another chapter. Nothing can change the fact that on November 4, 2008, people all around the world cried tears of joy as the citizens of the United States elected a black man the first president of the world.