ESSAY- What if... Obama wins? Will Europe quit its carping?
I was recently asked to write a story about Barack Obama for a newspaper in my native Ireland. I was surprised at the readiness with which the paper's editors were prepared to grant prominence to a candidate who, I knew, was then barely on the radar of the general public. The article was to be the cover story of the newspaper's magazine.
Shortly after it was published, I was visiting Ireland and met socially with the magazine's editor. After making a few positive noises about Mr. Obama, she got to the point.
"He's not actually going to win, right?"
I replied that Hillary Clinton was a tough rival for the Democratic Party's nomination but that Mr. Obama was indeed a serious contender.
"Yeah, but they're not going to elect a black guy, are they?" she responded.
The remark, with its built-in assumptions about the depth and breadth of American racism, seemed to encapsulate at least two phenomena. On one hand, it was yet another small, casual illustration of the way in which the image of the U.S. has plummeted in recent years, even in relatively friendly countries. On the other, it was evidence of the negative caricatures about America that have become firmly embedded in liberal European circles.
The success of Mr. Obama's candidacy, if it continues, may force those who indulge in knee-jerk anti-Americanism to confront and acknowledge aspects of U.S. society that do not fit the gloomy stereotypes they seek to propagate.
The dynamic between America and the nations of Western Europe is nothing if not complex. On one level, carping about the U.S. is commonplace everywhere, from barroom conversations to newspaper op-ed columns. Yet, at the same time, American culture is deeply embedded, especially in the English-speaking nations of Ireland and Britain, and the underlying values of the societies on opposite sides of the Atlantic are strikingly similar.
"We are largely dependent upon America for protection, yet it is almost a form of national recreation to slag off America," said John Waters, an author and a columnist with The Irish Times. "It's a bit like rebelling against a parent. You can kick your father in the shins and know that if things get serious, he will still do his duty and protect you."
Much of that shin-kicking is rooted in an "irresponsible" and "puerile" attitude toward the U.S., Mr. Waters asserted.
Some strands of popular culture appear to bear him out. "America, your head's too big, because America, your belly's too big," Morrissey sang on his 2004 song "America Is Not the World."
In the same song, however, the iconic English singer also complained that "the president is never black, female or gay"– precisely the kind of point that would, obviously, be turned on its head if the remarkable wave of support Mr. Obama is currently enjoying were to prove powerful and enduring enough to carry him to the White House.
"The United States of Abu Ghraib, of Iraq, of hubris, simply wouldn't have a black first family. It would not have a man whose name is Barack Hussein Obama as its president," said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with the left-of-center Guardian. "So if that were to happen, the cognitive dissonance there would force people to reassess their ideas about America."
Mr. Freedland, unlike Mr. Waters, contended that the notion of European anti-Americanism had been greatly overblown and used as "a smear" against those who criticize the policies of the Bush administration.
Asked whether he believed Britons had a readiness to take a more positive view of America, he replied, "I would say they are not just ready, they are almost yearning to take a more positive view."
The vast majority of British people, he added, are "pro-America but anti-Bush. To have those feelings brought back into alignment [by an Obama presidency] would be very welcome."
The positivity about Mr. Obama on the other side of the Atlantic seems almost exclusively focused upon his racial background and the aura of freshness that surrounds him. Some see dangers in that. Gary Younge, a Guardian columnist, recently questioned how much change Mr. Obama's candidacy really offered.
"He has the role of an inadequate and ineffective balm on the long-running sore that is race in America," Mr. Younge wrote. "His victory would symbolize a great deal and change very little."
Such views surely exaggerate the gulf between symbolism and substance. Sometimes, the symbolism is the substance– or at least part of it. In Mr. Obama's case, the "visuals" of his election would have profound consequences– in relation to how America is seen and, especially, what assumptions are made about its fundamental fairness as a society.
In the midst of the near-hysteria that surrounds Mr. Obama at present, it is worth remembering that he is still a very long way from the White House. And the tendency, especially in Europe, to see his candidacy solely through the prism of his race means that a defeat for him would in all likelihood be taken as confirmation of America's irredeemably racist nature.
Mr. Waters asserted that some "pseudo-liberals" would be "triumphant" if Mr. Obama were ultimately defeated "because they would be vindicated in their view of America."
But if he were to win, well, what will they say then?
This essay originally appeared in the New York Observer.