Barack and the soul of America

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Back in 1920, H.L. Mencken, “the sage of Baltimore,” made a chillingly nightmarish observation about the future of the American presidency:

“The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

While pundits may argue the truth of Mencken’s prophesy, it is self-evident that over the last 8 years, the White House has been a “virtual vacuum.” Sure the lights were on, but it did not seem like there was anybody there. At least in the Oval office. Somebody was asleep at the switch; and America has been sleepwalking. In Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and Latin America. John McCain says it is possible for America to remain in Iraq “may be for 100 years.” In the meantime, mean ole Osama and his crew of suicide bombers are enjoying life (no pun intended) somewhere in the tribal areas of northern Pakistan. Americans are not. They are having a hard time. With massive foreclosures, high gas and food prices and creeping unemployment. The pillars of the American economy are crumbling. Freddiemac, Fanniemae, Lehman Brothers, Merril Lynch, AIG have bitten the dust. Many others are expected to follow suit. John McCain says, “The economy is fundamentally sound.” He wants Americans to give him four more years of the past eight years, as Hilary Clinton aptly put it. What to do?

The Fight for the “Inner Soul” of America

Do we want four more years of the past eight? That is, more wars, more conflict and instability in the world. More radicalization and desperation among the world’s poor, less respect and security for America and a more hostile global environment? Do we want more economic turmoil at home and a rapidly deteriorating standard of living?

There is a lot at stake in the 2008 presidential election. It is the most important presidential election in several generations. It is an election about the “inner soul” of America. That inner hard core, I believe, is Liberty. Its soft outer covering is compassion and generosity. Most Ethiopians in America should know all about it. Liberty was the first thing we tasted when we walked through the Golden Door. It was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore… Send these, the homeless, the tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.” We were welcomed in America when our homeland became an open prison for our people and a playground for bloodthirsty thugs. America embraced us. When our people suffered through man-made famines for decades, Americans were the first to extend a mighty helping hand.

But that American passion for Liberty writ large for the world was expressed concisely by President Franklin Roosevelt in the Atlantic Charter: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. There was a time when America was regarded as the beacon and lighthouse for humanity. Nation after nation adopted significant elements of the American Constitution by copying the very words of the American Founders. Those ideals of liberty were expressed by John Kennedy in 1963 when he stood at the Berlin wall and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Ronald Reagan returned in 1987 and shouted: “Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. The spirit of liberty had triumphed. George Bush has been asking, “What ideals? Bring’em on!” We’ll knock their teeth out!

Why Elect Barack President?

For the past eight years, the Bush Administration has squandered golden opportunities by insisting on a series of unilateral actions. Today, America’s reputation is in tatters throughout the world. The world is hurting and blaming America. Barack said, “the war in Iraq has not just cost lost lives and treasure but also influence and respect.” America needs to regain influence and respect in the world. Barack can fix it. He has a realistic vision and a real understanding of the world. He understands we live in a global village, not a fortress or a garrison. He knows village life must be handled carefully and thoughtfully. You can’t go around bullying everybody particularly when you depend on the villagers so much. The Chinese, Japanese, Brazilians, the Middle Eastern oil producers and others hold 25 percent of U.S. debt. Like it or not, those villagers own quite a bit of us. We need them as much as they need us.

But Barack represents a paradigm shift, a complete change in approach. He will work his damnest to bring peace to the village. Villagers and village elders will be talking to each other once again, not lectured or threatened. Imagine Mahmood Ahmedinejad fretting over what he will say to Barack when it’s time to meet and talk. Imagine the shock on Kim Jong-Il’s face when Barack tells him America will honor its obligations to provide aid but he has got to permanently abandon his futile effort to become a destabilizing nuclear power in the region. The masters of terror will finally have to deal with someone who uses the power of American ideals to neutralize the power of hate. They don’t stand a chance. They know Barack will chase them to the ends of the earth, even if that is the craggy caves of Waziristan. Barack will make the White House a symbol of hope and peace throughout the world once again, and not arrogant and heedless militarism.

Why Support and Vote for Barack

We should support Barack not because he is African American or black. To do so would be wrong, very wrong because it diminishes him and us. As Dr. King has taught us, we do not judge a person by the color of his skin but the content of his character. Barack is much more than his skin color. He is an extraordinary American. He is the very personification of core American values that others merely parrot. He is honest, hardworking, thoughtful, civic-minded, intelligent, tough, humble and compassionate. He is also ambitious, not for personal ego or gain, but to serve his country. There is no question Barack has got the character thing down pat. But he also has a vision for America. It is certainly not a vision of Fortress America. It is not a vision of reach out and crush someone in the world today. It is not a vision of America where sleaze is elevated to a civic virtue. His vision is to lead America and the world by persuasion and principle, by bringing Americans together at home and working for peace, understanding and justice abroad. That is the CHANGE he is talking about.

Obama’s Audacity of Hope for America

Obama believes in America. He knows America’s best days are yet to come with the right leadership. That’s why he said:

“I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth. In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people. Whether it’s global terrorism or pandemic disease, dramatic climate change or the proliferation of weapons of mass annihilation, the threats we face at the dawn of the 21st century can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries. There is no doubt that the mistakes of the past six years have made our current task more difficult. World opinion has turned against us. And after all the lives lost and the billions of dollars spent, many Americans may find it tempting to turn inward, and cede our claim of leadership in world affairs… We must neither retreat from the world nor try to bully it into submission – we must lead the world, by deed and example…

And America must lead by reaching out to all those living disconnected lives of despair in the world’s forgotten corners… This will require a new spirit – not of bluster and bombast, but of quiet confidence and sober intelligence, a spirit of care and renewed competence. It will also require a new leader. And as a candidate for President of the United States, I am asking you to entrust me with that responsibility.”

Barack’s Message for Ethiopians

Barack understands the problems of Ethiopians and all oppressed peoples in the world. He understands that American security in the world is directly proportional to America’s role in ensuring freedom, democracy and human rights throughout the world. His understanding is not mere repetition of platitudes about democracy and freedom. It is much deeper than that:

“We have heard much over the last six years about how America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom – that it is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair. I agree. But this yearning is not satisfied by simply deposing a dictator and setting up a ballot box. The true desire of all mankind is not only to live free lives, but lives marked by dignity and opportunity; by security and simple justice.

Delivering on these universal aspirations requires basic sustenance like food and clean water; medicine and shelter. It also requires a society that is supported by the pillars of a sustainable democracy – a strong legislature, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, a free press, and an honest police force. (Isn’t that what H.R. 2003 and S.B. 3457 are all about?) It requires building the capacity of the world’s weakest states and providing them what they need to reduce poverty, build healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth. And it requires states that have the capacity to fight terrorism, halt the proliferation of deadly weapons, and build the health care infrastructure needed to prevent and treat such deadly diseases as HIV/AIDS and malaria… The corruption I heard about while visiting parts of Africa has been around for decades, but the hunger to eliminate such corruption is a growing and powerful force among people there. And so in these places where fear and want still thrive, we must couple our aid with an insistent call for reform.” (Isn’t that what H.R. 2003 and S.B. 3457 call for?)

The American Moment

We need to turn around the American ship of state that is now adrift on an ocean of confusion and self-doubt. We need someone who will substitute the drumbeats of war with the rhythm of international peace and harmony. We need someone who can show us how to beat the swords into ploughshares and restore America to its rightful place of leadership in the world. We need someone who will hold accountable those who have played fast and loose with the economy. Barack is absolutely right: “The American moment has not passed. The American moment is here. And like generations before us, we will seize that moment, and begin the world anew.” Let’s take our first step into the brave new world by electing Barack Obama, President of the United States!


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