Monday, January 7, 2008

appreciating what you've got

One thing my Africa travels taught me to appreciate is the American political system. As frustrating and fallible as it is, it still gets some things right. I now appreciate term limits that can't be changed at the whim of a head of state. I appreciate election days that stick. I appreciate a Constitution that set up some good safeguards. I appreciate not being afraid to go to the polls on election day. I appreciate a country in which all jobs are not "government jobs" because the government doesn't run everything. I appreciate decentralization now that I know what it means.

When I left for Africa at the end of July, candidates were campaigning and the media was pontificating. It all seemed like a little too much too soon. I mean, it was still a year and a half before the presidential election! Calm down, folks. Besides, I was busy packing and writing and planning and sorting and preparing and organizing. So, I didn't pay much attention to the fine details of campaigning. Plus, I'm fairly cynical about ever being able to get real information from the campaign machinery anyway.

In Africa, though, especially in Kenya and Uganda, some of my new friends and acquaintances asked me about our elections. Mostly the Kenyans asked me about Barack Obama. (I didn't know until I was in Kenya that his father was Kenyan.) And mostly people asked me who I thought was going to win: Hillary or Barack. Still, it was a sobering reality check on the way the world follows our politics. What happens here affects them.

The week I returned to the US I happened to read the Atlantic cover story (December issue) on Barack Obama. I don't know yet who I will vote for, but this article did raise some interesting points. This one hit me with more force than it might have otherwise, since I was fresh off the plane from international travels:

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power.... The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.


Since returning, in light of all the things I newly appreciate, I've been trying to catch up on the candidates. It's hard going. I watched part of the Democratic debate on Saturday night. Until it reached the point that all debates seem to reach: candidates repeating their catch phrases in answer to every question, not saying anything new after the first half of the debate. Like I said, our politics aren't perfect, but as I pray for Kenya, I'm glad for what we have.


Julie said...

Hi Kami, I read that same article on the way back from New Orleans. It is really interesting.

Mark Kelly Hall said...

So I suppose Hillary would have the opposite effect? This doesn't bode well for the Clinton group! : )