On Obama 

Things are moving so fast these days that there are tonnes of things to write about, an thousands of people around at the moment who have very interesting things to say about them. Here are a couple of links to thought provoking and insightful articles I’ve read in the past few days which contribute to a discourse that might be summed up with this image:.

Painful Beauty of the Corona Haze, by Bex Tyrer (~15 mins)

The Coronation, by Charles Eisenstein (~30 mins)

It’s not too early to start thinking about Australia after the crisis, by Jim Chalmers

Among many other things, Chalmers reminds us that during World War II, Australia’s political leaders began planning for “victory in peace” in a country which becomes “a mighty fellowship in which the happiness of each will be assured by the effort of all”, which is pertinent to the discussion below.

Before I can engage with any of the ideas they discuss, though, I want to follow up on my last post, On Trump. One of my readers suggested that I might have returned at the end of that post to say more about why Australians prefer Obama. So, that’s what this is about.

First, a brief reminder, that Obama enters this discussion because a very dear loved one in the USA expressed dismay that all her Australian friends think Obama was the best president ever, and Trump the worst, while she feels the opposite. That’s what prompted my reflections about Trump. I only briefly mentioned Obama in that post because my thoughts about Trump are entirely independent of my views on Obama, but I will attempt to explain why “Australians” thought so highly of Obama.

It’s worth noting at the outset that I am an American-Australian, a dual citizen who’s lived in Australia for 35 years. It’s also worth noting that “her Australian friends” are my Australian friends who, invariably, in American terminology, are lefty liberals. It’s also worth noting that not all Australians hold these views, and I cannot speak for all Australians.

In fact, some of you will recall that after 9/11, W laughingly dubbed John Howard, our then Prime Minister his “deputy sheriff” in the war on terror. You might also recall that Australia was one of the first nations to join W’s “coalition of the willing”, and many Australians were ok with that. I can’t speak for them.

I think on this issue, though, that I can speak for my friends and colleagues, and even many of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who marched in the streets on Valentine’s Day 2003 to protest against the invasion of Iraq.

You might also recall, in the lead up to that invasion W’s declaration “if you’re not with us, your agin’ us”, which marked a turning point in the US’s relations with international institutions for cooperation and global governance. The Bush government was openly hostile to the UN, ignoring the Security Council, and declaring it would go it alone if necessary, but would not be held back by the concerns of the international community – thus setting the scene for Trump’s triumphant “America first” platform.

To be sure, Australia, like the USA, has no shortage of isolationists, no shortage of fear-mongers warning of the “yellow peril” (when I arrived, it was the Japanese buying businesses and property, today it’s the Chinese; all along the “military threat” of 100 million+ Indonesians on our northern doorstep), or being swarmed by refugees on boats. Alas, our domestic politics and international relations have been plagued by these tendencies since the beginning of European colonisation.

Yet there’s a significant difference between the two countries even among those who share these fears: because of our small population and remote location, even fear-mongering Australian politicians understand that we are unavoidably and irrevocably dependent on international relations. Hence, the deputy sheriff could BOTH fear-monger about immigrants, refugees and foreign investments AND be first in line to join the coalition of the willing.

There are several points building up here, so let me just pause to note that the Australians I’m purporting to speak for do not like Australia’s political leaders any more than the US’s. Well, on second thought, not much more: Trump has set new standards. But this isn’t about him.

Anyway, the Australians I’m speaking about are cosmopolitans, people who recognise the world is a better place because of cultural differences; people for whom our world is a much better place because of multiculturalism. For decades Melbourne has ranked in the top five of various measures of “most liveable cities”, and we believe that is because it is open, diverse, multicultural, cosmopolitan. It is because we are tolerant, accepting and cooperative. Because we embrace different peoples, different cultures and different ideas. And because, although far from perfect, we have strong institutions of social solidarity which try to ensure no one gets left behind.

“Far from perfect” must be stressed here, before I lose all the lovely readers who’ve been nodding their heads in agreement up til now; before they jump in to criticize (and rightly so) the weaknesses in those institutions, and the political forces who continually seek to weaken those institutions – not only the xenophobes and racists, but also the neo-liberal corporatist capitalists who seek to remove all safety nets, who think that maximizing profits in a dog-eat-dog winner-take-all economy is more important than cooperative social solidarity.

(Let me note that I shifted from singing the praises of Australia to Melbourne above – mostly because of the metrics I referred to, but also, it’s what I know best. But most of that description also applies to the rest of Australia.)

I stress that this country and this city that I love are far from perfect to highlight the possibility of loving something even when aware of its failures, faults, imperfections, inadequacies. Of loving in a way that you want to know what’s wrong, and what might be done to make it better. Of loving a place or person while remaining open to hearing criticisms about it, without getting defensive.

So let’s finally turn this discussion to Obama. Obama came to prominence after many long years of American triumphalism, when W put America’s interests not only ahead of everyone else, but at the expense of everyone else. W claimed to be a “compassionate conservative” while trampling on the disadvantaged and propping up the military-industrial complex by opening Treasury coffers to endless warfare.

While much of the international community believed that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 should be treated as police matters, the Bush administration declared a War on Terror, a war which adopted the tactics of Shock and Awe, to bring an end to Terror. Because semantics are everything, yeah?

Obama, in contrast, presented as a cosmopolitan internationalist who understood that we’re all in this together – where “we” includes all the peoples living on this planet. He presented as a leader who could work together with people of differing cultures, faiths and values to try to make the world a better place – as opposed to shocking and awing dissenters into submission.

And that’s why we lefty-liberal Australians think he was the greatest US president in our lifetimes. Not that he was perfect. Personally, I was disappointed in his presidency from the beginning. I could provide a list of the things that his administration did that I found unsatisfactory – most of them having to do with promises (whether explicit or merely implied) that he “failed” to fulfill.

But despite those shortcomings, he presented a politics of hope, of cooperation, of community – he provided hope that we could work out our social problems, both domestically and internationally through respectful cooperation.

He wasn’t perfect; certainly not immune to criticism – but nevertheless the best US president of my lifetime.

Which brings us full circle, for this is a relative statement. He is not the absolute best, nor the best we can hope for; he was the best relative to the others.

I didn’t engage in this yesterday, because it was unnecessary to my discussion of Trump. To say that Trump is the worst president in my lifetime is a relative statement. But I didn’t need to go there to explain why I see him as a lying, insecure, selfish, incompetent, corrupt swamp rat.

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