The fate of the Obama presidency hangs not on a birth certificate or the red ink on the federal budget but by the hose nozzle of your local gas station.
Electoral discontent is measured by the price of a gallon of gasoline. Heading past $4 toward $5, that is a lethal trajectory for President Obama.
Enter the demagogues, especially the clown-in-a-business-suit, Donald Trump. Unfettered by the gravity that goes with facts, Trump says that he would fix the oil price — now around $110 a barrel — by facing down the producers, particularly the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). He told an interviewer on television that he would call OPEC and tell them to pump more or face the consequences. The latter, he did not specify. War? Against whom?
In a compelling book by Leah McGrath Goodman, "The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World’s Oil Market," the author lays out the ugly fact that often — in fact, more often as not — the price of oil is set not in Vienna at the headquarters of OPEC, but in downtown Manhattan at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).
Tens of thousands of future contracts are traded in nanoseconds at the NYMEX, and the price of oil is set. This price affects not only the price that will be paid when these contracts expire and delivery takes place, but also, according to Goodman, the all-important over-the-counter market, where sellers trade more directly with buyers without government oversight.
Goodman contends that there is little oversight of the NYMEX because the agency charged with the role is the weak and ineffectual Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), where many staff and commissioners are busy burnishing their resumes so they can cash in later as market executives.
The over-the-counter market is not regulated at all because of a pernicious interference from Congress known as the “Enron Loophole.” How did it get into law? It is one of those pieces of special-interest protection that owes its existence to legislative immaculate conception. It was not in the committee version of the bill; it slipped in along the way without parenthood, but is largely believed to be the work of former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, whose wife, Wendy, was chair of the CFTC.
In classic theory, a market is where a willing buyer and a willing seller strike a price. In the world of traders, it is something else: It is where volatility is rewarded and myths hold sway.
Today there is no actual shortage of crude oil. Supply and demand, according to those who monitor these things, is in balance. But fear stalks the trading floors because fear is good for traders; and fear is a critical part of the oil price.
Wars and rumors of wars are relished in trading pits. They raise the specter of coming shortage and introduce the instability the traders love. During the electricity shortage in California in 2001, traders, particularly at Enron, sought not only to capitalize on fears of shortage, but also to guarantee shortage by taking generating equipment off line.
Of course, reality must eventually catch up with speculation. The production of oil must meet demand and the price will briefly reach real world equilibrium. This happened in 1986, when the price collapsed because Saudi Arabia opened its spigots after the volatility of the 1970s. Many traders were wiped out and speculative billions were lost.
Some oil industry observers believe that the market is trading on a “fear premium” of about $1 per gallon of gasoline, spooked by the uncertainty in the Middle East and traders exploiting that fear.
Good for Obama. Time for the president to engage in a little market manipulation of his own.
The nation has about eight months of supply of crude oil saved in salt domes, in what is called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. There is more oil available in the Naval Petroleum Reserve, a set-aside of oil in the ground. Obama needs to say that we are going to start using this oil as soon as it can reach the refineries.
He has to go the whole hog — to set the machinery of using our special reserves in motion. That will humble the traders.
However, any new wars in the Middle East, and all bets are off. Poltergeists would stalk lower Manhattan. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
From the Romans on, wise men, including American humorist Mark Twain and French humanist Michel de Montaigne, have advised: Don't lie unless you have a good memory. This could be updated for conspiracy theorists this way: Don't spout theories of conspiracy unless you have the mind of an historian. Take note, Donald Trump.
Now back to Aug. 4, 1961 and the birth of Barack Hussein Obama in a faraway place, Kenya Colony in East Africa. It is a part of the British Empire that knows that its days as a playground for the English upper class — and often aristocratic playboys and playgirls – is limited. A year and a half earlier, their life in the sun was challenged and the future revealed when Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the South African parliament on Feb. 3 that “winds of change” were blowing through Africa.
The settlers on the famous “White Highlands” of Kenya Colony had survived the scandals of the 1930s and early 1940s, when the lover of a particularly beautiful woman, Lady Diana Broughton, was believed to have been murdered by her husband, Sir John Broughton, 30 years her senior. The murder of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Erroll, took the cover off the aristocrats cavorting in Happy Valley and the famous Muthaiga Club in the capital, Nairobi.
Back in England, where the dark days of World War II were raging, the fun-in-the-sun frolickers were pilloried as a dissolute lot with servants, booze, drugs and a penchant for wife-swapping.
In the 1950s, the brutal Mau Mau uprising by Kenya's Kikuyu led to a loss of faith in the future in all of colonial Africa, including Southern Rhodesia, another British colony with a small white population. Unlike Kenya, which was governed from London, Southern Rhodesia had a greater degree of self- government and was less a playground for wild exiles.
The tone of life in Kenya was summed up by the title of a book about the colony's most famous murder, “White Mischief,” later a movie. Anyway by the time Obama was born, things in Kenya were getting tense.
So in this environment of racial sensitivity, imagine a white American giving birth to a child fathered by an African. The local newspaper, The East African Standard, would have been aghast. Blimpy club men would have sputtered over their Scotch and sodas and their wives would have spilled their tea and moved forward the hour for their evening cocktails, known as sundowners.
The settlers in Kenya may have lived fast but, as in Southern Rhodesia, no issue was more sensitive than white women and black men. In 1957 there was a celebrated case in Southern Rhodesia of a black man, Patrick Matimba, who, while studying in England, had married a white woman from the Netherlands and took her to live in his homeland. The white Southern Rhodesians were enraged. While there might have been many white men who were coupling with black women, the reverse was not tolerated. It terrified the settlers.
Uncomfortably the Matimbas set up house in the only place that they were allowed to, church property in the farming hamlet of Rusape. When Mrs. Matimba suffered a miscarriage, her husband could not visit her in the local white hospital. Around this time a white widow, Mrs. Fletcher Lowe, who had an affair with her African servant, was imprisoned. I covered both stories and knew the players well.
So to those of us who grew up in colonial Africa, it is inconceivable that Obama's mother gave birth to him in Nairobi and that his step-grandmother watched the birth.
More intriguing is how birthers believe that not one but two birth notices were placed in Honolulu newspapers within nine days of Obama's birth. How could that be done without credit cards; the Internet; or in the probability that outside of the American Embassy, not too many people in Kenya knew anything about Hawaii? After all, Hawaii had only been a state for two years and the people of Kenya had other things on their minds, let alone how to post birth notices across two oceans.
No, Donald Trump. The kind of disinformation pedaled by the birthers had a name in Kenya: white mischief. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
There is a piece of doggerel which goes:
They said it couldn’t be done.
So I went right to it — that thing they said
Couldn’t be done.
And I couldn’t do it.
And that is the way it has been with presidents since the 1973 oil crisis. All of them – from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, who has just joined the club — have wrung their hands and exhorted us to use less oil in general and less foreign oil in particular.
Nixon had his commerce secretary, Peter G. Peterson (he of enormous wealth these days), promise far reaching and revolutionary “initiatives” to tame our thirst for oil. But Nixon was out of office before these palliatives were revealed.
Gerald Ford, caught up in vicious inflation, partly linked to the cost of oil, launched the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), combining the Atomic Energy Commission, the Office of Coal Research and other energy entities in the federal government. ERDA initiated many programs, while politicians invoked the Manhattan Project and the Apollo 11 moon landing. But the search for the Fountain of Eternal Energy failed.
Jimmy Carter wanted not only to solve the energy challenge, but to be seen to be solving it. Ergo, he expanded ERDA into the Department of Energy (DOE) and created a separate Synthetic Fuels Corporation. The latter failed after a short and unhappy life. No oil reached the pumps.
When the price of oil collapsed in the 1980s, so did hopes for many of the alternative energy sources, including ocean thermal gradients and flywheel energy storage.
To its credit, though at great cost, DOE, through its chain of national laboratories, kept searching. The result has been evolutionary improvements in many fields, and some really revolutionary ones in how we find oil and drill for it; these include seismic mapping, new drill bits and horizontal drilling.
These evolutionary developments brought more oil to market and have contributed to the recent improvement in domestic production that Obama likes to point out. It has enabled us to cut our imports slightly, so they now stand at 11 million barrels per day out of consumption of 20 million barrels per day.
Obama wants us to cut those imports by a third. To do this, he has no magic bullet.
In fact, he has no ammunition: solid numbers and research. His speech at Georgetown University was founded more on hearsay than science or economics.
Because he criticized them for taking out leases they have not drilled, the oil industry disliked the oil component of the speech, but thrilled at the emphasis on natural gas. When it comes to leases, the industry hankers not for those it holds, but for the plums that have not been leased for political reasons: the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.
Sadly, Obama seemed to have learned the wrong lesson on his recent trip to Brazil because he is brimming with enthusiasm for ethanol. In Brazil, this is made from sugar cane, of which the Brazilians have a lot and cheap labor to farm it. Here, it is made from corn with devastating results on all the food products that come from corn. George W. Bush shoved the country down that slippery slope, and Obama wants to add more lubricant.
Another Obama tool is mandated fuel-economy standards. Problem is the market will start circumventing the regulations. It works like this: If you mandate 40-miles-per-gallon fleet average instead of floods of new small hybrids of the Toyota Prius type, the market will supply small, regular cars and large, luxury hybrids. Better, but not everything the president might want.
Real oil savings come with high prices dictated either by taxes or shortage. Presidents, however, have to placate voters by holding down the price of oil, signaling that it is all right to consume. That leaves presidents — and Obama has just proved it — with that last resort of the impotent in office: exhortation. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
Among forecasters, there is a sharp division between those who see an inexorable rise in the price of oil and those who believe it will stabilize about where it is now.
The hawks see gasoline streaking ahead to $4-a-gallon this year and $5-a-gallon in 2012.
Others say demand will collapse and it won’t go that high. The federal Energy Information Administration is very conservative in its forecasts and it gives very high prices only a 10-percent chance of coming about.
Adding to the confusion is a nasty little spat between the International Energy Agency in Paris and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries over price, inventory and what OPEC calls “technical factors,” such as pipelines down for repair or the loss of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico last April 20.
The IEA is saying that OPEC is keeping its production quotas low to jack up the price—currently just under $90 a barrel and the highest grade Brent crude from the North Sea as high as $99 a barrel—and it is endangering the global recovery with its actions.
But OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem el-Badri has taken issue with the IEA for roiling the markets with weak data and speculation. “Supplying the world’s media with unrealistic assumptions and forecasts will serve only to confuse matters and create unnecessary fear in the markets,” he said.
OPEC, which drastically cut back its targets for production in 2008 with the collapse of the global economy, has, in fact, increased its production by 2.3 million barrels a day while formally not changing its declared targets. OPEC controls about 42 percent of the world’s oil production.
What is certain is that world is slurping up more oil than ever. The latest IEA prediction is that daily consumption is increasing and will reach 89.1 million barrels a day as the recovery proceeds. Emerging markets and China in particular are held responsible for the surge, though that could change if Beijing takes steps to slow its booming economy.
With the exception of two of the savants of the oil industry, the legendary T. Boone Pickens and former Shell Oil Company chief John Hofmeister, comment in the United States has been muted. When asked why the price of oil was so high despite the recession, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brushed aside the question, recommending the reporter ask the secretary of the Department of Energy, a physicist who has not spoken on oil pricing. Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, did not offer an explanation when he was asked the same question at a meeting in Washington.
The fact is that the price of oil is not determined only by simple supply and demand but by complex premiums and market sensitivities. It is a market that is roiled by wars and rumors of wars and, because oil was the first truly globalized commodity, the premiums can have their genesis far from the futures markets of New York and London.
Uncertainty in Russia, turmoil in Central Asia, the ongoing suspense of Iran’s nuclear plans and even corrosion in the Trans Alaska Pipeline System are cranked into the price. No wonder so many hedge funds are involved in oil. Instability is mothers’ milk to hedge funds.
One way or another, two things stand out: The chances are that the summer- driving season will put pressure on gasoline prices this year, after an extremely cold winter all over the Northern Hemisphere. The conservative (10-percent chance of happening) scenario by the federal Energy Information Administration says $4-a-gallon gas would come at the end of the summer.
The second reality is that the world thirst for oil has not been slaked; as the world prospers, the greater that thirst.
In 1974, the heads of 23 democracies lost their jobs because of surging energy prices. Obama, beware.
May 21, 2011, according to a loosely-organized apocalyptic Christian movement, will be the “end of days.”
On or about that same date, the price of oil in the United States will begin to climb to $4 a gallon, according to two savants of the oil industry.
The former is highly unlikely but the latter is very probable.
The escalation in the price of oil is predicted by the legendary oil man T. Boone Pickens, known for his financial acuity as well as his oil expertise, and John Hofmeister, who retired as president of Shell Oil Company, to sound the alarm about the rate of U.S. consumption of oil.
In an interview with a trade publication, Hofmeister predicted that oil would rise to $4 a gallon this year and to $5 a gallon in the election year 2012. Separately, Pickens—who has been leaning on Congress to enact an energy policy that would switch large trucks and other commercial vehicles from imported oil to domestic natural gas—predicts that oil currently selling for just over $90 a barrel will go to $120 a barrel, with a concomitant price per gallon of $4 or more.
The Obama administration appears to have been slow to grasp the political implications of an escalation in the price of oil. When asked about it, outgoing White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs referred the questioner to the Department of Energy.
Not everyone is alarmed by the incipient rise in the price oil. Republicans, who are especially close to the oil industry and its Washington lobby, orchestrated by the American Petroleum Institute, think that a great deal of hay can be made while this particular sun shines. They plan to attack the administration for spending too many resources on alternative fuels, over-regulating the industry, and keeping too many federal lands away from oil prospecting. They also accuse the administration of being too frugal with its release of drilling areas in the Gulf of Mexico and on the two coasts, as well as Alaska.
The Republicans have unlikely bedfellows in their quest to politicize the price of oil. They are joined by environmentalists who have long believed that only high prices will break America’s passion for the automobile.
Environmentalists have long advocated European-style taxation to drive motorists out of their cars and onto buses and trains.
A third interest group that will take some pleasure in rising oil prices are those who are invested in alternatives such as ethanol, oil from algae and electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund is keeping an eye on the price of oil, according to Caroline Atkinson, director of external relations at the IMF. She told a Washington press briefing that the IMF is particularly concerned with food and other commodities that are directly affected by the price of oil.
Hofmeister, who now heads the non-profit Citizens for Affordable Energy that advocates energy development in all forms, believes that the United States could increase oil production from the current 7 million barrels per day to 10 million, half of its consumption. He told an interviewer from Platt’s, an energy publisher and broadcaster, that we were “essentially frittering at the edges of renewable energy, stifling production in hydrocarbon energy,” which he said could lead to blackouts, brownouts, gas lines and rationing.
There are already signs that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is planning a big push for hydrocarbon energy. An indication of this comes from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a one-time global-warming believer who has dropped that issue from his agenda. He is the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In periods of high gasoline prices in the past, presidents have found there is very little that they can do. Their options are to reduce the tax on gasoline, sell oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or the Naval Petroleum Reserve. President George W. Bush went a step further: He went to Saudi Arabia twice to ask the Saudis to increase their rate of production. Twice he came back empty-handed.
All of this would be good news for the oil producers and especially those troublesome players, Russia and Venezuela.
Of course, if you believe the human endeavor ends on May 21, better fuel the SUV and hit the road.
I cannot look at British Prime Minister David Cameron without feeling that he has been made from an Identi-Kit, and that they just missed the perfect likeness. The hair is from a Vidal Sassoon catalogue; the face from an exhibition of Dutch masters; and the body from, well, the ranks of the well-fed but not fat.
This sense that Cameron is a made-up man came back to me in the East Room, when President Barack Obama welcomed him to the White House as both men gave their first joint press conference since the prime minister was elected.
With just four questions from pre-selected reporters, it is stretching it to call these events press conferences; and the lack of enthusiasm for the format was shown by the empty media seats.
Anyway, the purpose of the event was to convince the media that Cameron and Obama are on the same page of the hymnal. Everybody knows they are not. They are divided by four not-unsubstantial issues.
They tried hard to sound like chums. They wore almost identical dark suits and blue ties. They called each other by their first names: It was “David” this and “Barack” that.
There has been a steady growth of informality at the White House, but this was a new mile post. One British reporter -presumably for the benefit of his American colleagues -actually addressed Cameron as “Mr. Prime Minister.” That is a form of address peculiarly American and never heard around the British Parliament. The British prefer to believe that a title determines the form of address. So it is simply, “Prime Minister, could you tell us …”
Cameron tried to set the stage by writing an article that appeared that morning in the Wall Street Journal. In it, he redefined the “special relationship” and called for the British to be less sentimental about it.
Underlining their differences, Cameron and Obama share something that is not helpful: neither of them is an Atlanticist.
Unlike many British Conservatives, Cameron has not been seduced by the United States. He did not spend a year at a U.S. university and has not peppered his talk with mention of the American example.
Likewise, Obama is one of the least Eurocentric of American presidents. He, too, did not spend time at a British university, as did Bill Clinton. He even offended many by banishing a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.
We do not know whether the public coziness extended into two days of talks between Obama and Cameron, but the policy differences are wide.
First, there is the global economy. Obama and his advisers believe too much austerity now will lead to a second recession and catastrophic deflation. So much so that Obama wrote to his partners in the G8 urging them to stimulate, not strangle, their economies.
But Cameron, keenly aware of the fate of Greece and the downgrading of Irish debt, has put forward an austerity budget and asked his departments to come up with possible cuts in staff and expenditures of 25 and 40 per cent, respectively. The real pain will not be felt until the cutting begins in the fall.
Second, there is the delicate matter of BP. Obama does not mind if the oil giant is squeezed so much over the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that it has to be sold off to, say, an American company. Cameron minds a lot.
Then there is the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, by the Scottish government. Americans want an inquiry into whether there was a deal to release al-Megrahi to protect British business interests in Libya, possibly involving BP. Cameron, who opposed the release at the time, thinks it is a closed issue. But he has already been pressured into a review.
Finally there is the case of Gary McKinnon, the computer genius with Asperger’s syndrome, who hacked into Pentagon and NASA computers after 9/11. The United States wants him extradited for trial here and Cameron is under pressure on grounds of humanitarianism and sovereignty not to oblige. Obama says it is a legal not presidential matter; Cameron raised it anyway.
His “special relationship” might not be Obama’s cup of tea.
Let’s pour the tea, and see who’s come to the party. More, let’s see why they came.
What binds these good citizens together in a ramshackle and loud fraternity known as the Tea Party movement? The focal point may be the Democratic health care legislation; but there is, as always with popular movements, a back story that is more complex and more compelling.
Could it be, to use Winston Churchill’s phrase, the sum of all their fears?
Indubitably. These are days of change, massive and irreversible change. Change that is undermining but difficult to characterize, and disturbing to experience.
The nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, is the symbol of that change more than he’s its author,
The Tea Party Patriots are people who feel that their lives and their nation is being swept forward to a place they don’t wish to go. They blame Obama and the Democrats for taking them there.
But the administration and the Democratic majorities in Congress have little to do with the buffeting the American image is taking.
Consider these facts:
✔ The United States has gone from the richest nation in the world to the biggest debtor.
✔ Our competitor, China, has grown rich in our market. Now China lends us money to cement the entanglement, while it becomes increasingly obstreperous.
✔ We have the largest and most lethal military machine on earth, but we can’t subdue insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, banish pirates in international waters, or prevail in sanctioning Iran.
✔ Our infrastructure, once the envy of the world, crumbles. European trains hurtle at 220 miles an hour; ours crawl at less than a third of that speed.
✔ Broadband in the United States is many times slower than it is in Europe. This is cruel: We invent, they perfect.
✔ More than 10 percent, and possibly nearly double that, are out of work with no chance of employment for years. And new technology has made the skills of many of the unemployed obsolete.
✔ The United States is an English-speaking nation where a second language, Spanish, is creeping towards full recognition. Banks, phone companies and state governments have gone bilingual.
✔ Immigrants, legal and illegal, are changing the culture.
After 43 white, male presidents, there is a black man in the White House and a first family that reminds middle-class white tea partiers that huge changes are afoot.
A general anxiety has crystallized into a particular rage.
In memory, the 1950s have been sanctified as a time when all was well in America–if you were white and not serving in Korea. The United States was strong, the land was fertile and fear was concentrated on the Soviet threat.
As it had been in World War II, the good guys were us and the bad guys were them. The European empires were disappearing and we were the city upon a hill. Tea Party Patriots’ nostalgia for the 1950s is as pretty and disingenuous as a Saturday Evening Post cover.
The tea partiers may not be interested in the new demographics and new realities of the 21st century, but their anger won’t banish reality.
Trouble is the only political home these genuinely worried people can find is on the right: the overstated, overwrought and over-simplistic right. The right of Mark Levin and Glenn Beck.
These polemicists have concentrated the anxiety of tea partiers into a fear of socialism. It’s the undefined dark at the top of the stairs, the threat to liberty, to gun ownership and to private enterprise, according to the fear merchants of the right. Yet, there is precious little government left in the world that can be described as socialist.
The old socialism, with the nationalization of the means of production at its core is dead, sent to its eternal rest in Europe. Only a few leaders. like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, still espouse it.
Already extremists of the right–with death threats and property damage–are undoing the legitimacy of the entire Tea Party movement, and its unlikely members–the well-heeled, well-fed, well-insured but very sympathetic and very fearful activists.
Their fears deserve a hearing individually and in sum. Instead, they’re being exploited and in time they’ll be marginalized, discredited by the company they keep. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
Happy birthday, America—really happy birthday.
As an immigrant, I can say that with an authenticity and sincerity I would not have if I had been born on this blessed piece of real estate with its spirit of possibility. I came here because I am of the last generation that was, perhaps globally, pro-American.
Yes, after World War II, the United States was admired the world over. I grew up in Africa where American education, American technology and American goods–from cars to radios–were venerated.
When Coca-Cola was introduced into Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), there was practically a national holiday. The company’s employees–with the blessing of the authorities and government departments—flooded the schools with vending machines. This was not because local soft drinks were not refreshing. No, it was a kind of homage to the United States: We wanted a sip of the American magic. As a colony, we wanted less of London and more of New York. We believed Americans were invincible. In our eyes Americans were superior because they had smarter government, better laws and more entrepreneurial people.
Of course, in that faraway place, we idealized all things American and sometimes we were wishfully wrong. For example, we believed that the United States had solved its race problems (hardly in the 1950s) and that the more we followed America and broke with our mother country, Britain, the better. It was the American example that led Prime Minister Ian Smith to unilaterally–and disastrously, as it turned out–declare independence from Britain on Nov. 11, 1965.
In 1959, I moved to Britain where there was a much greater sense of competition across the Atlantic, more resentment of America climbing as Britain was sinking. Also, there was resentment of America’s abandonment of the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956. It was a period of adjustment.
It was also a wrenching time in European intellectual life. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, both followed by brutal Soviet repression, undermined European intellectuals’ faith in communism; but they did not switch to untrammeled support of capitalism. Wary of the politics of the right, they were looking for kindness, gentleness and an indigenous way forward.
Europeans wanted a future that would allow for their historical experiences, but would not sweep them into the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union or the United States. That way forward was democratic socialism, embraced by all European political parties except the extreme nationalistic ones of the right and the communists, who are still found on the extreme left in France, Italy and other countries.
As Europe moved into its democratic socialist future, anti-Americanism grew. It was based on economic resentment, fear of U.S. foreign policy and anger over the difficulty of penetrating the U.S. market. Appreciation of American sacrifice in World War II was laced with resentment that America did not join the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Some blame for anti-Americanism lies with the European newspapers of the time. They seized on crime; the oddities of American life (like the shoe-shaped house); the size of American automobiles; and, of course, the cavorting of Hollywood stars. While American media portrayed Europe as Disneyland for grownups, Europeans were led to believe that American life was brutal and freakish.
Serious chroniclers like Alastair Cooke–an Englishman who dedicated a good part of his life telling Britain, on the BBC and in The Manchester Guardian, that America was a wondrous place–failed to arrest the rising tide of anti-Americanism.
That had to come later, after the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. None of our carping European friends could pull off such an historical first in their own countries.
No matter what you think of the man, Obama’s election as the first African-American president is a very American triumph. The world has applauded the system that could produce this result and the people who made it possible. Only in America. Happy birthday. –For North Star Writers Group
There is an annual festival in Sri Lanka known as the Esala Perahera. It has everything, including a parade of richly-decorated elephants, drummers and dancers, food and clothing stalls, and all sorts of entertainment for children. But above all, it has people–hundreds of thousands of them. The organizers told me it was a million, but people always inflate crowd numbers, don’t they?
I wandered, a sole Westerner through the throng, amazed at its security as much as its size. This, I thought, could never happen in America. If we had half as many people, there would be incidents. By incidents I mean stampedes, violent crime, tension between racial groups, and teenagers just behaving badly. Sri Lanka, I thought, even in the midst of its civil war with the Tamil Tigers in the north of the island, is a place of peace; a civil place, where you can be outnumbered by hundreds of thousands and still feel secure, respected and inviolate.
Tuesday made a liar of me.
The largest-ever gathering of Americans to descended on Washington came for many reasons, but above all to celebrate America. Nominally, the millions (is that an exaggeration?) came to inaugurate Barack Obama: this slight African-American, who has come to Washington from Chicago like some 21st-century Lochinvar, ready to unite the tribes and lead them away from their tribulations.
But it was not Sir Walter Scott’s percussive poem that flooded my mind as I was watching Obama’s inauguration, but the lines from the gloriously jingoistic speech that Shakespeare gave his Henry V to deliver on the eve of his great victory against the French at Agincourt: “…And gentlemen in England now- a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap…”
The outpouring of feeling on the Mall was spiritual; one of those outpourings that occasionally grips human beings collectively and transcends politics, race, religion, philosophy, and the other manifestations of our tribal rigidities. It was an outpouring of something deep in the human heart, that inner need to celebrate as well as to mourn. It was the happy side of the same thing as the sadness that gripped the world when Princess Diana died. Then it was a need to cry, to acknowledge the pain of the human condition. On the Mall it was the need to celebrate, to rise above our lesser selves and feel a oneness with possibility.
I was five years old when World War II ended in Europe. But I remember the parade in Cape Town, South Africa. I remember waving my little Union Jack (it got torn), my father looking so handsome in his Royal South African Navy uniform, and the mood. Oh, the mood. Blacks and whites, English and Afrikaners put aside all of their bitter history to hug, kiss and dance. They were jubilant.
All these years later, there was something of that feeling in Washington; not only because many had repudiated the excesses of George W. Bush, but also because collectively we had put aside the racism of our history for something very, very American: a new beginning.
The celebrants on the Mall knew they would look good in the eyes of the world and that made them feel even better. Who doesn’t want to be well thought of, even in “Old Europe”?
It was only one day, but what a grand American day. Bigger than a gigantic gathering in Sri Lanka, not quite as wonderful as the end of war, but a vaulting day for the spirit. American exceptionalism is a concept used more for nefarious purposes than honored when it is at hand. It was at hand on Tuesday.