Friday, November 14, 2008

The "Obama Dividend"

Nick Kristof recently wrote an uplifting column on the “Obama Dividend.” After the election, he invited people to post their thoughts on his blog “and the result was an outpouring from every nook of the globe” that powerfully revitalized the American idea of equality and opportunity.

Jessica watched the results from a bar in Cape Town and wrote: “For the first time in recent memory, I can shout in the streets that I am American and be proud of the progress, hope and color that now define us.”

In Switzerland, an American was bathed in compliments comparing the election to the fall of the Berlin Wall. An American in Kenya named Tom wore an Obama T-shirt and found that his walk to work took more than an hour because so many people stopped to congratulate him and celebrate with him.

An awed Tanzanian named Leonard wrote to say that this election has promoted democracy far more effectively than anything the United States could say or do. He ended: “Long live America.”

And here in the United States, an 8-year-old boy announced on Wednesday morning his new career goal: He will be America’s first Latino president.

The outpouring suggests that the United States will enjoy an Obama dividend of global good will in the coming months, a chance to hammer out progress on common threats. “Barack” means blessing in Swahili, and this election feels like America’s great chance to rejoin the world after eight years of self-exile.

...One of Mr. Obama’s challenges will be to harness the extraordinary idealism that he inspired in his campaign to a larger, national cause. My 11-year-old daughter toiled with her friends this fall to sell lemonade and cookies to raise money for Mr. Obama’s campaign, all on their own initiative. On Election Day, my daughter was still selling Obama buttons in the street, and on election night, she flagrantly defied her bedtime rules to celebrate as history unfolded. Now she’s ready to drop out of school — who needs algebra? — and become a community organizer.

...Whatever the next step, it’s worth savoring this historic vista. First, look backward at a long-forgotten horror. In 1958, a little white girl in North Carolina innocently kissed a 9-year-old black friend named Hanover on the cheek. The police arrested the boy, along with his 7-year-old companion, and a court sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment for attempted rape. (After publicity, the boy was eventually released.)

Considering that past, perhaps the most incisive comment on Mr. Obama’s election actually came long ago. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the Hawaii Legislature in 1959, two years before Mr. Obama was born in Honolulu, and declared that the civil rights movement aimed not just to free blacks but “to free the soul of America.”

Mr. King ended his Hawaii speech by quoting a prayer from a preacher who had once been a slave, and it’s an apt description of the idea of America today: “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

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