Robert McLiam Wilson
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Billet de blog 14 mars 2008

No Shock and Awe for Obama

 July 20th 1969, two American astronauts (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) landed on the surface of the moon and wandered about on the surface for a few hours. Unsurprisingly, the world reacted with requisite awe and appropriate edification. Men have landed on the moon, the world said to itself. The unthinkable had happened.

Robert McLiam Wilson
Abonné·e de Mediapart

Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

July 20th 1969, two American astronauts (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) landed on the surface of the moon and wandered about on the surface for a few hours. Unsurprisingly, the world reacted with requisite awe and appropriate edification. Men have landed on the moon, the world said to itself. The unthinkable had happened. The American press and public went temporarily all Aristotleian. Beauty, terror and whatever that other thing was.

In November of the same year, two more Americans landed on the surface of the moon. The near-miracle had happened once more. Lightning had struck twice. Men had landed on the moon again. America and the world were not exactly bored but it was extraordinary how quickly and emphatically that ‘again’ was italicised. Again? Ho hum. The thinkable had happened. Again. The thinkable was more than thinkable. The thinkable couldn’t become unthinkable again. The thinkable was here to stay. Indeed, the thinkable had to do some real work to avoid becoming the eminently forgettable.

Nothing is clearer or more permanent in observable human nature than our capacity to seamlessly include hitherto unknown or unlikely information or impressions in our internal libraries of accepted, normalised data. That’s impossible, we say. Oh, that has happened, we reply. Oh, that was completely predictable the whole time, we invariably conclude. For a species helplessly given over to mistily believing in the remnants of magic, we seem to accept the magical and rob it of its glitter very, very quickly indeed.

I’ve often wondered how long it would take if intelligent aliens suddenly arrived upon earth, or Jesus Christ came back to save the world, how long it would be before they embroiled themselves in sex-scandals with Paris Hilton or some stray footballer. How long would it before they became ultimately, definitively quotidian? On past experience of rapid acceptance of the miraculous, somewhere between three and four days (depending on whether you have a functional television or internet connection).

And how the poor old Apollo Programme suffered from our human refusal to maintain slack-jawed and awed in the face of the majestic. I love the Apollo Programme. It’s cute and expensive and American and it cries out down the decades – why oh why couldn’t you continue to be impressed?

That it was American was part of its tragedy. For Americans as a society are in the very forefront of that human impulse to adapt rapidly to a new status quo. With all its optimistic can-do, forward-looking fervour, it is a culture uniquely geared to slaughter sacred cows, to hamburgerise the sublime. No matter how monolithic the resisting belief or assumption, America seems to move on past its disproof or collapse with no trouble at all.

I’ve been thinking of it a great deal in the last few weeks. The current political/cultural contest for the Democratic nomination for the US presidential elections has become, almost unnoticeably, a watershed in American notions of what is thinkable. Put simply, the Democratic Party is going to have to nominate either a woman, Hilary Clinton, or a black man, Barack Obama. This bears repetition. The Democratic candidate of the US presidential election will be either a woman or a black man.

This has been so unthinkable for so long in America that lots of people have actually thought long and hard about its unthinkability. It has been a standard truism of fiction and films. Even the television series 24 turned on the election of a black American as president (it helped give the series its slightly futuristic, abstract feel). The reflex joke of how long it would take for some snickering good ole boy white supremacist to assassinate such a figure has died a quiet and natural death. This stuff is no longer sci-fi or satire. It’s happening. It has happened.

And what is remarkable is how unshocked they all seem to be. How very lacking in awe. It seems already to have moved beyond the American capacity to normalise the unexpected (though the nature and length of nomination races offer a very particular preparation for Americans to get used to any idea before it becomes ineluctably serious). The last ten days have signalled how far the debate has moved with extraordinary clarity.

This week a Clinton aide, Geraldine Ferraro (herself a former US vice-presidential candidate), resigned from the campaign over remarks that can only be marginally described as a race row. She complained that Barack Obama would not be leading if he were not a black man. "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the whole country is caught up in the concept."

Quite apart from the philosophical tangles of such a very existential whine (he is lucky to be who he is? As opposed to being what else?), it marks an extraordinary moment of change in the mainstream political view of the colour of a prominent candidate’s skin. Ferraro complains about the unmerited advantage of being black. That it is somehow not fair. A serious remark from a serious figure in a very serious campaign. And no one has really even noticed how remarkable it is.

This is not the habitual reflex of soothing white frustrations by criticising affirmative action (US employment policies which can be seen as favouring quota-systems of ethnically diverse recruitment). There is no affirmative action in American politics. This is a cri de coeur from a powerful Democratic dynasty’s losing campaign. This is saying, how can we beat that?

Very quickly, the thinkability debate seems to be moving on from considerations of how Barack Obama might win given the disadvantage of his race to considerations of how unlikely it has become that he should lose given the unjust advantage of that race.

This shift is seismic. And more seismic because it seems so unremarkable and mundane. Before this, few could have predicted how the serious candidature of a black American for president might have been received (though they speculated endlessly). No one surely would have imagined such a lack of frisson, such a casual acceptance, such a rapid immersion into the blurry waters of the everyday.

Of course, one should not exaggerate how accepting or liberal certain parts of American society will prove in the face of this particular political development. If Obama were to become President, many people would still be violently unhappy. Nonetheless, you cannot ignore the fact that certain tensions are failing to build, that some uglinesses remain submerged and, most of all, that Obama’s colour has largely ceased to be a news story.

And this is what has begun to remind me of Apollo 12. Obama’s colour is not a news story because it’s a terrible news story. What can they write? Obama Still Black rates alongside More Guys On Moon in the so what stakes.

I don’t know exactly how much this will change the place or posture of race in American culture. But it is bound to have some effect. For America and Americans to so quickly conclude that a candidate’s race cannot even consistently sustain their focus and attention, means that we are watching that change now.


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