Last Tuesday a 25-year-old white student was wandering around Union Square in New York when she was set upon by four black teenage girls who pushed her, pulled out her earphones, and spat in her face. She was wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "Obama is my slave" that she had bought from Apollo Braun's Lower East Side store in Manhattan.
This isn't the first controversial T-shirt Braun has printed about the Democratic presidential hopeful, Barack Obama. His body of work includes such slogans as "Jews Against Obama", "Obama = Hitler" and "Who Killed Obama?" - which he told New York's Metro was his most popular yet.
When questioned about the message that he is putting out, Braun insists these are not his views but those of the rest of America. "For a lot of people, when they see Obama, they see a slave. People think America is not ready for a black president," he said. Not people like him, he says, insisting that Obama's race is "the only thing I like about him. He opens the door for other minorities" - but "ordinary Wasps", with whom, it turns out, Braun has more in common than he cares to admit. "I can't stand Obama," he says, comparing him to Hitler, because "he is a Muslim".
Obama is not a Muslim. Nonetheless, according to a recent Pew research survey, 12% of Americans still believe that he is. Another 10% say they have "heard different things". This is why the New Yorker cartoon portraying Obama as a flag-burning terrorist wasn't that funny. For satire to work, it has to be edgy. It fails when it misjudges where the edge is. When, according to another survey, one in five Democrats with a negative opinion of Obama believes he is a Muslim, we are not talking isolated pockets but mainstream public opinion.
"It's hard to ignore what you hear when everybody you know is saying it," Jim Peterman, from Findlay, Ohio, told the Washington Post recently, having heard various accounts of Obama's lack of patriotism and extreme Islamic views. "These are good people, smart people, so can they really all be wrong?"
"The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe," wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. "The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."
Herein lies both Obama's greatest asset and biggest problem. In the past six months, it has become patently clear people see in him whatever they want to see. After being told his parents' race and nationality, more than half (55%) of white people said he was biracial while two-thirds of African-Americans said he was black, according to a Zogby poll. A New York Times poll last week showed two-thirds of black people believe he is very patriotic while one in five whites believe he is not very patriotic.
The division is not just racial but ideological. Liberals refer to him as though he represents a second coming. The left sees him as a disappointment waiting to happen. Hillary Clinton's team tried to paint him as a condescending sexist. Jesse Jackson wants to cut his nuts off.
These contradictions are arguably true of all politicians, but they seem truer of Obama than most. He must be the only "radical Islamist" whose biggest scandal to date has arisen from membership of the Trinity United Church of Christ. Depending on what Kool-Aid you have been drinking, when it comes to Obama your glass is either half full, half empty or overflowing, or you've smashed it lest anybody else imbibes its poison.
People come to Obama with extraordinary amounts of baggage and dump it at his door. For the most part their responses to him tell you far more about them than they do about him.
And so it is that his world tour heads to Europe, to what most predict will be a lively and rapturous reception from huge and hopeful crowds. Germany's Der Spiegel magazine has referred to him as the messiah. It is not difficult to see why. The damage George Bush has done to the world's view of America is both pervasive and profound. In a global survey of 27 countries conducted by Pew in 2000, 25 had a favourable view of America. Last month, in a similar survey of 24 countries, that number was down to seven.
On the world stage, America's misfortune has become Obama's opportunity. Most Europeans see him not just as Bush's likely successor but as his absolute negation - the anti-Bush. Where the current president is belligerent, parochial, indifferent and oafish, Obama is conciliatory, worldly, curious and refined. When it comes to the forthcoming elections, 23 of those 24 nations preferred Obama to John McCain.
Europeans think they are going to see Kennedy. The difference is that when Kennedy arrived in Europe in 1963, he had been president for three years - Obama is still trying to get elected, and Europeans don't get to vote. Indeed, the intense interest in the elections and enthusiasm for Obama in Europe reveals a real geopolitical weakness.
The past seven years have shown European governments able to frustrate America's excesses but not to thwart them. The issue is not solely that Europe has failed to present an effective challenge to America - a question of power - but that it has yet to come up with a coherent ideological alternative to it: a question of ideas.
America is nowhere near as excited about Obama as Europe is. So Europeans are left rooting on the sidelines in the hope that middle America (which is where most elections are decided) will make a better choice about who it thinks should run the world than it did last time. For Europeans, Obama's appearance has the palliative effect of methadone - taking the edge off a long-term dependency.
In Obama they see a paradigm shift. But if he wins, what they will get, in the words of the former president Warren Harding, is a "return to normalcy". Obama is not a radical, he is a mainstream Democrat - a party that in any other western nation would find itself on the right on foreign policy, the centre on economic policy, the centre-left on social policy.
When it comes to international affairs, he will be a huge improvement on Bush and much better than McCain. That takes him a long way from the parlous place where America is now. But his current platform will still leave America a considerable distance from where most Europeans who come out to greet him would like it to be.
This would matter more if they thought their own leaders could do any better. But Obama's other asset right now is the pathetic state of European leadership. He arrives in a continent whose unifying project has been stalled by the Irish and is based in a country that is falling apart - Belgium.
With the exception of Angela Merkel, riding high on folksy popularity, he will meet leaders (Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy) who are not much more popular than Bush. So Obama's arrival gives Europeans a chance to be passionate about politics - a feeling they have not had for a long time. In Obama, they pine for something they have singularly failed to produce - a politician who inspires them and a politics of hope.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008