Published on
The Sunday Herald (Scotland)

America, You’ve Much to be Proud of... but Drop the World-Leader Idea

Muriel Gray

One of the many entertaining contributions from Tommy Sheridan, on the recently concluded Celebrity Big Brother, was his reaction to watching Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Turning to the three tearful American housemates he declared: "At last. America has something to be proud of."

What, this choice of president, and nothing else? Nuts to all that other stuff, like the moon landing, F Scott Fitzgerald, Elvis, Sidney Poitier, Mark Twain, Orson Welles, satellites, Stephen King, Edwin Hubble, Aaron Copeland, the Cadillac, Jackson Pollock, Shirley Jackson, Jerry Seinfeld, Maya Angelou, The Wright brothers, Pixar, Francis Ford Coppola, Tiger Woods, Gene Kelly, Thomas Edison, Harper Lee, John Bardeen sorry, am I boring you, because this could run to many hundreds of pages? Nothing much to be proud of there? Yeah, right on Tommy. The Americans. What a bunch of losers.

But regardless of our favorite, hairy Trotskyite's preposterous anti-Americanism, most other people who celebrated last Tuesday's historic inauguration eliminated any undercurrents of recrimination. Democracy allows the people to make mistakes, and then to make amends. Given Bush's demonic two terms there is certainly a lot to make amends for. But the American people voted to do just that, and in this respect they are no different from any other free democracy. In Europe, we too vote in the occasional psychopath, and then vote them back out again. It's just that ours are less powerful, hence proportionally do less damage.

So if the world watched the beginning of this new presidency with a tearfully optimistic eye, did we approve of everything US citizens were promised? However events may shape Barack Obama's character in the future, the American people appear to have pulled off that rarest of achievements, and elected a thoroughly decent man. And in recognition of such, the big day was an emotionally charged, joyous, creative triumph.

Making the corpulent preacher precede Obama's address by asking God to forgive everything America had done under Bush was a stroke of genius. Of course he didn't actually mention Bush by name, but we got the message. And Obama's speech was sublime. So much so that even all the daft god stuff was just about bearable. To many, particularly in Britain, the president's religiosity is one small source of disappointment, revealing, as it does, a seam of emotional weakness. Of course there may be a small, outside chance that, as the Clintons are suspected of doing, he's just pretending. Outrageously, no atheist or agnostic can currently succeed to high office in the US, hence it would be political suicide for a candidate to reveal they possessed so much as a shard of free-thinking. But even if he skipped the Enlightenment in history classes and is indeed a genuine believer, this infantilism should not overly concern us, since his speech reassured us that his superstitions will not, unlike Bush, be informing his policy decisions. So go right ahead, Barack. Knock yourself out with prayer. Especially if it helps you give up smoking.

For there was much else in his address to delight. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Brilliant! Did you hear that New Labor? "There is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task." You're damn right. And so say all of us Presbyterian-leaning Scots. Get those teenagers out of bed. Hooray! "The world has changed and we must change with it." Yes, you really, really must. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." Whoops! What about the Scientologists? You just lost Tom Cruise as the lead in your biopic.

But then, in this finely crafted, tightly honed speech, where not a word was out of place, we had this: "Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more." Sorry to be a stickler for accuracy, but aren't there two little words missing from that sentence? Shouldn't it end in "by example"? Because the omission of those words implies that the president of the United States of America is president of the world, and given that this was not a speech written on the back of a gum packet minutes before Obama took the stage, we must assume that sentence means what it says.

Now there's no doubt that everything America does has an effect on the world, catastrophically so under Bush, from his wholesale slaughter in the Muslim world to the sly undermining of democracy in South America. The US can indeed change the global economy, global climate, international peace, and it will bring about those changes mostly as a consequence of protecting its own interests. But precisely in what sense does it "lead"?

Had Barack Obama been standing for election here I would doubtless have camped out all night to vote him in. In addition to the integrity of his character I'm particularly fond of his ears. But since we rightly had no say in his election, representing as he does his America citizens and not us, he's going to have to watch it with that "leading the world" stuff.

The British are not in the habit of being led by people over whom we have no power of democratic censure. There's much gloomy speculation that Obama will pull in the drawstrings and create Fortress America, a very bad thing, so say all the economists, for trade, democratic ethics and global prosperity. I disagree. The example he should set is by fixing its own house, ceasing the manipulation of others, and spending that unquenchable American energy, that has made it one of the most dazzlingly creative countries in the world, on regaining the country's common decency. You're not our leader, Mr President, but you have the opportunity to be our inspiration.

Now, where were we Tommy? Oh yes. Marvel comics, Dizzy Gillespie, Lance Armstrong, Woody Allen, Rosa Parks, Ambrose Bierce, Katharine Hepburn...

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