Proud to be an American

Yesterday I promised not to write about the election anymore.  I lied.

In the last 36 hours I have witnessed from abroad something truly astounding: genuine feelings of pride and patriotism among my American peers. Perhaps because I’m not in the US and because the NYT online didn’t really ooze palpable excitement building up to election day, the outpouring of joy and hope among Obama supporters came as a bit of a surprise to me. Of course I knew Obama had a big following among voters my age and of course I knew this election was historic – but I didn’t realize the magnitude of either of these until after the election was called in Obama’s favor.

The aftermath included wild parties in the streets of DC (so I hear), normally subdued friends sobbing, and a wealth of facebook status messages (for better or worse, a way to gauge friends’ attitudes from halfway across the globe) that included thoughts like: yes we can!; I am awed by witnessing the most significant historical moment of my lifetime; I am proud to be an American; I am excited that someday my kids will grow up believing that a black president is just another natural manifestation of the American Dream. These are not sentiments I have heard any of my friends previously profess, at least not publicly.

True, my friends are probably more liberal and more politically active than a representative sampling of Americans 18-30, but I have never witnessed such an open display of pride-in-country. Perhaps this is because we haven’t had a lot to be proud of in the past eight years – the years in which many of us were coming of (political) age – or perhaps this is because so many young people were integral to this campaign – but to see the result is really awe-inspiring. And I realize, upon further reflection, that I’m proud to be an American, too. Though I was not initially a huge Obama supporter, I’m proud to be from a place where this sort of rags-to Harvard-to-riches story can come true.

Whatever one’s political leanings, I hope we can all be proud that in 2008, in America, an African-American can be elected to the highest office in the land. It’s amazing that in a generation, African Americans have gone from being bombed in Birmingham, beaten on the bridge in Selma, and hanged as strange fruit in Southern trees to garnering the votes and trust of millions of Americans – even in former Confederate states. (This is not to say that I think equality or a post-racist society has been achieved, but that progress marches on – and maybe we are marching a little faster.)

Conservatives, fear not: the country is not about to become a socialist regime of liberal hippies. While Obama’s election could be perceived as a national ideological move to the left, the outcomes of various ballot initiatives reveal ideologies moving, well, all over the place. Ballot measures prohibiting gay marriage passed in California (true blue California!), Arizona, and Florida. A ban on gay adoption passed in Arkansas. Nebraska banned affirmative action, and Colorado may have done the same (the results have not yet been released). On the other hand, two proposals (in Colorado and South Dakota) that would have severely limited (read: practically eliminated) a woman’s right to an abortion failed, and Massachusetts rejected a measure to eliminate the state income tax. And so, what direction is the country moving? Hopefully, forward.

If Obama can turn hope into action, if he really can get Americans on both sides of the aisle to cooperate and work together (because let’s face it – we have a lot of work to do), I will be highly impressed. And the feeling that maybe, just maybe, he’s serious about doing that makes me believe that we have picked the right man for the job…even for a job as difficult as uniting the nation in this time of uncertainty.

Though I wish I could have been on U Street at 11 PM Tuesday night, it has been really interesting witnessing this historic election from Africa.  Since I arrived, people have been asking me if I voted, who I voted for, and if I thought Obama could win.  (My answer to the last question was always, “I hope so, but who knows what might happen.”)  It seems like most people were following the outcome of the election, but not really the drama of the campaign season itself.

Since Obama’s victory 36 hours ago, however, popular support for him here has exploded.  Everyone is talking about the election, and it’s all over the newspapers and radio as well.  (And it’s not just Malawi – a friend of mine chronicled election night in South Africa and told a story similar to the one I’ve witnessed here.) Reactions range from full-out jubilation to qualified optimism, and target both what Obama as President and Obama as symbol mean for Africa.  Nationally, campaigning has already begun for Malawian elections in May, prompting comparisons between election possibilities and processes.

There’s a real sense that Obama’s ascension in the US indicates similar ascensions are possible in Africa. One article reads:

“Gone are the days when young people of Africa will emulate the oppressive styles of educated leaders like Robert Mugabe and Ngwazi Kamuzu Banda. Gone are the days when shameless professors are admired for practising naked opportunism in order to feed themselves from the misfortunes of the oppressed masses in Africa.”

There’s no real factual support for this argument; Mugabe is still clinging to power, Malawian presidents post-Banda have been less oppressive, but not particularly democratic, and I might argue that the development machine still feeds itself on Africa’s misfortunes – but it draws on Obama as a symbol of a new political era, one that Malawians hope to capitalize upon.  Another news story in today’s paper suggests that a Malawian presidential hopeful may be able to “pull an Obama,” and overcome his minority status (as a Northerner – Malawi has never had a president from the North) to win a national election. (Funny that to pull an Obama in Malawi has nothing to do with race at all, given that they identify with him due to his African heritage.) Another article covers the US Ambassador’s reaction to the election, and encourages Malawians to emulate the US in terms of political participation and voting rates. It also suggests that civil society must play a greater role here in ensuring free and democratic elections; from what I understand, voter harassment regulations are not particularly well-enforced. (Fun discrepancies in Malawian journalism: this story basically covers the same topics but the quotes make the US Ambassador sound much more bumbling.)

Malawians are also optimistic about what American democracy headed by Obama may mean for foreign policy in Africa.  A Malawian grad student friend emailed me, “It seems like Obamania is all over.  Friends keep on emailing about him.  Local radio stations are talking about Him.  I think there are high expectations about him…many people expect that it means more aid to Africa, end to wars, and all that…”  [Ed. note:  yes, the second “him” was capitalized, as if Obama were Jesus.]  My friend then went to explain that he is more cautiously optimistic about the situation; Obama is just one man.  But this caution is not particularly widespread.

Voice of America has African assessments of the US election from several countries, including Malawi. Unsurprisingly, the expectation vocalized most frequently is that Obama will increase the aid packages offered to African countries.  This is true of the expectations included from other countries, also – Africans want American assistance for African problems.  (This, I think, is the key problem in the development machine – but that is a post for another time.) An article from South Africa further details what Obama may mean to the continent in terms of inspiration and foreign aid, but more interesting than the article are the comments that follow, which illustrate a wide range of African opinions on the responsibility of the US to deliver aid and assistance to this continent.

Despite these expectations of increased aid under Obama, Bush’s foreign policy in Africa has been surprisingly decent (in comparison to his other foibles, at least, though some of the funding was tied to impractical stipulations and ineffective strategies).  Thoughts on Darfur aside, his presidency devoted increased resources to AIDS prevention/relief and developed the Millennium Challenge Corp, which provides funding for countries adhering to certain democratic and economic principles.  In my opinion, Obama’s policies on Africa are not likely to change significantly from Bush’s, both because current strategies are the result of a bipartisan consensus developed under Clinton and expanded by Bush, and because the financial crisis and crumbling American infrastructure indicate that budgetary belt-tightening will be needed. I’ve tried to warn my African friends that foreign aid is likely one of the first things cut in times of budgetary crisis. In fact, a project previously funded by USAID at my housemate’s workplace was not renewed for next year, resulting in job loss for about half the organization’s staff. I’m guessing that this is not the first nor the last foreign aid casualty of the global economic crisis.

As an American living in Africa, I feel pulled in both directions. A significant loss of foreign aid will cripple the Malawian government. Rising global commodity prices are magnified here, where most everything must be produced internally or imported overland, using tremendous quantities of fossil fuels in the process. The rise in food prices has far outpaced production and income increases, and most farmers here are net consumers of maize (the staple crop). I wouldn’t say that a food crisis is pending, but the possibility certainly looms…made all the more likely by Malawi’s heavy dependence on rain-fed agriculture and maize-centered production. I feel sympathy for the plight of impoverished Malawians, but at the same time, as a tax-paying American, I want my tax dollars to be used to benefit…me. I want decent, affordable health care and bridges on I-35 that don’t collapse. I want good schools, universal pre-K, affordable student loans, and funding for scientific research that will secure America’s future as a technological leader. I want the economy to be strong enough that I can get a job when I return to the US. I want Medicare someday. In short, I agree that if belts need to be tightened, the US government should be, first and foremost, accountable to the American people. (This also means stopping wasteful spending in Iraq – and withdrawing when we can – and not subsidizing the poor business decisions of investment banks.)

Perhaps I would feel differently if I had some concrete evidence that pumping more aid into Africa in general, or Malawi in particular, would have any sort of appreciable long-term impact. But, as I responded to my Malawian friend’s email on Obamania:

Is more aid to Africa really the pathway to better lives here? Do you think Africa makes good use of the aid it gets now? Why hasn’t development aid led to “development”?

These questions and more, next time on Amy in Malawi.

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6 Responses to “Proud to be an American”

  1. fullbodytransplant Says:

    Beautiful.

    Check out what Obama will do for the Arts:

    http://fullbodytransplant.wordpress.com/2008/11/02/obama-for-the-arts/

    We did it.

    Yes we did.

  2. Congratulation World « a Journey To Win the Heart and Mind of the … Says:

    […] Proud to be an American « Malawi, not Outer Space […]

  3. Kaitl Says:

    One of my friends here doesn’t see how Obama getting elected is any different from McCain getting elected (“so what?” was his question). I might just send him this paragraph from your post:

    Whatever one’s political leanings, I hope we can all be proud that in 2008, in America, an African-American can be elected to the highest office in the land. It’s amazing that in a generation, African Americans have gone from being bombed in Birmingham, beaten on the bridge in Selma, and hanged as strange fruit in Southern trees to garnering the votes and trust of millions of Americans – even in former Confederate states. (This is not to say that I think equality or a post-racist society has been achieved, but that progress marches on – and maybe we are marching a little faster.)

    Also– you said that Bush’s policies in Africa were “surprisingly decent,” but didn’t he add the contingency to healthcare/AIDS aid that abortions couldn’t be practiced at the clinic that was getting support? (Or something along those lines??) I’m just curious.

    I love your posts– keep up the good work!

  4. » Proud to be an American Says:

    […] There’s no real factual support for this argument; Mugabe is still clinging to power, Malawian presidents post-Banda have been less oppressive, but not particularly democratic, and I might argue that the development machine still feeds … More […]

  5. josh Says:

    thanks for the comment on my foreign assistance post, Amy. I definitely agree w/ you on the principle, but it gets more difficult in practice. I have a piece coming out in a few months on the practical challenges of a new foreign assistance reform approach. stay tuned…and check out the new FA piece:

    http://fullaccess.foreignaffairs.org/20081001faessay87609/j-brian-atwood-m-peter-mcpherson-andrew-natsios/arrested-development.html?mode=print

  6. A.L. Says:

    Amy,
    Fantastic post overall!

    You are definitely right about the sense of feeling you are getting, even overseas about America’s pride for our new President.
    Support for Obama has been increasingly overwhelming- just as we saw on election night, tears of rejoicing, literally. I even got teary-eyed while listening to Obama’s acceptance speech. I’m not quite sure what pegged it. I think it’s a mixture of feelings: relief (that there is no chance in the next four years ever, of Palin being allowed to run our country), a tiny bit of winner’s glory, but mostly, the feelings produced were due to the historic context of this election. We know of the dreams America was built on, and I think in the last four years Americans have lost most of that feeling, that this America is not really “our” America; the one that was built on diversity, democracy, and the American Dream. I think Obama represents those characteristics for many of us. He is our America. Plus, the fact the he’s proven that he’s above racial hindrances shows that America can still do anything. Barack gives us hope and that’s what people want to believe in.
    Adversely, it’s been very surprising to me that in the very short amount of time Obama has been declared President, the amount of racism, fear and negativity I’ve heard as well.
    Most of it has been from either fearful Conservatives, disappointed in their loss or nonpartisan citizens who are weary of Obama’s claims. Whether or not they are doing it with intention, they are reminding us that there are still plenty of people out there who still are racist.
    But here’s what I see. Most of my Conservative peers admitted that their fears of Obama taking office stem from their fear of “things changing.” Now, I’m not sure if by that they mean fear of switching things up in general from what we’ve had these past 8 years or fear of a man of a different skin color holding office. Or just fear of Democratic majority. Either way, it seems to me that fear and hatred go hand-in-hand and these characteristics perpetuate each other and result in close-mindedness and an angry, uneducated population.
    While there are already people starting “Let’s impeach Obama” groups, the truth is, he hasn’t even been sworn in yet. We gave George Bush a chance; can’t we at least give Obama a fair fight too?!
    Although it goes deeper than this, I also agree with your stance on foreign aid assistance; at least for right now, while our economy suffers. And George Bush actually did expand foreign assistance for Africa and ran a good program during his terms; giving more AIDS relief to Africa than any other President has.
    While I think Obama will be great for repairing international affairs, I too, am also fearful that many states and countries are now setting the bar extremely high in assuming that Obama will rush immediately to deliver assistance to their cries for more help. But just as you stated perfectly, he is only one man and we have our own country to repair as well. Granted, I am all for sending foreign aid, I fear that there will be many people who are disappointed when Obama doesn’t deliver everything they feel he should.
    The President is only one man and we have to keep in mind that while he has the final word, he doesn’t make his decisions alone, but he does get most of the credit as well as the blame, no matter who is in office, because he is the President.

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