Daily Archives: November 6, 2008

US election via George Negus, and the language of religion

Well, no doubt about it. Historic is no exaggeration; hence my previous entry in tribute to Martin Luther King, someone on the minds of many people just now. I will come back to that.

Last night I watched George Negus’s Dateline, mainly because here in Elizabeth Street Surry Hills something weird has happened to our communal TV antenna so that we now get SBS on around 4 channels – including digital, which is odd as my TV isn’t digital – but no ABC, except for an unwatchable VHF version. Still, watching George was fine.

GEORGE NEGUS: Martin, if I could go to you. We journalists tend to use
words like ‘historic’ freely as though we really know what it means. But this is probably an occasion when the word ‘historic’ is not out of place, is it?

MARTIN WALKER, POLITICAL ANALYST: ‘Historic’ would be an underestimate. I think the word is ‘epochal’. This is a new epoch in America. It’s also a new epoch for the world, because – let’s be frank – what we’ve really elected here is the guy who is the nearest thing to president of the world, particularly as we’re going into this global recession, because if this guy and his team can’t crack it then we are all in trouble.

GEORGE NEGUS: Clarence, I read a quote the other day from Anita Hill, who most of us know only too well – a person who’s been campaigning and working for this sort of thing for years. And she said that what Barack Obama’s election as president means, is that no longer will black Americans feel as though they can’t hold office in any job in this country, from president down. She also said that it indicates how far this country has come in the last 40 years.

CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: It does. I started in this business almost 40 years ago. Time does fly. I’m old enough to remember that when I was my son’s age I still had to go to ‘white’ and ‘colored’ water fountains in the South. Virginia just put Barack Obama over the top – that was one of the states of the old South, it was the capital of the old Confederacy. I always told my son, "This is your century – I’m just walking around in it." He has been out there knocking on doors in New Mexico for Barack Obama and when the man went over the top I congratulated my son because he put his work into it. But this is really hard for me to fathom now, because I’d been imagining this day – I wasn’t expecting it to come this soon. I saw Jesse Jackson crying at the celebration, and I think about my 101-year-old grandmother who died last year – didn’t quite live to see this – and you think of all the people who’ve gone before us, and what that means. It is epochal. This is changing the way that Americans look at themselves, I’m sure. It’s not just black Americans, I think, everybody. After eight years of really dwindling image around the planet, now all of a sudden the world is looking at us and seeing once again something to look up to in America. We kind of like that…

The full transcript is available on the link above.

GEORGE NEGUS: Joining us now from New York Australian James Wolfensohn who stepped down three years ago I think it was after 10 years as president of the World Bank, now a US citizen. James, thanks for your time. Good the talk to you.


GEORGE NEGUS: I was wondering, given your expertise and your experience with the world economy, would you really like to be Barack Obama at the moment, having to take over the reins of the American economy and the impact it’s had upon the world economy?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, I think he has the most difficult job that any American president Elect has had coming into the global scene. He’s got a $10,000 billion deficit in the United States. He’s got a banking situation where the world central banks have had to come in and pump nearly $9,000 billion into the banks and he has a huge overlay of bad debts around the world and within all of that, he’s got to try and get the economy moving again and stop a decline. So, he has a very, very tough job to do.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think he’s up to it from what you have seen and heard?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, I think he has around him some very good people that he could bring in. People like Bob Rubin, Larry summers and my friend Paul Volker. There are many people around him who have the expertise to try and help, so he could bring in an excellent team. I think he himself has not had a lot of experience, but I think he has both the brains and the judgment to bring in the right people.

GEORGE NEGUS: Jim, your experience of the world economy is vast, as we know, but on a more general level, the rest of the world’s attitude towards selection has been intriguing. The Europeans are 60% in favour of Barack Obama becoming the US president, the Chinese wanted him US President and other countries have. Obama-mania seems to have spread throughout the globe. Is that going to make his job easier or harder, because Joe Biden reckons he will be tested?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: He will be very much tested. He and Joe Biden will be the most difficult challenge, as I said, that any incoming president or Vice President could have. I think there is a welcome to him because I think the rest of the world felt that the Republicans have not done a great job in the last eight years. But the task ahead of him is not just to provide liquidity to the banks, what has to work through the system are all of the bad debts that are there and to try and restore some sense of enthusiasm so that the economies of the world don’t go into a recession. It is almost certain now that there will be a recession and then Barack Obama has to lead the world by trying to turn that around, as the leader of the largest economy in the world.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you share John McCain’s view that he is a redistributionist?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, I think he’s a redistributionist that is clear. It is part of the democratic platform, but the issue for me is not the re-distribution, the more particular issue and the great focal issue at the moment is not changing the tax rates. It is really getting the economy moving again and we have to get the American economy moving again if you are going to get the rest of the world to have the sort of optimism and drive that is necessary…

And there was this:

MARTIN WALKER: George, I’m just remembering that it’s 40 years ago when Martin Luther King was shot, and the day before he died he gave a speech in which he said "I’m not going to get there to the promised land with you, but you’re going to get there, this country will get there". In a way, tonight it’s got there.

CLARENCE PAGE: "One day soon we will get to the Promised Land" that’s what he said. Moses wandered in the Promised Land for 40 years. I did a column earlier this year, about…Isn’t this a coincidence? 40 years later this black man has the possibility…And Barack himself preached in Alabama about "the Joshua generation". It was Joshua who took ‘the children of Israel’ into the Promised Land.

GEORGE NEGUS: We’re getting biblically poetic here – we’re saying that the USA has come out of the wilderness!

I instantly got the reference, as most biblically literate people would. That same “Joshua generation” theme caused some heartache earlier this year with someone on the Daily Kos: The potential naming problem for Obama’s "Joshua Generation Project". The writer went deep into the sewers and drains of US fundamentalism – from the Dominionists to Bob Jones “University” – to show that there were some nasty bits of baggage attached to the name of Joshua. I think it is fair to say that most of those who heard Obama make the allusion would not have linked it to any of that, just as they would not have linked it to the sad but true fact that the Book of Joshua, seen objectively, is something of a tale of genocide, but also a highly unreliable pointer to what actually happened in ancient Palestine some time in the second millennium BC. The power of the allusion derives from the tradition in which Martin Luther King was working — “I have a dream” is a virtual anthology of biblical allusions; it is based on an appropriation of biblical language and hope, not on any consideration of what that language might mean to an ancient historian or a right-wing fundamentalist wingnut. It’s a discourse Americans are accustomed to, and it is indeed very powerful poetically.

In the latest Monthly Don Watson, hardly an evangelical theologian, but rather Paul Keating’s speech writer, has some very interesting things to say, in an aside to an article about Louisiana, about why such language resonates. Unfortunately this article is only available to subscribers.

… In election season the media sea foams with embarrassingly lame professions of understanding, management cliches and stupefying patriotism. While politicians and technocrats of all varieties flounder in phoney empathy, the Bible and the church speak straight to the poor: their metaphors are stronger, their mix of poetry and intellect more potent by far.

People looking for another reason why so many Americans have more use for religion than for politics might begin by listening to a good preacher, and then to the average modern politician. While they’re at it, they might ask where the bullshit is deepest and truth hardest to recognise – in religion or a presidential election…

Martin Luther King was such a good preacher, and so in his own way is Jim Wallis: I have heard him. See Dear Mr. President-elect Obama. I refer you too to an article in Harpers which I first mentioned back in 2005: The Christian paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong by Bill McKibben, which reflected on what it means to be a Christian in America.

Meanwhile, back to SBS. Clarence Page said he congratulated his son on Obama’s election, because he, Page, felt this was his son’s world now, and he was just walking around in it. I feel rather the same, I have to say. This is the world of The Rabbit, Thomas, and other 20-somethings, and I am just walking around in it. Let’s hope it is a better world.