Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why I am voting for Barack Obama

The vagaries of the Democratic presidential primary in my native state of Pennsylvania may seem, literally and figuratively, miles away from the struggles of Central Africa, but as Pennsylvania approaches its crucial vote in determining the Democratic nominee, I feel compelled to weigh in with a few thoughts on the decision before us on 22 April.

Democratic voters in Pennsylvania are presented with a simple and stark choice: Barack Hussein Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois who first assumed his senatorial duties in January 2005, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democratic senator from New York and former First Lady who first assumed her senatorial duties in January 2001.

In recent days, much has been made of comments that Obama made regarding Pennsylvania at a fundraiser in San Francisco. Clinton, who has been losing delegates left and right to Obama, seized on the comments in an attempt to portray Obama as elitist and out of touch with the state’s working-class voters.

The most authoritative account I have seen of what Obama said runs as follows:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

As a product of this milieu, of the working-class, small-town Pennsylvania that Obama was speaking of (though, indeed, for me, that experience seems like a lifetime ago), I see nothing at all elitist about Obama’s comments, and rather find them extremely perceptive, and I will try and explain why.

I have seen first-hand the struggles of working-class people in the region not as part of some study but rather in the experiences of my friends and family, growing up first in the city of Lancaster (about 55,000 people and three hours away from New York City) and later in the small town of Strasburg (about 3,000 people). Though I spent time visiting New York and Philadelphia while in high-school, my first real taste of the world outside was when I left for university in New York in 1992 and, especially, when I did a semester aboard studying at University College Galway in Galway, Ireland in 1994 and did a bit of traveling throughout Europe.

I have seen people like those in the cities and towns where I spent my youth watch as their ability to support their families on an honest day’s work was gradually eroded, as their ability to seek and afford quality medical care for their families disappeared and as, often, cynical and opportunistic politicians of the right exploited this sense of frustration and loss for political gain. Though Pennsylvania boasts two major urban centers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and despite an increasingly large number of Latino residents, the majority of the state (where I grew up) might be best described as Budweiser-drinking, Merle Haggard-listening, gun-owning and very much white working class. Though I have moved far away from those days, I would be foolish to deny that at least some element of that background is still present within me, and I believe that it is most noticeable in my often visceral dislike for pampered elites of any political stripe, who pontificate while never having had to eek out an honest day’s work in their entire lives. I believe that, far more than Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama understands the struggles of the kind of people I grew up with and is thus in a position to effectively address them.

To me, Hilary Clinton, much in the same way as George W. Bush though to a lesser extent, represents much of what is wrong with the current political system of the United States. Aside from her penchant for outright lying about serious matters when the truth would do just fine, Clinton seems to feel, as George W. Bush did when he ran for the office in 2000, that she is entitled to the presidency as a result of her proximity to the throne of power for so many years. But a look at Bill Clinton’s eight years in office paints a far different picture to the one that many, including myself, were content to believe at the time. I voted for Bill Clinton, and happily so, in the 1990s and, given the choices we had at the time, I would probably do so again, but in the intervening years I have come to the conclusion that he and his wife are two of the most destructive, cynical people in U.S. politics, which, given the current climate, is saying a lot.

How easily we (and I include myself in this) forget that Bill Clinton was the candidate who flew home to Arkansas to execute a retarded black man to gain political mileage out of it in the middle of his first run for the presidency. Or that he signed into law the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act and the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy, which denied gays the right to serve openly in the armed forces. Or that his wife voted in favor of the Iraq War Resolution and for the USA Patriot Act. But all this pales, in my view to President Clinton's Africa policy, which was probably the worst of any president in American history. People like to forget that Bill Clinton, with his wife at his side, sat on his hands during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and then, out of guilt or geopolitical skulduggery, green-lighted the newly Tutsi-led Rwandan government's dismembering of Eastern Congo and their own genocide against Hutu refugees there, thus helping to set in motion a war that has killed over 5 million people thus far. By holding up profoundly undemocratic leaders such as Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni as paradigms for the continent, Clinton exposed his deep cynicism about Africa and Africans and did incalculable damage to the region.. One of his chief advisers for this disastrous policy was Madeleine Albright, currently one of Hilary Clinton’s top advisers on foreign policy matters.

Of the Democrats’ Republican rival, I believe my friend Sutton Stokes was accurate when he noted that , in many ways, John McCain is “the closest thing to a human being that party has put forward since Eisenhower, but that ain't saying much.” Though I have been glad that McCain has taken the right stand on issues such as the use or torture and the pernicious influence of big money on the American political process, his eight year embrace of George W. Bush, at a time when the latter was manifesting malevolence and incompetence on every issue from Iraq to the Middle East to Hurricane Katrina to healthcare to the environment for me definitively rules him out as the man to lead the United States at this critical time.

Barack Obama isn’t perfect. He isn’t the messiah. He is the junior senator from a Midwestern state, and yet I do believe he is the person for this moment. in our history. As he has served as local legislator for a decade in Illinois, and as he has served in the senate for the last three years during one of the most tumultuous times in American history, I believe that he is admirably qualified for the job. Yet beyond that, as the son of an ethnic Luo Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas, born in Honolulu,, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, schooled in politics in Chicago, I believe that Obama, by pointing towards a definitive and hopeful break with the poisonous cynicism that has informed our national political dialogue in recent decades, represents that best chance for the United States of America to move beyond the disastrous legacy of the last eight years.

Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote about “bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” I don’t know if Barack Obama will be able to bring the country that far back from the path onto which it has strayed, but after hearing his thoughtful, intelligent and brave speech on race delivered in Philadelphia last month, for example, I do believe that, far more than Hilary Clinton, Obama recognizes the country’s ills and knows where we should be heading as a nation.

I hope that we, as a nation, are given the chance to start our journey there together.


Anonymous said...


Well put! A bit reminiscent of a recent column by Jamaica-based Trinidadian writer, Wayne Brown - http://www.trinidadexpress.com/index.pl/print?id=161308807

Wesley Gibbings

chip smedley said...

Once again, well-written social and historical analysis exposes political BS for what it truly is. Great link, too. Keep up the fight.
Mr. S.

Cari said...

Well said. Thanks for this.

Amy said...


Cate said...

Great post, Michael.

Signed, a canadian with an obama sticker on her car

Kim said...

Wonderful article! You've made some excellent points that I hadn't really thought of before. Thanks!

Congogirl said...

Good points. Of course, you did not have to convince me! I have been learning about Bill Clinton's policies after the fact as well, and I do think it's good to recall his record in foreign policy.

Also, I've written to the BBC in the past so I'll say it to you as well - the war hasn't killed 5m people. This makes it sound like violence, which is mostly true for the "excess deaths" that Les Roberts found in Iraq. But the "excess deaths" identified in DRC are primarily due to malnutrition and subsequent disease, or disease without treatment. When we say, 5m people killed, those that do not know central Africa develop a view of Congo that is extremely negative and exacerbated by the way that the press writes. I am not saying that terrible things don't happen, but - you understand what I am trying to say? It is very different to talk about deaths due to conflict-related circumstances from giving the impression that 5m people were killed with guns or bombs or mines.

/soapbox :)

John A. Carroll, M.D. said...

Very well written, Michael.


Michael Deibert said...

Well, many comments here, including one from Chip Smedley, my old high school history teacher!

Congogirl, though indeed many of the 5 million plus people who have died in DRC have died from disease and malnutrition, these preventable deaths are directly connected to the disruption and destruction of the country's infrastructure cased by a decade and change of virtually endless armed conflict.

Though I enjoy the music here greatly, I must confess that my travels around the country thus far this year (Bas-Congo, Ituri, North Kivu, Kisangani, Kinshasa itself) have not exactly filled me with hope.

Very best from Kinshasa,


Diane said...

I'm not that hot on anyone left at this point. It's sad when instead of voting for the person I think will do the most to help the country I have to base my choice on who I feel will do the less harm. It makes me angry and bitter .... and I'm not in PA!

RS said...

Hi Michael:
Interesting, particularly the note about the trip President Clinton took to execute a mentally-challenged Black man in the middle of his campaign. I often think that the man from Hope and his supporters have turned against hope...
Among the reasons I support Senator Obama is that he gets the vision-and-inspiration thing. The President can't do much on his/her own, IMHO - it is the administration that s/he puts together, and his/her ability to mobilize people. Perhaps Senator Clinton, having been so close to the throne for so long, has lost sight of that.
My first stay in the US was Pittsburgh (graduate school), so I consider PA my adopted home-state... Fingers crossed for Tuesday's primary.
Best wishes, and hope you are having good adventures in Kinshasa,
RS (aka The Dissenting Indian)