The World Loves Its Own

Recently on the InsideCatholic blog, Irene Lagan remarked how in Rome there was a palpable public sense of joy over the election of Barack Obama. News reports from November 5 told of a similar story around the globe. Of course, given the pre-election polls showing strong international support for Obama’s candidacy, this wasn’t surprising.
But I did find mildly intriguing just how little the Obama-love appears rooted in a thoughtful political appraisal of Obama himself — that is, of his political principles, his experience and accomplishments, and his character. You know, the things about a politician that we’re supposed to take the measure of. Missing in the gush of popular sentiment and op-ed headlines containing the word “history” are informed references to Obama’s experience or actual positions.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that the folks dancing in the streets of Rome or Riyadh know next to nothing about Obama’s résumé (not that there’s much to know), his campaign promises (except possibly troop withdrawal — or maybe not), or his governing philosophy (in his left-handed endorsement, Noah Millman called Obama a combination of JFK’s glamour and Carter’s policies).
Why the joy, then? I’ll conjecture a few reasons:
Race. African archbishops, Palestinian shopkeepers, and guilty white Euros alike undoubtedly find Obama all the more lovable because of his skin color. Barry O’Bama, fifth generation Irish-American senator from Massachusetts, does not get a “Giant Leap for Mankind” headline when he’s elected president. In its full modern historical context, of course, Obama’s victory is something to be recognized and even applauded as a watershed moment in racial progress. Yet I still find it noteworthy that people from countries with no connection to America’s civil-rights history are celebrating the historic nature of Obama’s election as if they’d had some investment in it themselves.
The power of myth. So far, Obama has not so much been a politician (or candidate) as an avatar: an ideal figure onto whom people can project their hopes and dreams. At first this was a punch line: Barack was the Chosen One who would stop the rising of the oceans and bring peace and reconciliation to everyone while paying for your gas, mortgage, and eye operation. Many thought this kind of breathless Obamamania had to run its course eventually; surely the wizard would be exposed, and the man behind the curtain would have to win or lose on his tangible merits.
Yet it never happened. By some self-induced mass hypnosis, many Obama voters resolutely stuck to their belief that the emperor was wearing clothes. The same goes for much of the rest of the world. Details be damned; for them, Obama is pure symbol.
The demonization of George Bush and Bush’s America. I’m sure that the above phenomenon has been greatly magnified by the global hostility toward the outgoing president, which at times has been equally irrational. Bush can be conceived as Obama’s shadowy opposite in almost every respect, making it a temptingly simple matter to ascribe to him a corresponding virtue for every vice they’ve imagined in W. To Europeans and Arabs especially, Obama represents a humbler (and humbled) America, far removed from Bush’s cowboy patriotism: a poorer, less militant, less moralistic America more willing to listen than speak.
Anti-Semitism. Call it anti-Zionism, or an animus toward the state of Israel — I don’t mean to engage in a debate over terms. But there’s little doubt that those around the world who’d like to see Israel taken down a peg or two view an Obama presidency — rightly or wrongly — as a boon. His Muslim roots; his deep connection to anti-Semitic screed artist Jeremiah Wright; his team of anti-Israel, pro-Palestine foreign policy advisors; his zealous endorsement from Louis Farrakhan; and of course his opposition to a war that even some non-moonbats think was ordered by America’s Zionist puppet masters . . . Even if Obama himself has not a single anti-Israel bone in his body, all the peripherals around him have given hope to those who do. With Bush and Israel’s staunchest bloc of global allies — American Evangelical Christians — out of power, the U.K.’s Daily Mail put it plainly: “The world nurses hopes that President Obama will lean on Israel to make real concessions to the Palestinians.”
A dim view of the American Right. To other Western nations, Obama represents not only relief from the noxious American exceptionalism that they detected in the Bush administration, but a replacement of the American Right’s benighted worldview with one closer to their secularized, morally liberal, statist hearts. There’s no trace of fundamentalism in Obama’s postmodern brand of Christianity. When speaking about abortion or same-sex marriage, he equivocates better than a French Jesuit. No clear distinctions and nagging moral certainty there — Obama is, like them, a man of “nuance” and “complexity.” His views on taxation, energy, free speech, foreign policy, and the environment likewise elicit smiles all across Brussels.
It will be fascinating to see how long this international Obama love affair lasts, and to what lengths Obama will go in order to maintain it — or, conversely, over what principles, if any, he’s willing to jeopardize it.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Todd M. Aglialoro is the acquisitions editor for Catholic Answers.

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