No, Greg Sheridan, the “transformation in the status of African-Americans” is not “now complete”. There’s a few prosaic matters still to be sorted – piddling things like, say, life expectancy, unemployment and rates of imprisonment.

Sheridan’s column, of course, really amounts to a grudging acknowledgement that the inauguration of a black president has, almost certainly, ended the “Southern strategy” used by Nixon and his successors to bond free market conservatives with the backwoods bigots, wooed from their traditional home in the Democrats by a pernicious cocktail of coded racism.

That’s now over. Within the US, Obama’s rise challenges — obviously — all the conventional notions of electability. If a black man can sit in the White House, why not a woman or a gay or — gasp! — even an atheist?

Outside America, and particularly throughout the global south, the election has provided a psychological boost to people of colour. In the dancehalls of Jamaica, they put it like this:

No more ghetto youth fi a wipe no car window
Every youth fi try turn president like Obama

All good things, without a doubt. But we should still be able to recognize the symptoms of a definite public hysteria. The inauguration now seems to be functioning like a saccharine version of Diana’s death — one of those occasions in which political silliness becomes contagious, almost epidemic.

Certainly, much of the American media has enthusiastically taken leave of its senses, exclaiming excitedly about everything from the new President’s physique to his handwriting (Wolf Blitzer: “His penmanship, I must say, is excellent.”) The Huffington Post, for instance, seems to have consciously transformed itself from its usual celebrity progressivism into a weird Benetton commercial. “We are all being inaugurated,” trills Arianna, a phrase that, characteristically, sounds vaguely uplifting while remaining entirely devoid of meaning (do we all get our own nuclear weapons?).

It’s been said that, amidst the truckloads of Obama kitsch (everything from medallions to vibrators), expectations have grown well beyond anything the new president might possibly deliver. But that’s to miss the point. The hype and the hoopla of the inauguration don’t represent high expectations but low ones: they’re byproducts of a political culture in which no one really expects anything much at all.

At the most obvious level, the Bush/Cheney administration set the bar so close to the ground that speaking in full sentences and not shooting your friends in the face seem like tremendous accomplishments. For most of the world, Obama gets a free pass just for not being called George.

More importantly, the problems facing the United States and the globe are so severe as to make the emergence political messiah a structural necessity. The Middle East’s in flames, there’s intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re on the cusp (or perhaps in the midst) of a global depression, an economic conjunction that, quite clearly, no-one really understands.

Beneath the triumphant chorus “Yes, we can” thus lies the nagging whisper, “No, we can’t” — or, more exactly, “No, we won’t”, an awful recognition that a genuine solution to, say, climate change requires something more — much, much more — than the tepid centrism of a traditional Democrat, no matter how eloquent he might be. But who wants to face up to that?

It’s like the gambler who needs a double six to win back the house and car. He necessarily invests all his faith in his final throw because, deep down, he knows that, without a miracle, he’s screwed.

Or, to put it another way, in today’s world, it’s easier to believe than to think.

Bill Clinton, you might recall, gave good inauguration, too. But the saxophone, the rock music, the triumphalism of the Baby Boomers finally taking the helm: well, it all seems like eons ago. The symbolism of Obamaism might be more potent but, in the end, symbolism only gets you so far — and then what remains are precisely those “stale political arguments” that Obama just told us no longer apply.

Okay, a good party never hurt anyone. But the French patriot Desmoulins famously said: “The great appear great to us only because we are on our knees.” When the inauguration’s over, let’s trying standing up — and then we can talk about Obama.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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