Our Better Angels

To listen to some media commentators, you would think that the only significance of Barack Obama's election to the presidency on Tuesday is that he is African American. My wife, Mo, who was at the victory celebrations in Chicago, said when CNN commentator, David Gergen, attempted to frame the result in this way, the joyous mood of the crowd watching it on the jumbotron screen temporarily flatlined. I had a similar response when I listened to the BBC World Service the next day as they raised all the difficulties Obama might face as America's first African American president.

They are completely missing the point. The Obama phenomenon is something much greater and more profound than this. Of course, it is truly amazing that just 40 years on from the racial violence of the 1960's, we now have an African American president. The tears streaming down Jesse Jackson's face as he stood in the crowd in Chicago was a clear testament to what this means to the many African American members of our community. But this is not why so many people were crying tears of joy on Tuesday night, nor why the entire world seemed to break out in spontaneous celebration when the results came through at 11pm EST confirming his victory.

To these people, Obama is not black or white, yellow or red. He is Hope. Hope for a better and fairer world. Hope for a new beginning. Hope that things can change. His was a victory of the heart; of compassion over vindictiveness and love over prejudice. As Senator Claire McCaskill put it, "Obama appeals to our better angels." He somehow is able to reflect all that is good within us. That is why he inspires so many. In one stroke, he has transformed America's image in the world for the good, and excited more patriotic fervor than a million flag pins or empty, bombastic words could ever achieve.

The presidential race in the end was not about Democrats against Republicans, or conservatives versus liberals, but about the competing dark and light energies that exist within each of us. For too long we have witnessed the worse aspects of our human behavior displayed by our leaders. Whether we agreed with it or not, we were at least complicit by our collective tolerance. As the presidential race neared its breathtaking conclusion we reached an historic nadir in the art of offensive, mudslinging politics. And the majority of the American people decided that they wanted no more of it. The whole world breathed a sigh of relief. And with it we washed away the clouds of darkness from our national soul. That is why we cried.

I don't believe there is any going back from this. Tuesday November 4th, 2008 was one of those days when the world changed forever, like when the first astronaut set foot on the moon or the Berlin Wall came down. Cory Booker, the dynamic young Mayor of Newark said this election was about choosing the future and not the past. In Chicago's Grant Park on Tuesday night, 150,000 plus people gathered inside the barriers for over six hours to celebrate Obama's victory. Young, old, black, white, Asian and Hispanic were crushed against each other. There were no riot police to control the crowd; there was not a single incident. It seemed to be a symbol of the new America that Obama represents: a multi-racial society able to work together for the common good.

As Obama cautioned, the path forward may not be easy, and it will require all of us to contribute in some way to make it manifest, but it's a wonderful world to contemplate and a great time to be alive.