Getting past other American stereotypes

The election of Barack Obama as the first American president of colour should help dispel a few stereotypes about our southern neighbour. While I'm no fan of Obama's economic views, which if implemented will damage not only the U.S. but Canada, the elevation of the Illinois senator to the White House should be celebrated for what it is: a laudable achievement for himself and also for the American republic.

It should also be grasped as an opportunity to finally have rational discussions about the United States, its leaders, and policies, without every stereotype contaminating the debate, a tendency aggravated as of late by the personal antipathy for the current White House occupant, and which has morphed into its own cult of anti-rationality.

Here's one example of a stereotype that needs trashing: an end to the nutty notion that the U.S. was somehow irredeemably racist and more so than other countries. I suspect that had Colin Powell run for president in 1996, the United States might have crossed this race Rubicon 12 years ago.

Regardless, in 2008, it's worth pondering how much of the stereotype about deeply entrenched U.S. racism was actually a phenomenon relegated for some time to pockets in the south or guys hiding out in Montana cabins.

On race and myth-puncturing, it's also worth a comparison to the rest of us around the world. Scratch below the European Union project and race and ethnic divides are deeper and stronger on the continent than anything known in Britain, the U.S., Canada and other offshoots of English colonialism.

More specifically, consider the example of France. That nation, as with the United States, has a "missionary" view of its own destiny akin to the American devotion to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the belief that everyone should share such ends. Also, the French, as with Americans, fancy themselves as devoted to equality.

So last year, when Nicholas Sarkozy was elected as the French president, there was much self-congratulatory noise in that country about finally having elected someone with a non-French name and origin. (Sarkozy was born in Paris of a Hungarian immigrant father and French mother who also had an immigrant background.) That's an achievement, but as proof of getting past deeply held prejudices (or to put it more kindly, reservations), it doesn't rank up there with electing a black man in the United States. When the French elect a man or woman of Moroccan origin as their head of state, I'll be more impressed.

Similarly, as obvious as race disputes have been on occasion in the United States, can anyone seriously argue that many other countries have yet to face up to race as an issue in a comprehensive manner?

In my lifetime, I don't expect to see a Korean-born prime minister in Japan (which rarely even allows citizenship to non-ethnic Japanese), nor someone from a minority soon to lead South Korea, Zimbabwe, China or Cuba.

But if race and frank acknowledgment about how other countries might now lag us or the United States are due for revision, there are other stereotypes that could use a good re-think: Such as the notion that the United States is politically and ideologically monolithic. Hardly.

The margins of victory between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans (which are themselves not monolithic in terms of ideology), are rarely large, even in this election where seven per cent separated the victor from John McCain. But that's never stopped simplistic generalizations.

Thus, the U.S. has never been as conservative as either critics or supporters claim.

Similarly, Obama's victory is not some sort of landslide victory for liberalism, which will now be the new simplification of American politics. Instead, the nuanced analysis is that Obama's win will offer a new version of liberalism, test what that means, and force conservatives and libertarians to sharpen their intellectual and policy offerings.

Obama's victory is proof that the U.S. is diverse and in matters more than just in its demographic makeup. That too should be recalled by those who skate on the surface on such matters.

With Obama's accomplishment now in hand, it is a useful time for others to revisit their own prejudices about the superpower to the south. Some assumptions may be less valid than has been assumed.

Mark Milke lives in Calgary, Alberta. He is writing a book on anti-Americanism to be published in 2009. This column first appeared in The Calgary Herald, it appears here with permission of the author.


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