COMMENT Ululations for Obama across the globe
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - If Democratic Senator Barack Obama becomes the first
African-American president of the United States, anyone living within a block
of my family in this city is in for a shock: unbridled ululations.
My neighbors have learned to ignore Hong Kong's daily noise barrage - the
sirens, the jackhammers the car horns and the collective volubility of a
population of nearly 7 million people who love life and the pursuit of money -
but ululations of joy, as in long and loud emotional utterances, may stop them
in their tracks.
This rapturous wailing will come from my Kenyan wife, who happens to be from
the same tribe (the Luo) as the African side of Obama's family. In fact, she
hails from the same village as the
Illinois senator's father. So don't even bother to ask whom she favors in
November 4 election. Blood and tribe are thicker than water and nation.
Traditionally, men (especially white men) don't ululate, but that doesn't mean
my blood isn't also stirred by the prospect of an Obama presidency. My conjugal
union - like the story of Obama's parents - is a rare Kansas-meets-Kenya
romance, and every time I see the two Obama children I cannot help seeing
reflections of my own son and daughter, or thinking of what it will mean for
them if he wins.
And then there is also the Asia connection. The Democratic presidential
candidate spent four years of his childhood living with his white mother and
Indonesian stepfather in Jakarta; my children have grown up mostly in Hong
I learned long ago - most eloquently from reading Graham Greene's great spy
novel of conflicting loyalties, The Human Factor - that all politics is
personal. But I did not think that theme would play out so dramatically in my
own life, especially in what is turning into a nasty contest for the US
presidency, an office that has been held exclusively by white men since George
Washington was chosen as the country's first president in 1789.
So this is not just another American presidential election; this is my
election, and I want desperately to win. For my wife, for my children and, yes,
also for my native country, of which I yearn to feel proud once again.
The astonishing ineptitude and arrogance that have marked the George W Bush
presidency have poisoned America's image abroad and shamed American expatriates
who earnestly try to meet the rest of the world on equal terms. An Obama
victory would crisply turn the page on the calamity of the past eight years
and, in a flash, transform the international perception of the US as a reckless
cowboy nation into a softer image of a country that respects differences and
If elected, Obama's Republican rival for the White House, John McCain, could
also succeed in regaining America's lost respect around the world. Because of
his support for the Iraq war and his party ties to the reviled Bush
administration, however, he would have to work a lot longer and harder to make
And pause, close your eyes and think globally for a moment: Can you feel the
Earth shudder at the prospect of Alaska's Governor Sarah Palin, the right-wing
political ingenue McCain has chosen as his running mate, moving into the Oval
Office if a 72-year-old President McCain were to fall ill or die?
McCain would be oldest first-term president in the country's history. Obama, by
contrast, would be one of the youngest.
While shifting polls in the US show this election is close, for the non-voting
world electorate the choice is an easy one. They have already embraced Obama.
Is that because this contest is getting personal, not just for me and my
family, but also for millions of other people around the world?
A recent BBC poll of 22 countries spanning the globe showed a unanimous
preference for Obama over McCain, often by overwhelming margins. Even in the
Philippines, formerly a lonely Bush stronghold, Obama is now preferred. The
margin of favor for Obama ranged from 9% in India to (no surprise to my wife)
82% in Kenya. On average, 49% of those polled supported Obama and 12% McCain.
True, that means nearly 40% didn't care - but that is another, tragic story.
Obama is so popular in Brazil that no fewer than six Brazilian politicians now
standing for election have adopted his name in the hope of improving their
chances of victory.
Obama's popularity abroad, however, has done nothing to improve his prospects
in the US. It could even be a negative. For example, his Kennedy-esque speech
in Berlin last July drew a largely adoring crowd of 200,000 while back home
most Americans shrugged their shoulders in indifference and critics used the
event as an opportunity to accuse him of being a shallow international
At 47, Obama is young and his resume is admittedly thin for a presidential
candidate. There is also no denying his star quality. But what critics
inevitably leave out of their assessments of his readiness for the nation's top
job is his clearly remarkable intelligence and political acumen, as well as his
lonely prescience on the biggest foreign policy issue of the Bush presidency -
the Iraq war. Obama was against the war from the start, while every other
candidate involved in this campaign - including his own running mate, Senator
Joe Biden - was for it. The McCain-Palin ticket still does not want to give up
the futile fight.
The issue of the war aside, now that the US economy has gone bust, it is hard
to argue that the more hands-on approach of Obama and the Democrats would not
be a welcome change from the trickle-down thinking of Republicans like Bush and
McCain, whose distaste for government regulation of the financial industry
helped to fuel the current crisis on Wall Street.
McCain was given a boost by the Palin nomination at the Republican Convention
earlier this month, but the bump and buzz of that surprise selection are
wearing off and the governor's true colors are starting to show. Now most
Americans can see that, while Obama is ready to be president, Palin most
certainly is not. The doubts about Palin do not just focus on her weak
political resume as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town of under 10,000 people,
and her subsequent two years as governor of a state with a population not even
one-seventh the size of Hong Kong's.
It is also apparent from the series of interviews the governor granted to ABC
reporter Charles Gibson that she is, at best, spotty on the issues. Can the US
- and the rest of the world - really afford a vice president who still has
doubts about global warming and is flummoxed when asked to explain the Bush
And what should voters conclude about the judgment of the presidential
candidate who made such an irresponsible choice for a running mate? In the end,
let's hope the Palin nomination will be remembered for what it is: McCain's
cynical attempt to galvanize the Republican far right, which has always
rejected him, and at the same deceptive time steal female Hillary Clinton
supporters away from Obama?
For now, however, the Machiavellian McCain campaign continues to argue that
they are the real change agents in this election, pointing out that their
victory would also bring a historical first - a female vice president. The
attractive, 44-year-old Palin is indisputably a woman, but she is hardly an
avatar of change. Rather, she is just the latest in a long history of
provocateurs in the American culture wars over guns, abortion and religion that
Republicans have made a habit of exploiting as an ugly victory wedge in
But this time - or so the hope goes in my mixed-race, expatriate family
sheltered far away from the American political fray - it is not going to work.
As the economic bad times continue to bite, more and more Americans are
beginning to take their politics personally. Meanwhile, Obama, behind in the
polls immediately following the Republican convention, has now edged ahead.
Let's be honest: 10%, probably more, of the US electorate will not vote for
Obama simply because he is black. That is abhorrent. But hope and the desire
for change could very well trump America's long and hateful legacy of racism in
this election, and that would truly be cause for ululations.
America would show a new face to the world, and the American dream would have a
fresh incarnation - one that my family could finally believe in; one that the
whole world could believe in.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at [email protected]