What follows is a letter I wrote yesterday to my remarkably well-informed and curious ten year-old great-nephew, Hugo, who lives in England and was nice enough to inquire after my thoughts about the American elections. I have been slow in responding to his e-mailed question, but I hope these thoughts are better late than never. It's useful, sometimes, to try to boil it all down to words intended for a bright ten year-old who may well be wiser, in some ways, than we adults:
It has been a couple of months since you wrote to me, asking what I thought about the elections here in America. I'm afraid I did not give your question much thought at the time, and wrote only a quick response. But I have been thinking about it since then, and wanted to let you have a proper answer, so here goes.
First, a lot has happened since you asked the question. Senator Hillary Clinton has dropped out of the race, leaving the way clear for Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate. And, surprisingly, because he seemed at first to have little choice to survive the early battle among the Republicans, John McCain is now the Republican who will run against Obama. Interesting, isn't it, that before Hillary Clinton dropped out, the main contenders were 1) the first woman to have ever reached so far; 2) the first black man to have ever reached so far; and 3) the oldest man ever to have reached so far in the presidential race?
So here's my first thought: that speaks well of America, that it is no longer only sprightly young white men who can qualify for the position! And while we're on the subject, let me add that I was delighted to see a woman so clearly in contention--but extremely disappointed when she felt she had to prove how "tough" she was in order to gain the nomination. During the last part of her campaign, I have to say that she lost me--along with many others--by trying to prove that point in every way she could imagine. For myself, I think it's time for us to abandon that old notion, that America needs to be the tough guy in the world. I believe that it's time for a more compassionate, "feminine" energy in leadership positions in this tired old world, where men, I fear, have contributed more than their share of trouble in grabbing for wealth and power no matter what the consequences to this small planet we inhabit.
That said, I also believe that Barack Obama has some of that energy. Until recently, when he became the "presumptive nominee" of the Democratic Party, he was able to articulate a wonderfully broad, inclusive, and humane vision of the change that we humans must be ready to make in our lives--and our relationship with each other--if our planet is to survive. We can't go on forever exploiting it and making wars with each other over the food we need to eat, the medical attention that we need to remain healthy, the resources that we need to run our lives. Because that's what it's coming to, isn't it? I read in the New York Times just this morning that more than 30 countries have already experienced violent internal battles over food. America is still the richest and most powerful country in the world, and we need to provide the leadership and the example, and to exercise the generosity it will take for all human beings on the planet to live together in peace and harmony.
I had high hopes that Obama envisioned an America of this kind. I still hope he does. What has happened in recent weeks, however, is that he has been voicing ideas and opinions that sound quite a lot different from those he was expressing before he became the front runner. It's my belief that he has been doing this out of a sense of realism--that he must take positions that will attract the support of the many, many voters it will take to get him elected; and to avoid alienating them from his ideas. The truth is that many Americans are deeply conservative, they resist change, perhaps even fear what it may bring. They value the old ways, and those ideas they feel made America "a great country." Obama will need a good number of their votes if he's ever to be elected.
Obama's opponent, John McCain, the "presumptive nominee" of the Republican Party, is making his appeal based largely on those values. He is making a great deal of his "patriotism" and his past service to this country, as a brave Navy fighter pilot who endured five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He wants to persuade Americans that he is the one with the experience that can be trusted, that he's the "tough guy" in this race, that he knows how to deal with those ruffians in the rest of the world. He's trying to persuade voters that Obama is weak and inexperienced, and that he can't be trusted to run the country. In my view--and bear in mind, Hugo, that these are my views I'm expressing, not necessarily true facts!--McCain represents that old school I was talking about earlier, the one that thinks America should lead the world with military and economic power, and protect itself from every potential "enemy" out there. He seems to believe in America's God-given right to economic prosperity and world leadership, at a time when I myself believe that we must learn to become a nation among nations, in a whole co-operative, sharing, mutually-concerned global community.
I think that Americans--if I can generalize--tend to be idealists: I'm sure you've heard of "the American dream." We hear a lot about it over here. And it's a short step from being an ideal-ist to being an ideologue, the kind of person who is so convinced of the rightness of his own ideals that he's blinded to any others--something like the current president and his cronies! Ideals are important, of course, but it's also important to recognize and accept some of the limitations of the real world. It's hard to be both an idealist and a realist all at once, however, because reality keeps demanding that we compromise a little on the ideals in order to get things done; and ideals, by definition, don't want to be compromised!
So that's where we're a wee bit stuck right now, as I see it. And I have to add that Americans are mostly just tired of this election at the moment. I think I'm right in saying that most of us want to have it over and done with. We are mightily tired of hearing the candidates trade petty insults with each other, instead of discussing real, urgently important issues like global warming, world hunger, poverty, war and the threat of widespread disease. Instead we hear them talking about who's more "patriotic" than the other guy, while we begin to wonder who's the more "idiotic." You can tell from what I've written, I'm sure, that I support Obama. I hope he wins. I just can't wait until it's over with. (Did you know that we have another 196 days of Bush?)
With love to you and your Mum from your great-uncle,