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Obama spoke to us, but we didn’t listen


IT IS SAID that when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. A former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, even said that the rest of the world should be allowed to vote in American elections, because of the impact that country has everywhere. My concern here is not with the rest of the world, but with SVG and its peoples. Today is a day that could profoundly change how we go about our business. Today Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America and with that comes a great deal of uncertainty everywhere, for, as is said, the only thing predictable about Trump is his unpredictability. He is a bundle of contradictions, making contrary statements within the same speech, in fact even sentence. The USA has a written constitution, but its democracy is strengthened by the adherence to norms and traditions. The real test of American democracy will start with the installation of a president who seems to have scant regard for them. Are the cheques and balances on which America prides itself strong enough in a partisan era to fight any efforts, deliberate or not that will herald a period of lunacy and autocracy? Two issues come to mind: his failure to release his tax returns and his feeble efforts at removing himself from his financial empire. Will these prevail and set a pattern for others to follow?

These are challenging times and we must be prepared. My focus here, however, is on something else. When Obama gave his farewell address in Chicago, it was as if he was speaking to us, Vincentians. He said many things that we need to note. His work on the streets of Chicago, he said, taught him that change can only come about when ordinary people get involved and make demands for it. In fact, although he really was not directly addressing us, much of what he said was so relevant. I was particularly struck by the role he saw for ordinary people in protecting democracy. “Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. We must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”

Not too long ago, we seemed to have been pinning our hopes for a better future on constitutional reform. Often when issues arise today, those who had favoured the proposed constitutional document that formed the basis of the referendum claim that such would not have happened if we had adopted the new constitution. Speaking about the American constitution, Obama regards it as a ‘beautiful gift,’ but noted that it was really only a piece of parchment with no power of its own. He argues, “We, the people, give it power…We, the people, give it meaning: With our participation, and with the choices that we make and with the alliances that we forge. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That’s up to us…the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election; not just when our narrow interest is at stake; but over the full span of a lifetime.” He furthermore warns that we should not take our democracy for granted, for it becomes threatened. Shouldn’t we chew on this? Such profound warnings! It was as if Obama was pointing his fingers at us, urging us to protect our young democracy. He warns too about political dialogue becoming so corrosive that those “with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided, but as malevolent.”

Obama argues, too, that “if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.” Let us look at our situation. One of the things missing, especially among our youths, is hope. But it is opportunity that brings hope and hope strengthens us for any journey we wish to undertake. He had words for our political leaders. They should serve, he said, “Not to score points or take credit, but to make people’s lives better.” Wow!

As he readied himself to leave office, he tried to impress on his listeners the role they need to play, especially with so many concerns about the seeming erratic behaviour of a president-elect who enters office with only a 45 per cent popularity rating. He hinted that he would be with them in their fight for justice. One thing that struck me was his reference to the “quiet dignity of the working people”. I don’t believe that our working people are any different, but functioning in a much smaller society, we have become victims to political manoeuvring, to the point where we are in turn able to feed that political manoeuvring and give some validity to it. Most of our working people are honest and hard-working, hoping for the best, but something happened that has thrown us off course. It pains me when I hear black Vincentians at home blowing Trump’s trumpet. You see why we are where we are! Gone off course!

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.