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January 21, 2009

Obama's smooth succession

By Spear's

Smooth political transitions never cease to amaze me: as a half-Czech Venezuelan I’ve seen my share of dictators.

So that’s it: it’s done. It happened without even a blip or a twitch or a word of acknowledgement: Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States yesterday even before the oath of office was administered, for the US Constitution establishes that the President-Elect becomes President at 12 noon on January 20th regardless. Talk about your smooth transitions.

Smooth political transitions never cease to amaze me, probably because as a half-Czech Venezuelan I’ve seen my share of dictators and been regaled with stories of Communist apparatchiks and known political systems overthrown from within and without, my family having endured the Holocaust, the defenestration of liberal leaders in 1948 Prague and had their windows shattered by the sonic boom of jets during coups and counter-coups in Caracas.

Even Western Europe, that paragon of tradition and prudence, has had its share of revolutions and dictators: France, Spain, Italy, Germany. And yet in America, even the assassination of a president cannot undo the system: they simply swore in the next in line, Lyndon Johnson, on a presidential jet, calmly and easily, while a dazed Jackie Kennedy stared at the floor.

Americans seem incapable of a coup, although some considered W’s winning the election by one vote (Sandra Day O’Connor’s) in the Supreme Court tantamount to a coup.

But their respect for the office and their constitution is such that Americans did not rebel and did not oust him, as would have happened in Venezuela. Americans are too idealistic about their national mythology for that.

As a half-American myself, I always both admired and reviled American idealism. I mean, really, look at how worked up everyone got over a few blow jobs in the Oval Office.

The French and the Italians wouldn’t react that way, and the President of Venezuela gives speeches talking about how he used to cheat on both his ex-wives – perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned there.

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But even while I found the American belief that of course a President would be faithful to his wife idealistic, I also found it admirable, for it is their idealism that has been the key to their success.

The collective myth of ‘the American Dream’ has brought America the brightest and hardest-working immigrants from around the world (including Einstein in World War II) and Barack Obama to the presidency.

This is what Juergen Habermas calls Verfassungspatriotismus, constitutional patriotism. In Appendix A of Between Facts and Norms, he talks about how a national sense of identity and a unifying national mythology propagated through modern media can unite usually warring factions – provided, of course (and this Habermas lamentably skips), the constitution allows for equality of opportunity in a truly old-fashioned liberal way.

And now we see the proud product of a successfully propagated mythology and a growing global media: President Barack Obama, not only the first Black President, but also the first multimedia President – and the former is a direct consequence of the latter.

Now he is himself a myth, the very incarnation of the of the American mythology and its attendant ‘Dream’. Unless his presidency is a total catastrophe, his having even made it to the White House will itself revive American hopes and further spread the myth that will again buoy a people. It seems the media can do something right, after all.

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