January 19, 2009

Barack Obama, Michael Manley & the "Vision Thing"

Barack ObamaAs America gets ready for the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama and the many changes that his administration is supposed to bring, the ceremonies remind me of the euphoria that many Jamaicans experienced when Michael Manley was elected as Prime Minister in 1972.

Those were heady times and the similarities are hard to dismiss. Manley, like Obama, was a charismatic politician whose grassroots organization made him popular with poor, working class voters. Manley was also an eloquent public speaker who was able to synthesize the aspirations of the people and the philosophical debates of the era into common, everyday language. But, perhaps, the greatest similarity lies in what both men offered the electorate--what George H. W. Bush referred to as "that vision thing."

Michael Manley had a grand vision for Jamaica. It would be a Jamaica based on social justice and egalitarian principles, and Manley enjoyed the kind of hagiography that Obama is now receiving. Manley was called "Joshua"--the Jamaican version of "The One"--and hymns were retooled in his honor: "Michael rowed the boat ashore, Hallelujah." It was a Jamaica we could all believe in.

Barack Obama has crafted a similar vision based upon democratic principles and America's moral influence in the world, which as he stated in The Audacity of Hope, "has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world" (11). Obama's campaign was grounded in this belief and by tapping into the collective imagination of America--an America we can all believe in--he ascended to the presidency.

A little imagination, however, can be a dangerous thing. By engaging the imagination of the people toward "perfecting the Union," those who oppose his vision will also use imaginative methods to derail the manifestation of that vision. And if history is any guide, Obama's critics will use congressional tactics rather than violence and plunging the nation into civil war as did Manley's opponents, which along with a failing economy finally drove Manley from power.

For just as Manley soon realized that "free education" was not "free," Obama may soon discover that "universal health care" may not be as '"universal" as he or the electorate would like--at least, not in the short run. Obama will face the challenge of the grand vision versus the reality, and it takes sustained energy, either sweat or money, to make a dream into reality. This will test the loyalty of his constituents, many of whom are Millennials, and who are not used to delayed gratification or sustained effort--a tendency Obama acknowledges in Audacity, "the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem" (18).

It will be interesting to see how Obama handles the instant messaging generation and if they will support him as the economy grinds through the upcoming hard times. For the recovery ain't just a click away.

For just as the leadership of Michael Manley exposed the internal contradictions of Jamaican society, so too will the presidency of Barack Obama test the beliefs of the American populace. We aren't post-racial yet, and the reason why racism works is because it has immediate economic and psychological benefits for the majority and for a few in the minority (the so-called leaders) who have found a way to use inequality to survive .

The times they are a changing, but it never be what we imagined because it is our collective imaginations that are shaping the events. There will be those think that the change is happening too fast and there will be those who think that change isn’t happening fast enough. Somewhere in the middle though where real change always occurs, the ground will shift. What that future will resemble is anyone's guess.


Photo Source: www.barack-obama.tv/


the prisoner's wife said...

it will be interesting to see how people react to Obama once the hype is over & he is dealing with these very bleak issues we are dealing with today.

it is still a WONDERFUL site to behold. at least for today.

FSJL said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who's seen more than a little bit of Michael in Obama.

Geoffrey Philp said...

It's uncanny isn't it, Fragano.
I can only hope for the best...

Anonymous said...

I'm a Jamaican living in Vancouver, Canada. I agree that there are similarities between Michael and Barack, Both possess(ed) the power to inspire people to work towards what their country hoped to attain. But there was a vanity in Michael, which Barack does not appear to have. Michael's was distracted by women, and fed his ego by flouting US authority and establishing Cuban and Chinese embassies in Jamaica. (Ironic, isn't it? Now the US has welcomed one and no doubt will soon welcome the other!)

To his credit, Michael exposed and addressed the hypocrisy that existed in Jamaica. Unfortunately, he became the scapegoat for both left and right.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Sheila,


Yes, I agree. Obama seems to have the kind of humility that Manley did not possess and I don't think the "distraction" of women is one of his vices.

It is also ironic that the US is pursuing goals that Manley once envisioned.

Let's hope the real South-South dialogue takes root!

Thanks for the comment.