Is it safe to come out yet? I ducked under the covers for most of the week, but on Coronation Morn there was a knock on the door and I discovered Aunt Zeituni’s deportation order had been reassigned to me. Fortunately, it was accompanied by a complimentary pint of Ben & Jerry’s special commemorative “Yes, Pecan!” ice cream — a smooth cloying goo concealing a remarkable number of nuts, which seems as appropriate a way as any of marking the incoming administration.
Seeking refuge from the prostrations of the U.S. media, I turned to the foreign press, only to find that Canada’s Globe and Mail (which is like the New York Times but without the jokes) was contrasting the incoming president with, er, me. “He belongs to a demographic — it made his win possible — that doesn’t even get the problem with a black, a woman or a gay president,” wrote Rick Salutin. “They don’t clutch old identifications with race or ‘the West.’ They glory in ‘hybridity’ and ‘mongrelization’ — as Barack Obama did when he called himself a ‘mutt’ like the shelter dog he’d prefer for his kids. For another demographic, this shift induces panic. They worry about ‘shrivelled birth rates’ in the United States and its ‘enervated allies’ (Mark Steyn); they mourn the decline of ‘the last serious Western nation.’”
Crumbs. I wasn’t aware I was an entirely different “demographic” from Barack Obama: We’re more or less the same generation, but evidently the president stands for hope and the future and I represent the past and fear. Despite Mr. Salutin’s best efforts, I’m not sure I’m a plausible poster child for Anglo-Saxon racial purity — I’m a Russo-Belgian-Canadian with no very reliable grip on my family tree before the late 19th century. And, when you think about it, President Obama isn’t that much of a “mutt,” either: He’s an Ivy Leaguer, just like his predecessor. He was born the son of a British subject, just like all the presidents of this republic before Martin Van Buren. His stepmother flew in for the inauguration from London, the original rulers of these colonies; his grandmother flew in from Kenya, another former colony. Genealogists have not only traced young Barack’s ancestry back to William the Lion, King of Scotland from 1165 to 1214, but determined that he is a cousin of an even more ferocious medieval tyrant, Dick Cheney.
In other words, underneath the change, there’s an awful lot of continuity. Of course, Rick Salutin is correct: The demographic that is the change it’s been waiting for doesn’t want to be seen “clutching old identifications.” The “Obama pledge” that Ashton Kutcher devised for a bunch of Z-list celebs to drone in unison starts with the words: “I pledge to be a servant to our president and to all mankind” — nothing so parochial as America in there. After the inauguration, my old pal Boris Johnson, mayor of London, posted a Twitter (if that’s the right expression) saying, “What a speech!! Speaking as citizen of the world that was exac what I wanted to hear from an Amer Pres’t.”
What that seems to boil down to is an Amer Pres’t who isn’t hung up on being Pres’t of Amer: “People of the world,” he addressed the audience for his famous Berlin speech, sounding as if his spacecraft had just landed from Planet Hopechangula and you earthlings had no choice but to submit to his awesome power. In postmodern terms, he’s not as far gone as Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal party up in Ottawa, who returned to the country after spending most of his adult life abroad and announced in the intro to his book on Canada that writing it had “deepened my attachment to the place on earth that, if I needed one, I would call home.” Gee, thanks.
President Obama also has the air of a man who doesn’t really need a home. His is a very appealing “hybridity,” much of it consciously adopted. In the old days, immigrants landed at Ellis Island as “Barack Obama” and set off looking for work as “Barry O. Bammerson” or some such. The new president made the opposite journey, from Barry the schoolboy to Barack the community organizer. Again, I’m reminded of Britannic precedents: There was a chap called Harry Lee, Cambridge graduate, respected barrister, and, in the words of one British cabinet minister, “the best bloody Englishman east of Suez.” Sniffing opportunity in the Malay states, he learned Mandarin, embraced Confucianism, and reinvented himself as Lee Kuan Yew, father of Singapore. For both men, their inheritance was a default setting, and the exotic “hybridity” was a kind of customized extra.
But what happens when there’s no default setting? Rick Salutin is certainly right that the young Obamatrons do not identify with “the West.” On the other hand, they seem unaware that the multicultural frisson they get such a kick out of is a unicultural phenomenon. To discard “the West” with nary a thought is to reject not race but the civilization that built the modern world, and the even smaller group of countries within it that have demonstrated any sustained tradition of liberty. Like Ignatieff, Lee, and Gandhi, Obama is a product of that relatively narrow tradition, whether his squealing Obammysoxers know it or not.
Mr. Salutin is insouciant about a planet in which “Western civilization” is an archaism. Lee Kuan Yew thinks we are merely restoring the Euro-Asian balance of power as it existed before the rise of the European empires. And gloomier fellows like yours truly think that in the twilight of the West all kinds of malevolent forces will arise. Asked what he thought of “Western civilization,” Gandhi supposedly replied it would be a good idea. Ha ha. Wonder if it’ll sound as