Lessons we must learn from Obama's self-reflection

Tue, Jan 13, 2009, 00:00

Obama’s team is trying to temper expectations. Meanwhile, in Ireland we are permanently disillusioned, writes Elaine Byrne

THIS COLUMN was born in anger. It stemmed from a period working at the United Nations, immersed in a vigorous and disparate world of colour, culture, class and religion. A world apart from a rural Wicklow upbringing of six younger siblings, where the family pub served as your living room and our funeral home as my only place of study. (It was dead quiet.) Dressing coffins was as much a part of the household routine as polishing the hearse to shine a magnificent black, proudly. When you grow up bearing intimate witness to death, you assume that death is normal.

Living outside of Ireland forced me to engage with her in a different way. My UN colleagues challenged me to ask “Why?” about everything. Not that they knew the answers, but at least they recognised that asking the question was part of the answer. I learned that sometimes you needed to be far away in order to get up close. Only then does it become obvious how normal gets to be defined and what you think is ordinary can possibly be abnormal to everyone else.

Irish politics thrives on entrenched and deep-rooted assumptions. We accept subconsciously that the position of taoiseach is reserved for those political parties of civil war origins. Or, that the proportional-representation single-transferable-vote electoral system is good for national democracy because it promotes provincial “ombudsmen”.

In an interview with this newspaper at the weekend, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan said that dynasty politics was practical because of an inbuilt reputation. “They know you understand the system and are accustomed to how it works. You know the life and have the contacts,” she said. In other political systems this is known as an aristocracy. An inherent-ocracy produces a political generation where safe constituencies immunise political leadership from the necessity to inspire debate because of the assumption of automatic re-election.

Extended Dáil holidays warrant that we learn second-hand of proposed tax increases. It was only through a Saturday report in this newspaper that we learned of the Department of Finance’s updated stability report to the European Commission on tax.

In this Ireland, the consequences of gross failures within the banking regulatory regime justify the retirement, not resignation, of the financial regulator; where the front page headlines of Sunday newspapers articulate national debate as to the type of car that the Taoiseach currently has.

These are old politics, old parties and old policies. Politics, though, has the ability to reinvent itself.

On this page, in extracts from Barack Obama’s autobiographical narrative, Dreams from my Father, he writes of the “needlepoint virtues” of his mother. “‘If you want to grow into a human being,’ she would say to me, ‘you’re going to need some values’.” She cited four: (Irish public life, please copy)

- Honesty

- Fairness

- Straight talk

- Independent judgment.

The president-elect was 33 when he penned these early memoirs. They start with a quotation from the Book of Chronicles: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.” Like his mother, Obama is the perpetual sojourner, always searching for something, not content in what he describes as the “smugness and hypocrisy that familiarity had disclosed”.

Obama argues with himself in his struggle to define his identity. He acknowledges his failures and confronts his assumptions.

In Indonesia he meets direct racism for the first time. The “violent” Life magazine feature of the black man who had tried to peel off his skin would bring Obama to admit: “But my vision had been permanently altered.”

This personal journey of self-reflection and self-examination ultimately translated into a broader political one for America. His extraordinary ability to connect with young people has established him as a new generation president not only for America, but for Ireland. Brian Cowen is 18 months older than Obama yet our generation identify more with an American president of Offaly ancestry than a Taoiseach of Offaly birth.

Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic national convention in Boston was a defining moment of his political career: “In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? . . . Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.”

Despite economic reasons to the contrary, there is robust confidence and belief in the capability of American political leadership. The degree of expectation invested in Obama is such that his campaign team has emphatically sought to temper them since his November election.

That’s the difference between America and Ireland. We do not have that luxury of attempting to prevent disappointment because we are already permanently disillusioned.

In the absence of hope and an acceptance that Irish politics must also make a journey of self-revelation, I have decided to undertake a journey. It begins at the national convention centre in Boston, to meet Massachusetts Democratic Party activists. From there we take the train to Washington for Barrack Obama’s inauguration this day week.

This column is still angry.