Friday, December 26, 2008

What Yar’adua is learning and NOT learning from America

By Farooq A. Kperogi

There is no question that President Umaru Yar’adua has been paying close attention to what is happening in the United States. The first time he visited here, he was so overawed by the grandeur of the White House—and the “honor” of shaking the hands of President Bush— that he declared the visit “a rare opportunity” and a “moment that I will never forget in my life.”

Such child-like ebullition of gratitude and awe may be considered a little too self-deprecatory, even humiliating, for a country’s leader to express openly, but in a country where elementary honor and integrity in leaders is a scarce commodity, such dewy-eyed candor should not be dismissed with a snigger.

But I digress. Each time a major event occurs here our president almost always has a response—and an interpretive domestication to boot. For instance, when Obama was elected president, Yar’adua was quoted as saying that the historic momentousness of the event had inspired him to turn a new leaf in inter-ethnic relations in Nigeria.

“Prejudices arising from various differences in tribe, zones and regions— actually we should examine ourselves in the light of this experience and conduct ourselves purely as Nigerians to serve Nigeria and to serve humanity,” he said.

He warned that ministers who were still wedded to the primordial insularity of a pre-Obama era “will have no place in this executive council,” but that those who have embraced the post-racial or, if you like, post-ethnic era that Obama’s election has inaugurated “are mostly and greatly welcome.”

Again these are decidedly unsophisticated, almost infantile, presidential thought-processes that make one’s flesh crawl in embarrassment. Why would it take the election of Obama for our president to experience this post-ethnic “epiphany”? Well, it is at least commendable that he learned the right lesson—if he indeed only just learned that lesson— and made the right noise.

Then there was news of the arrest of Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, on allegation that he was trying to sell to the highest bidder the senate seat just vacated by Obama. Yar’adua response to this was to advocate that the immunity clause in our constitution be expunged so that governors found to have violated the laws of the land can also be prosecuted.

This is all fine and dandy, except that it doesn’t seem Yar’adua is learning other lessons in democratic governance from America. A prime example is his appallingly poor government-media relation. His current war against critical sections of the media will probably go down in the records as one of the worst, if not the worst, in a Nigerian civilian administration.

First, his government unilaterally and heedlessly withdrew the license of Channels TV, one of Nigeria’s finest independent television stations, on account of an innocuous, if grave, professional misjudgment.

Then State Security Service agents invaded the office of the Leadership newspaper, forcefully seized the paper’s computers and arrested some its reporters and editors. Thereafter, the government sued the paper for libel—or is it sedition? This is, to say the least, gratuitously high-handed. Not even Obasanjo, as terrible a leader as he was, violently harassed any newspaper that maligned him.

But let’s get back to America, which our president is evidently enamored of. In America’s over 200 years’ existence as a nation, no public official has ever won a case against the media. In fact, no president has ever sued the media.

And the press here has historically been a tormenting thorn on the flesh of presidents. This is encapsulated in the creed of the American press: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

President Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, once famously declared that were he confronted with the dilemma of choosing between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government he would not hesitate to choose the latter. But this lavish praise for the press did not immunize him from the caustic, often mendacious, attacks of newspapers.

He was later forced to confess that, “People who never read newspapers are better informed than those who do, because ignorance is closer to the truth than the falsehoods spread by newspapers.” That was the closest he came to fighting the media.

It is also noteworthy that the term “muckraker,” which we now use approvingly to refer to investigative journalists, was initially a derogatory term for journalists coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest president in American history. (He was only 42 when he assumed office as president).

Roosevelt was the object of scurrilous attacks by the press, some of it ill-motivated, most of it scandalously mendacious. But he never went to court, nor commanded his security forces to invade the newsrooms of newspapers that calumniated him.

The worst that he did was to deride journalists as “muckrakers,” a label that American journalists accepted with pride.

Again, during a speech in 1906, he said, “There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful." And this was a president who was under unremitting press attacks.

Of course, most recently, we have seen what Bill Clinton and Bush have been suffering from their national press. There have been outright libelous attacks on their persons almost daily in the American media. But they have never sued any media organization.

Well, that’s because the U.S. constitution prohibits government officials, whether elected or appointed, from recovering damages from the press for a defamatory falsehood relating to their official conduct, unless the government officials can prove that the press had shown a “reckless disregard for the truth.” Since America’s founding over 200 years ago, no government official has been able to prove this.

For me, the most dangerous terrain Yar’adua appears to be treading now is his newfound, misguided war on online citizen journalists. For an example, a certain Jonathan Elendu, a U.S.-based citizen journalist, was recently arrested when he traveled to Nigeria. His working tools and passport were seized, reportedly because of censorious stories that either he or people the authorities believe he is associated with have authored in the past.

And now Yar’adua’s agents are suing, a popular, hard-hitting, muckraking online citizen media outlet. The president’s agents are also writing to a slew of web hosting sites to demand that be shut down because of its virulent anti-Yar’adua content.

With the way things are going, it’s only a matter of time before government blocks certain web sites from being viewed in Nigeria. Nigeria would then be on the same list as China, Iran and other totalitarian regimes that muzzle the free flow of information.

I don’t know the people advising Yar’adua on public communication and information management. But his government’s relationship with the media has been at best primitive and at worst downright brainless. Yet, his spokesperson, Segun Adeniyi, spent state resources to visit the U.S. the other time under the pretext of learning public communication from the White House Press Office. Is it this unmitigated crudeness and unimaginativeness he learned from here?

Our ranking in the press freedom index, which had improved dramatically over the last eight years, is up for another diminution. I know this because I teach journalism and monitor news related to journalism practice worldwide. The news from Nigeria these days with regard to government-media relations is always agonizingly dispiriting.

For a man who stakes his entire presidency on his adherence to the “rule of law,” and who has demonstrated such praiseworthy sensitivity to what is happening in the outside world, Yar’adua’s government’s crude arm-twisting of the media is disturbing. It all looks like a throwback to the era of military absolutism.

Yar’adua needs to learn lessons in tolerance for a vibrant media culture.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Will Obama be assassinated? (VI)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Why the hate?
The overpowering but wholly groundless sentiment among many white conservatives, especially Southern white conservatives, that an Obama presidency would inaugurate the era of the irretrievable loss of their much cherished, time-honored racial privilege in both material and symbolic terms is a huge culprit in stirring sulfurous anti-Obama and negrophobic hysteria and hatred.

Additionally, many Southern whites have so scrupulously internalized notions of the innate inferiority of black people and the putative preordained superiority of white people that it would take the infliction of tremendous psychic violence for them to come to grips with the reality of a “nonwhite” person as their president, especially if that “nonwhite” person is part African.

For them, what happened on November 4 was a violently disruptive, defamiliarizing inversion of the settled racial hierarchies of their society, which signals an unsettling descent of their beloved country to the nadir of hopelessness and despair.

It is the ultimate price they are paying, they think, for allowing immigration into their country from nonwhite countries, for decriminalizing interracial marriage, for humanizing black people whom the U.S. constitution, through the prodding of Southern whites, had officially labeled “three-fifth” of a human being, that is subhuman, and for generally being too “liberal” over the last couple of decades.

Grant Griffin, a 46-year-old man from the state of Georgia here, summed up this sentiment in an interview with the Associated Press shortly after Obama’s election: "I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades, and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change,” he said. "If you had real change it would involve all the members of (Obama's) church being deported."

“Obama’s church” here is a codeword for culturally secure black people who want to transgress “their station.” And here is why. The Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the fiercely Afrocentric church Obama and his family attended for 20 years, describes itself as “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian.” The church’s Web site further states: “We are an African people, and remain true to our native land, the mother continent, the cradle of civilization.”

For many white conservatives, the “Obama church” is the symbolic representation of the kind of blackness they intensely loathe and want “deported.” However, it is this loathsome “blackness” that is now going to superintend over their affairs for at least the next four years. That, certainly, has got to hurt.

Another motive force that drives the unease with Obama’s emergence as president is the visceral, indwelling dread of change that lurks in all of us. For conservative whites, a “black” president is "the most profound change in the field of race this country has experienced since the Civil War," said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. "It's shaking the foundations on which the country has existed for centuries."

Joseph Funk, a former Secret Service agent-turned security consultant who was part of the private protection Obama put together for himself before he was officially given Secret Service protection, said security experts have known for ages that anything "new" can activate latent antagonism.

He said it is not so much Obama’s race that is responsible for the rise in threats not just against him but against black people in America, as I’ve shown in previous parts of this series; it is the unusualness of his emergence as president.

But that’s not all. Sarah Palin, the unbelievably dimwitted and hatemongering former running mate to McCain, also contributed immensely to the hate against Obama. According to the Newsweek, the U.S. Secret Service informed the Obama campaign that the number of threats against Obama sharply increased during the time in which the crowds at McCain-Palin rallies became noticeably angrier.

All that the embarrassingly ignorant VP candidate did the entire campaign was whip up raw, undiluted racist hate against Obama, by calling him a "terrorist sympathizer," a "socialist," a "communist," one who “pals around with terrorists,” "someone who doesn't see America as a force for good," and other dangerous, culturally loaded innuendos that prompted her supporters to openly call for Obama's assassination.

Even after Obama’s victory, when McCain was gracious in defeat, Palin told newsmen that she was still concerned about Obama’s past associations. It is to be expected that her supporters will still be filled with the desire to harm Obama.

But why do the haters also target innocent black people? "The principle is very simple," said BJ Gallagher, a sociologist and co-author of the book A Peacock in the Land of Penguins. "If I can't hurt the person I'm angry at, then I'll vent my anger on a substitute, i.e., someone of the same race."

"We saw the same thing happen after the 9-11 attacks, as a wave of anti-Muslim violence swept the country. We saw it happen after the Rodney King verdict, when Los Angeles blacks erupted in rage at the injustice perpetrated by 'the white man.'"

Not as bad as it seems

After reading this litany of race hate that Obama’s election has provoked, it is easy to come away with the impression that white people are having a “buyer’s remorse” after electing Obama and can’t wait to murder him at the slightest opportunity. This is far from the case.

The truth is that a vast majority of white people are comfortable with, even excited about, Obama taking over the reins of government. It is only a minority of insular, xenophobic white people who mostly live in rural areas of Southern United States that hasn’t come to terms with the momentous change that has taken place in their country.

According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released on December 11, over 70 percent of Americans are confident in Obama's ability to govern and unify the country, “with many who didn't vote for him now seeing him in a positive light.”

The poll also indicates that the nation is more unified around Obama than it was for either Bill Clinton in 1992 or George W. Bush in 2000.

Pundits predict that the historically overwhelming support Obama currently enjoys across the country will give him a longer-than-typical honeymoon.

Superstition about senators who become presidents
Yet another factor fueling concerns about Obama’s safety is the eerie historical fact that all standing U.S. senators who became presidents were murdered in their first terms.

In America’s entire political history, only two serving senators ever got elected as president. Obama is the third.

The first standing senator to be elected president, Warren Harding, died of poisoning in 1923, apparently with the connivance of his own wife on whom he was known to be cheating. The second sitting senator to be elected president was John F. Kennedy. He was assassinated in 1963.

If Obama survives his first term (I hope and pray he does), he would make history as the only sitting U.S. senator who became president without dying in office.

And Obama has made history all his life. For instance, nobody gave him a chance against the redoubtable Clinton machine during the Democratic primaries. And certainly not many thought he would become president of America.

A few years ago, while a part-time senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago, Obama once told his students that he could one day become America’s president. According to the New York Times, this elicited a loud guffaw from his students.

And as a 5-year-old boy in Hawaii, Obama also once wrote an essay titled, “I want to Become President,” according to Fermina Katarina Sinaga, Obama’s primary school teacher. She said Obama’s essay was a response to her assignment to the class to write an essay titled, “My Dream: What I Want to be in the Future.”

The Hillary Clinton campaign tried to use this information against Obama in 2007—to show that his run for president was not actuated by a patriotic zeal but by a childhood ambition, by a journey of self-discovery. But it backfired on Hillary. The media dismissed the attack as childish.

So we are talking about a man of destiny here, a man who has perpetually defied odds. He may very well prove skeptics wrong again. Nonetheless, there is ever-present reason to be worried for his safety.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Will Obama be assassinated? (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In a town called Midland in the state of Michigan, a reliably Democratic state, a man attired in the ghoulish ceremonial robes of the Ku Klux Klan, a murderous white supremacist organization dedicated to eradicating African presence in the Western Hemisphere, held a gun and waved the American flag upside down simultaneously. When police arrested him, he said he was protesting over Obama’s victory.

A similar incident was reported in another Michigan town called Traverse City shortly after Obama’s election. There, several workers at two local stores flew an American flag upside down as an emblematic expression of remonstrance over the election of Obama, according to the town’s newspaper, the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

"(The inverted flag is) an international signal for distress and we feel our country is in distress because the nigger got in," one of the protesters told the paper. He later reportedly apologized for calling Obama a “nigger.”

The Winston-Salem Journal also reported incidents of people protesting against Obama’s victory by symbolically flying the American flag upside down. “The flag is stretched upside-down between two poles in a field, with a black X running from end to end. The X is a reference to the Confederate flag,” the Journal reported.

(The Confederate States refer to the Southern states that attempted to secede from the United States in 1861 because they wanted to keep Black people enslaved in perpetuity, and the flag is the symbol of their continuing defiance against the United States).

In Long Island, an island in southeastern New York, people woke up after Election Day to find their cars spray-painted with racist graffiti, including messages threatening to kill Obama.

It even got closer home—from an African perspective, that is. In New York, a 17-year-old Liberian Muslim immigrant by the name of Ali Kamara was pounded to a pulp by four white brutes who shouted “‘Obama’ before beginning the attack," according to a local newspaper.

The Los Angeles Times also reported that angry white men spray-painted racist anti-Obama broadsides on houses and several cars a few days after the election. Of the many graffiti inscribed on the cars and houses, the one that tickled me the most is: “Go back to Africa!” Recall that a similar phrase was used in an incident I reported last week.

Many innocent Black Americans have also been bearing the brunt of fringe white anger over Obama’s victory. This week, for instance, a Black American in California was beaten to a state of stupor by white men who were incensed that he wore a T-Shirt with Obama’s picture emblazoned on it.

His tragedy was only the latest in a string of misdirected anger at Black people over Obama’s victory. A day after Obama’s victory, for instance, a predominantly Black church in a town called Springfield in the northeastern state of Massachusetts was burnt to cinders.

The town’s newspaper, The Republican, quoted the church’s pastor, Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., as saying that the fire was “a hate crime" ignited and fueled by anger over Obama’s victory.

In the same state of Idaho where I reported that primary school children were caught singing “assassinate Obama” in a school bus, the Secret Service looked into the case of a sign posted on a tree with Obama's name and the offer of a "free public hanging."

These and many other as yet unreported incidents around the country are dampening the post-election glow of racial progress and harmony.

Editor & Publisher, which prides itself on being America’s oldest journal covering the newspaper industry, has been chronicling the threats to Obama since November 5. Most of the incidents recounted here were taken from the journal.

Obama win galvanizes white supremacists, spikes gun sales

As is obvious from the foregoing, one of the unintended consequences of Obama’s victory is that it has energized the hitherto fragile white supremacist movement.

According to the Associated Press, a day after Obama’s election,, the most vicious white supremacist Web site on the Internet, got more than 2,000 new members. The previous day, which is Election Day, it had registered only 91 new members.

The Associated Press quoted one Stormfront poster, identified as Dalderian Germanicus, as saying: "I want the son of a bitch [that is, Obama] laid out in a box to see how 'messiahs' come to rest. God has abandoned us, this country is doomed."

The anger and frustration over Obama’s win has also spawned a disturbing phenomenon: the unprecedented rise in gun sales. According the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) which checks police records of gun buyers in the United States, more people have bought guns since Obama won election than at any time in the past.

In October alone, for instance, when every respectable poll showed that Obama would win the election, 1.18 million firearms were purchased, according to the FBI. This figure has since increased several fold after Obama won the election.

People who want to put a positive spin to this disturbing trend claim that the increase in gun sales is a response to fears that Obama might enact laws to limit gun ownership, and that what we are witnessing is merely panic buying in anticipation of Obama’s impending gun-control laws. They point out that a similar, though less dramatic, scenario happened when Clinton won the presidential election in 1992.

However, others are not this pollyannaish about the unexampled increase in gun sales after Obama’s victory. They fear that the rise in gun sales may signal that Obama would have to contend with the specter of mass would-be assassins throughout his presidency.

Victory emboldens secession threats

Obama’s election is also intensifying calls for secession by some elements in the still largely racist South. This is not surprising, though. Obama had his worst electoral showing in the South.

Just about 20 percent of Southern whites voted for Obama. They gave McCain more votes than any Republican candidate ever received in a long while. But their efforts came to naught. So, for many Southern whites, Obama’s victory has heightened their sense of powerlessness and irrelevance in the new America, Obama’s America.

"In states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, there was extraordinary racial polarization in the vote," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University here in Atlanta. "Black Americans really do believe that Obama is going to represent their interests and views in ways that they haven't been before, and, in the Deep South, whites feel exactly the opposite."

The Associated Press reported that for secessionist groups like the League of the South, the hope is that Obama’s victory would provoke a more vigorous debate about the direction of the US and the South's role in it.

It quoted a member of the League as saying, "To a lot of people, the idea of secession doesn't seem so crazy anymore. People are talking about how left out they feel ... and they feel that something strange and radical has taken over our country."

Does this signal an impending race war? Well, no. "We're not looking at a race war or anything close to it, but ... what we are seeing now is undeniably a fairly major backlash by some subset of the white population," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report in Montgomery, Alabama. "Many whites feel that the country their forefathers built has been ... stolen from them, so there's in some places a real boiling rage, and that can only become worse as more people lose jobs."

To be concluded next week

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will Obama be assassinated? (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Now the real threats
A few months before Barack Obama was elected president, there were at least three high-profile attempts by white supremacists to assassinate him.

The first real, publicly known threat to assassinate Obama was posed by a 22-year-old man by the name of Raymond Hunter Geisel who lives in Miami, in the state of Florida. The U.S. Secret Service said Geisel kept a cache of military hardware with which he threatened to assassinate Obama.

Geisel allegedly called Obama a disparaging racial epithet and boasted: "If he gets elected, I'll assassinate him myself." This was in early August this year.

Then, in late August, in Denver, the capital city of the state of Colorado where Obama won a surprise victory on November 4, a group of men with guns and bulletproof vests were stopped in the tracks in their attempt to assassinate Obama during the Democratic National Convention where he formally accepted the nomination of his party.

How were they caught? Law enforcement officers were on a routine duty when they saw a car swerving lanes recklessly. So they stopped the car. It turned out that the occupants of the car were Obama’s would-be assassins. In the suspects’ car, law enforcement officers found two high-powered scoped rifles, ammunition, sighting scopes, radios, a cell phone, a bulletproof vest, wigs, drugs, and fake IDs.

After intense questioning, they confessed that they had intended to shoot Obama dead while he was delivering his acceptance speech before a live TV audience. One of the suspects told authorities they were "going to shoot Obama from a high vantage point using a ... rifle … sighted at 750 yards."

They then told the officers that there was another accomplice staying at a nearby hotel. The agents went to the hotel. When they knocked on the man's door, he jumped out of his sixth-floor window and broke his ankle. But he was subsequently arrested.

And on November 3, just a day before Election Day, a plot by two white supremacists in Tennessee to murder not just Obama but other black people was nipped in the bud by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

According to a Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Bureau’s Nashville field office (Nashville is the capital city of the state of Tennessee), the two white supremacists planned to first kill 88 black people, including 14 by beheading and then later assassinate Obama.

What’s special about the numbers 88 and 14? Well, according to people who study racist hate groups in America, the numbers 88 and 14 have a symbolic significance in the white supremacist community.

The number 14 refers to a 14-word phrase ascribed to a currently jailed white supremacist iconic figure: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children" and to the eighth letter of the alphabet, H. Two "8"s or "H"s stand for "Heil Hitler."

"They said that would be their last, final act — that they would attempt to kill Sen. Obama," Cavanaugh said. "They didn't believe they would be able to do it, but that they would get killed trying." Legal documents also show that the would-be Obama assassins "planned to drive their vehicle as fast as they could toward Obama shooting at him from the windows."

Assassination threats increase after victory

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes in America, Obama’s election has so far instigated over 200 death threats and race-related incidents. And these are only the incidents that are in the public domain.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that although threats against new presidents historically spike after an election, the threats against Obama have assumed “a record in modern presidential elections.”

Since November 4, a plethora of racist threats against Obama have spiraled all across the country, giving fodder to fears that Obama’s life is in danger in more ways than any president in America’s recent history.

The scary thing is that threats to Obama are manifest even among white elementary school kids. For instance, in the town of Rexburg in the deeply conservative state of Idaho where Obama lost soundly, the nation was alarmed to read the story of a bunch of elementary school kids who were chanting “Assassinate Obama! Assassinate Obama!” in the school bus.

Of course, 3rd grade kids don’t know what the word “assassinate” means; they were merely parroting what they had heard from adult conversations either at home or in school—or both.

And in a rural town called Snellville here in the state of Georgia, a white boy on the school bus said to his 9-year-old black classmate the day after the election: "I hope Obama gets assassinated." This became a national story after the black girl’s mother alerted the media.

I think it speaks to the intensity of the threats against Obama that even little kids who are ordinarily not politically conscious are advocating the elimination of their president-elect.

Again, a day after Obama’s victory, a black high school student named Barbara Tyler of Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta, told newsmen that she heard hateful Obama comments from her white colleagues, and that teachers cut off discussion about Obama's victory in the classroom.

Another student, from a school here in Atlanta, said he was suspended for wearing an Obama shirt to school on November 5. The student's mother, Eshe Riviears, told newsmen that the principal told her: "Whether you like it or not, we're in the South, and there are a lot of people who are not happy with this decision."

Similarly, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in a town called Allison Park in the state of Pennsylvania, a student said a day after the election, a teacher launched a vitriolic rant against Obama in the class and said Obama was going to be shot and killed. The teacher has been suspended.

But these school incidents are mild compared to the other threats out there.

In Milwaukee, in the state of Wisconsin, police officials found a poster of Obama with a bullet pointed toward his head. Perhaps the biggest shocker was that this was found in a police station— in a place where everybody, not least the president of the country, should be safe!

And in the state of North Carolina, four students of the North Carolina State University students admitted writing anti-Obama comments in a tunnel, including one that said: "Let's shoot that nigger in the head."

At a town called Standish in the state of Maine, a sign inside a store read: "Osama Obama Shotgun Pool." Customers could sign up to bet $1 on a date when Obama would be killed. "Stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count," the sign said. At the bottom of the marker board was written: "Let's hope someone wins."

In Los Angeles, California, racial slurs against Obama were sprayed on cars, houses and sidewalks, including: "Go Back To Africa."

University of Alabama professor Marsha L. Houston said a poster of the Obama family was ripped off her office door. A replacement poster was defaced with a death threat and a racial slur. "It seems the election brought the racist rats out of the woodwork," Houston said.

Another way racists vented their spleen was through the symbolic hanging of black figures from trees. The Bangor Daily News reported on these incidents in many places in the state of Maine. A similar incident was reported in Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

A black teenager in New York City said he was attacked with a bat on election night by four white men who shouted 'Obama.'

In the Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills, a black man said he found a note with a racial slur on his car windshield, saying "now that you voted for Obama, just watch out for your house."

To be continued

Friday, November 28, 2008

Will Obama be assassinated? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In the heady after-glow of Obama’s epochal victory, the world seems unmindful of a real, ever-present danger that haunts him: the danger of assassination. And this is no idle alarmist hysteria.

Although Obama won more votes than any presidential candidate in America’s entire history, suggesting that a majority of Americans judged him on the basis of the content of his character rather than on the color of his skin (to paraphrase Martin Luther King), there is still a lunatic fringe out there that is so disconcerted by his victory that it will stop at nothing to assassinate him.

To be sure, threats to Obama’s life—or anticipatory concerns over his safety—predated his November 4 victory. In fact, shortly after his election into the U.S. Senate, his wife, Michelle Obama, had been discomfited by the Secret Service protection he was given.

She said the fact that there was a need to protect him that elaborately indicated that her husband’s life was somehow in danger. Well, perhaps, at the time, it was just a prevenient move to forestall any potential threats to his life since he was only the third African American ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

However, concerns about his safety grew from hushed whispers in the privacy of homes to loud, anguished verbalization of concerns in the public domain when it became clear that he was no lightweight who wanted to be a mere addition to the long list of “also-rans.” In fact, given that even “also-ran” African-American presidential candidates were not immune from death threats, the worries about his safety became even more justified.

The African American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, for instance, received racially-tinged death threats during his presidential run in 1988, prompting the government to provide him with Secret Service protection. And former Secretary of State Colin Powell ruled out his White House bid because his wife, Alma Powell, expressed fear that he would be murdered.

With this backdrop, early in the Democratic presidential primaries, there were many Americans—white and black alike—who were reluctant to support Obama because they loved him too much to NOT want him to win; they thought he would be assassinated if he emerged victorious, and the only way they thought they could save his life was to deny him their support.

"For many black supporters, there is a lot of anxiety that he will be killed,” said Princeton University political science professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell. “It is on people's minds. You can't make a prediction like this - like he has a 50 per cent chance of getting shot. But the greater his visibility and the greater his access to people, there is a danger."

But it was Hillary Clinton, whom Obama now seems set to pick as his Secretary of State, who first famously darkly implied that Obama would be assassinated. In response to persistent calls that she withdraw from the Democratic primary race and concede to Obama in view of his insurmountable lead, she practically said she shouldn’t be counted out just yet because Obama could be assassinated before the Democratic Convention.

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right?” she told the editorial board of the Argus Leader on May 23 this year in defense of her obstinate decision to stay in the race. “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it."

Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, the younger brother of the late President John F. Kennedy, was the leading candidate in the Democratic primary election in 1968 until he was assassinated in California shortly after midnight of June 5, dying on June 6. He had just won the all-important California primary and was almost certain to lock the nomination before he was shot by a hired Palestinian assassin.

Clinton’s comment was an unguarded slip that not only revealed her subconscious preoccupations but that helped bring the fears—and anticipation—of an Obama assassination to the forefront of national discourse early in the campaign.

In fact, mentions of the fate that befell President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Bobby Kennedy, intensified after Obama was joined on the campaign trail by Caroline Kennedy (John F. Kennedy’s first and only surviving child) and Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (JFK’s only surviving younger brother).

“I’m pretty familiar with the history,” Obama once said in response to a question about the fear that he might be assassinated like the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Obviously, it was an incredible national trauma, but neither Bobby Kennedy nor Martin Luther King had Secret Service protection.”

On occasions, he simply ignored worries about his safety. “It’s not something that I’m spending time thinking about day to day,” Obama said. “I made a decision to get into this race. I think anybody who decides to run for president recognizes that there are some risks involved, just like there are risks in anything.”

But Obama couldn’t shrug off the concerns for too long. Soon, he was forced to address the issue more frontally because it threatened his very political future. His supporters won’t stop worrying.

“I’ve got the best protection in the world,” Obama assured his supporters who openly raised concerns about his safety at a campaign rally. “So stop worrying.”

But people, including high-profile figures, who love (and hate) him didn’t stop worrying—or anticipating the worst for him. For instance, former governor of Minnesota and early Obama supporter Jesse Ventura warned during a TV show that Obama could be in danger, not because of his race but because of what he represents.

"I believe very strongly that if an independent candidate like myself - a rogue - were to get into the President's race legitimately, if the polls looked like he had a chance to win, I believe that candidate would either be physically assassinated or would be assassinated credibility-wise or in some manner by our government because I do not believe they would ever allow a true independent or a citizen to become President of the United States," said Ventura.

"I say this in all seriousness—watch out Barack Obama," he added.

British Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing and supporter of Hillary Clinton provoked mass outrage on February 10 this year when she said, with almost omniscient airs, that Obama would be assassinated if he becomes the U.S. president. "He would probably not last long, a black man in the position of president,” Lessing told a Swedish newspaper. “They would kill him."

The sense that Obama was in danger of being murdered during the primary season put the Secret Service bodyguards attached to Obama on an unusually high alert.

A reporter for the London Daily Telegraph witnessed and reported a creepy incident on January 8, 2008, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, that highlighted the heightened concerns over Obama’s safety. A white man was screaming "Obama! Obama!!" as he ran toward him. Obama’s Secret Service bodyguards stopped dead.

“But as the agents prepared to draw their weapons,” the reporter wrote, “it became clear that the man was simply an enthusiastic Obama supporter who wanted to shake the candidate's hand.” He added: “Obama, who had seemed surprised at the shouting of his surname, recovered quickly and shook the man's hand.”

After the handshake an Obama aide told the supporter: "Hey, you can't do that, man. Be careful. You freaked those guys out."

This incident dramatizes the intensity of the worries over Obama’s safety and security. Similar incidents have been reported in other states.

And, although Obama’s Secret Service protection is almost unparalleled in its comprehensiveness and vigilance, some conspiracy theorists once alleged that Obama had been set up for an assassination attempt during a February 20 rally in Dallas, Texas, after it emerged that the Secret Service gave the order to stop screening for weapons a full hour before the event began.

It was at that same spot that the late John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

To be continued

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thinking of home from abroad (IV)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

One of the biggest germinal tragedies of Nigeria, as Chinua Achebe pointed out in his The Trouble with Nigeria, is that we never had the fortune to have a corps of far-sighted national leaders. We have not had our Mahatma Gandhi or Kwame Nkrumah—(a) transcendent national leader (s) that would symbolically embody our nationalist aspirations.

Even the seminal thoughts of our so-called nationalists, Achebe pointed out, were hallmarked by what he called a pious materialistic woolliness and self-centered pedestrianism.

The so-called nationalists derived the social basis of their legitimacy by sharpening the striking edges of ethnicity and religious bigotry. And that, sadly, is the tradition that continues to define our politics to this day. Unfortunately, we worship the memories of these “nationalists” and risk the wrath of millions of people if we dare as much as question their life and politics.

Many Northerners think of Ahmadu Bello as an infallible saint, an unerring guardian of our values. Many Yorubas think of Obafemi Awolowo as God's representative on earth who was beyond reproach. And many Igbos think of Nnamdi Azikwe as a God-send, although to a lesser degree than Northerners and Yorubas idolize their regional heroes.

But it was the originative divisive politics of these three politicians—and their minions— that has robbed us of a chance to cultivate a sense of nationhood. Their heirs continue with this tradition. And they're passing this virus to people of our generation.

The other day, I watched a podcast interview Wole Soyinka granted to Louis Henry Gates, an African American professor at Harvard University who also edits a Washington Post-owned online magazine of African American culture called An American friend of mine called my attention to it.

When asked why Nigeria is still stuck in prolonged backwardness in spite of its vast human and material resources, all Soyinka could say was that it was all because of the North. He then went on to regurgitate this tired, all-too-familiar narrative about how the British inflated the population figure of the North and manipulated elections to favor Northerners at independence, and how the North has been a drag on the nation ever since then. And so on.

I was sick to my stomach by the utter, gratuitous insularity of his response. I thought such an open display of undiluted bile against fellow Nigerians in a foreign country was unnecessary. The interviewer appeared to be taken aback, too.

But this is the attitude of many Nigerians I have come across here. Anytime Nigerians in the diaspora get together —whether in online discussion groups or physically—most of our discussions sooner or later degenerate into the hurling of ethnic and regional slurs.

In spite of living in the West, especially in America, where primordial barriers are progressively dissolving, as evidenced in the election of Obama as president of a nation that is over 70 percent white, most of us still can’t rise above the urge of seeing the world through our narrow primordial prisms.

So, one of our main troubles in Nigeria is our perpetual inability to forge a collective sense of Nigerianness. We still owe loyalties to our primeval ethnic identities at the expense of an overarching national identity.

Of course, it was British colonialists who purposively structured our inter-ethnic relations in that way. They developed discursive strategies to encourage us to inhabit reconstructed indigenous cultures and discourses aimed at furthering cultural and ethnic difference.

They thereby forced idealized ideological content onto ethnic groups to sustain and even reconstruct “identities,” identities that were to be subservient to colonial rule but antagonistic to and unhealthily competitive with other Nigerian ethnicities.

It seems to me that over the years, three kinds of ethnic projects have emerged in Nigeria. There is what I call ecumenical ethnicity. This kind of ethnic project is, to a large extent, all-embracing, provided people internalize certain core cultural assumptions and practices of the original ethnic group.

Then there is what I call expansionist ethnicity, which is also all-embracing but in a limited, horizontal way because it only seeks to incorporate what it perceives as its cultural, linguistic and ethnic cousins.

Finally, you have what I call exclusionary ethnicity, which fastidiously draws distinction lines between it and others, and makes conditions for entry into its fold almost impossible.

The Hausa ethnic identity is ecumenical because anybody can be Hausa provided he speaks the Hausa language with native proficiency, dresses like the Hausa, believes in and practices Islam, etc. An influential 1975 academic essay by Frank Salamone entitled “Becoming Hausa: ethnic identity change and its implications for the study of ethnic pluralism and stratification” captures this phenomenon very well.

The Yoruba ethnic identity is expansionist in that it seeks to attract and embrace all who share even the remotest cultural, linguistic and ethnic similarities with it. There have been attempts, for instance, to bring Igalas of Kogi and Itshekiris of Delta to the Yoruba fold.

The Igbo ethnic identity is, also, to a large extent, expansionist, although in a less successful fashion than Yoruba. Attempts to encourage the Ikwerre of Rivers State and the Igboid groups in Delta State to buy into the idea of an overarching Igbo identity have not been very successful, perhaps because of the politically perilous situation of the Igbos in contemporary Nigeria consequent upon the lingering effects of the Civil War.

Most other ethnicities in Nigeria—at least relative to the “big three”— are exclusionary. You are either in or you are out.

Well, if we must make any progress in Nigeria, it is not simply enough that we develop technologically; our leaders must also actively encourage and internalize a culture that promotes a national consciousness. And one of the best ways to do that is to give people a sense that their ethnicity, religion, etc do not constitute barriers to their aspirations.

Like Malcolm X once pointed out, if you condemn a person on account of his race, ethnicity or such other invariable attributes about which they have no control, you have condemned that person even before he was born. He called it the worst crime that can ever be committed. And I couldn’t agree more.

This does not, in any way, suggest that we should give up our ethnicities. The truth is that people generally tend to initiate and sustain relational intercourse with their kind. And this is basically a consequence of a primal ease with the known, the familiar. You may call it a kind of involuntary, but sometimes benign, xenophobia.

But as primordial boundaries dissolve with the relentless onslaught of globalization (not globalization in the sense of the merciless march of international finance capital) and other advances in human relations, these primal bondings are becoming irrelevant. That's why there are a million and one leaps of relational encounters across primordial boundaries, and people are realizing that the fears that drive them apart are groundless.

Primordial societies are usually closed societies, and openness tends to be associated with progress.

Of course, I know that it is reductionist, even simplistic, to expect that some day, all human beings will cease to relate on the basis of primordial factors, but I'm positive that the more people relate, the more they will appreciate the superficiality and fluidity of the factors that separate them.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thinking of home from abroad (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This country is now ours, and it is we who can make or mar it. We no longer exist at the pleasure of the British—at least not in the same way it was some 50 years ago.

In any case, if we insist on consent as a precondition for nationhood, most of our “ethnic nationalities” should not even exist in the first place. For instance, there wouldn’t be an ethnic group called the Yoruba.

Obafemi Awolowo, MKO Abiola, Abraham Adesanya, Ernest Shonekan, Gani Fawehinmi, Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana, etc would not be Yorubas. Why? Because they all come from parts of Western Nigeria that was not “Yoruba” until British colonialists incorporated (read “forced”) them into that identity.

The word "Yoruba" has no meaning in the Yoruba language. It was originally the Hausa word to refer to people in present-day Oyo, Osun, parts of Lagos and parts of Kwara. It didn't include Ondo, Ogun, and Ekiti—and certainly didn’t include the Okun people of Kogi who are now erroneously called “Yorubas in Kogi.”

Etannibi Alemika, a well-regarded professor of sociology at the University of Jos, who hails from the Okun part of Kogi, once pointed out, to the amazement of his audience, that the Okun people were non-Yoruba people whom Yoruba people are “aggressively trying to assimilate.” He said most Okun people who live in rural areas, in fact, neither understand nor speak the Yoruba language.

I had a first-hand experiential encounter with this reality when I attended a wedding in a small town in Ekiti State in the early 2000s. My Yoruba friends from Lagos were shocked to discover that in rural Ekiti State most people neither spoke nor understood Yoruba.

When we asked a couple of elderly people for directions to the venue of the wedding, they couldn’t answer us because they didn’t understand Yoruba. They responded in Ekiti language, which is incomprehensible to “mainstream” Yoruba people.

In rural Ondo and Ogun, and even parts of rural Lagos, you will find lots of places where Yoruba is as incomprehensible to people as it is in, for instance, Sokoto State. Maybe I am exaggerating a little bit here, but the truth is that the people of Ondo, Ekiti, Ogun and western Kogi were never a part of the Oyo Empire, to whose people the name “Yoruba” was initially associated with.

That’s why both Awolowo and Adesanya (people who went on to become “leaders of the Yoruba race”) are on record as having said that they were first Ijebus before they were Yoruba, and then later Nigerian.

Interestingly, the people who were called “Yoruba” by the Hausas did not even identify themselves by that name until the twilight of the 19th century. They identified themselves, instead, by such names as "Oyo," "Ijesa," "Obolo," "Igbomina," "Ibadan," etc. This is what historians discovered when they examined the records of the slaves brought from western Nigeria to America in the 16th century. There was not a single slave who identified himself as “Yoruba.”

Well, it was our British colonial conquerors that foisted a “Yoruba” identity on all the people who inhabit the western portion of Nigeria—without the consent of the people. In other words, large swaths of people were "forced" into a Yoruba identity, in the same way that the Nigerian identity was “forced” on all of us.

I’m not by this ignoring the undeniable linguistic and cultural similarities, however initially distant, between the people that are called Yoruba today, but it took colonialism, horrible as it is, for this to be discovered and mobilized for political purposes.

What I have said of the Yoruba people is also true of many other ethnic groups in Nigeria. For instance, the word “Hausa” is not even a Hausa word; it is the ancient Songhai word for “southerner.” (The Songhai people, whom we today call the Zarma or Zaberma of Niger Republic, are Hausaland’s immediate northern neighbors).

Bala Usman also demonstrated convincingly that the pre-colonial caliphate in the North was not nearly as cohesive as most accounts of the period crack it up to be. It was a loose collection of people that only developed a politically consequential collective sense of singularity in the face of the threats of colonialism.

The case of the Igbo is the most dramatic. It is the quintessential colonial creation, but I won’t go into that today. So, one of the ironies of the emerging ethnic nationalism in Nigeria today is that it was inspired by British colonialism, which advocates of a “sovereign national conference” blame for the “forced” union that is Nigeria.

The point of these examples, though, is not to suggest that ethnic groups didn’t exist before colonialism—or that organized ethnic self-identification and self-expression didn’t precede colonialism. To make that argument would be crassly ahistorical and even self-hating.

However, my point is that contemporary expressions of exhibitionist ethnic nationalism all across Nigeria—expressions that sometimes elevate and exaggerate collective fictions (such as the notion of the “Yoruba race”) and that sometimes deny the reality of cultural and linguistic sameness (such as the distinction without a difference between the Efik and the Ibibio whose languages are more mutually intelligible than Egba and “Yoruba” are)—are the consequence of our colonial encounter with Britain.

In order words, exclusionary, maximalist and expansionist notions of our ethnicity are a byproduct of the same process and structure that produced Nigeria. In a sense, therefore, our current ethnic identities are also a holdover from colonialism. Should we now reject these identities because they were "forced" on us by colonialism?

Do we, perhaps, need to first renegotiate the basis of our colonially-inspired ethnicities before we renegotiate the basis of our nationhood? Where do we start and where do we end? And how do we want to do that, anyway? By bringing together a motley gaggle of perfidious, self-interested, and insular rascals with maximalist positions to shout at each in a so-called conference of ethnic nationalities?

For me, that’s a disingenuous and intellectually lazy way to confront the delicate art of nation-building and statecraft.

I agree that Nigerians should discuss ways to move the nation forward, but it is, to my mind, reactionary to begin talking, in the 21st century, about how we became a nation. What use is that knowledge to us? It's all too commonplace to deserve being dignified with a conference.

It's not our “forced” union that's responsible for the ethnic tensions in Nigeria. Of course, it's too much to expect different ethnic groups to exist in one country and not have tensions. Tension is a basic feature of all relationships.

There is no country on earth that does not have its share of racial or ethnic tensions. But the fact that Ife and Modakeke, who are all Yoruba, murdered each other for years is evidence that our “forced union” is not the problem here. The fact that Sunnis and Shiites, who are all Hausa, mindlessly killed each other in Sokoto only recently should be proof that homogeneity in and of itself cannot guarantee a tension-free relationship.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that there is something sacrosanct or inviolable about the Nigerian state. Nigeria is not some pre-ordained, divinely inspired union that must not be tampered with.

But the reasons often proffered by irredentists for contesting the basis of the union are not convincing. I personally think we have more reasons to sustain the union than we have to discontinue it.

To be concluded next week

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The strange meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” in America

This was first published in Weekly Trust Newspaper on December 17, 2005.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Even though I have always eschewed, even disdained, glib and facile labels such as “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative,” etc I had nonetheless always thought of myself as conforming to what would seem to be the consensual notions of a liberal.

However, after nearly a year of being in the United States, I’m no longer sure I’m a liberal. So am I now a conservative?

Well, first who is a liberal? It was Voltaire, the French philosopher, who once said, “If you must converse with me, first define your terms”—or something to that effect.

Although there is admittedly a lot of definitional vagueness in the conception of what constitutes a liberal, my own understanding of the term, which I don’t pretend to be anything other than drawn from the resources of popular imagination, is that it refers to someone who is not limited to or by established, conventional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; who is free from bigotry.

It is also used to denote one who is amenable to proposals for reform, new ideas for progress, and is tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others. Generally speaking, it means one who is broad-minded and is not held in check by the tyranny of received wisdom.

In Nigeria’s political vocabulary, the most fashionable word for such a person is “progressive.” Now, most people in Nigeria who wear the tag of “progressivism” are some of the most backward characters I have ever come across.

Take, for instance, these Afenifere clowns who are a study in narrow-mindedness, gerontocractic arrogance, ethnic insularity—and worse—but who have blackmailed the Nigerian media (supposing the media are not themselves complicit with this intellectual fraud) into identifying them as “progressives,” and those who disagree with them as “conservatives.”

In the United States too, it’s traditional to draw a distinction between liberals and conservatives in every national debate. But unlike Nigeria where everybody avoids the label “conservative” like a plague, here people who think they are conservative not only accept the label but flaunt it.

And they have newspapers, TV stations and radio stations that popularize their ideology.

A conservative is generally understood to be a person who is resistant to change, who conforms to the standards and conventions of the upper-middle class, who has what Marxists would call “a bourgeois mentality.”

In America, however, it’s not that simple. Here, people who identify themselves as conservatives fall into two groups: The first group, often called the Christian Right, is made up of racist, inward-looking, xenophobic, Christian religious fundamentalists who resist, or struggle to reverse, the cultural turbulence of America.

The second group is composed of mean-spirited, ruthless and vulturistic capitalists who can suck the blood of a dead person if they are convinced that his blood has profit value.

The liberal crowd here is the natural attraction for all racial and religious minorities. But as most immigrants from non-Western cultural backgrounds find, there is a strange meaning to being liberal in America.

The main issues that appear to define the liberal agenda in America are abortion and gay rights and gun control.

To be considered a liberal, you must support the right of women to abort their pregnancies if they so choose (which is no longer called abortion right, but “pro-choice”) and for homosexuals to be allowed to get married.

The third is support for the abolition of the death penalty. But this is not as much a “hot-button” issue, as Americans say it, as abortion and gay rights.

I personally have no problem with the first one if the circumstances for abortion are justified by medical expediency or, in the case of married people, if the decision to abort is the consequence of the mutual consent of the husband and wife.

However, I have issue with homosexuality and abolition of the death penalty.

But, first, what do American conservatives think of abortion? As far as American conservatives are concerned, any abortion, however so defined, is murder.

But it is supremely ironic that the people who hold these opinions are the same people who not only support but mastermind the mass murder of innocent people in Iraq and elsewhere in the name of evangelizing the gospel of democracy and freedom.

Similarly, a popular conservative radio talk-show host (most radio talk shows in America are owned by conservatives) advocated that the most efficacious way to reduce crime in America is to abort all black babies!

And this man was not some unknown quantity on the lunatic fringe. His name is William Bennett, a former minister of education under Ronald Reagan and drugs czar under the first George Bush.

The self-described Christian moral crusader said in an unguarded moment during his talk show: “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose; you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” So, for this conservative, abortion is reprehensible only where black people are not concerned.

Another conservative Christian broadcaster and proprietor of the Regent University by the name of Pat Robertson this year called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. His reason: The president is turning his oil-rich South American country into “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.” Some conservative!

American liberals were, of course, very loud in denouncing the comments by Bennett and Robertson as despicably racist, insensitive and utterly condemnable. But while I despise these conservatives for their xenophobia, racism and their embrace of the cruelties of capitalism, I find myself strangely agreeing with their views on homosexuality and the death penalty.

In the United States, as in most Western countries, homosexuality is being increasingly glamorized and celebrated especially by so-called liberals. Conservatives despise homosexuals, and will rather die than see gay marriage given official imprimatur by government.

As for the liberals, anybody who as much as tries to express the faintest reservation about homosexuality is labeled “homophobic’—which is becoming as dreadful as being called racist or some other name of disapproval.

But I can’t help thinking that homosexuality is either a sick, aberrant sexual perversion or unbridled carnal narcissism. When I say this, my liberal friends call me “conservative,” and “intolerant.”

They claim that homosexuals can’t help being what they are; that they are inexorably wired bio-chemically to be attracted to people of their sex and that we should accept their sick fancies as just another legitimate “sexual orientation.”

Another argument is that homosexuals don’t hurt anybody. Why should it be anybody’s bother what they choose to do with their private lives? Fair enough.

But when I put it to my liberal friends that research after research has shown that men have a “natural” predisposition to have multiple sex partners, and therefore should equally be given the same privilege to marry more than one wife, they shrink to their “liberal” hell holes.

American citizens who are Muslims are not allowed by law to have more than one wife (they can, of course, be serial monogamists and philanderers), but homosexuals are on their way to getting the right to get married. It’s part of the American liberal agenda.

What of the death penalty? For me, it’s a simple issue of proportionality of justice. If you murder, you also deserve to die. The argument that the death penalty has not deterred the commission of murders begs the question about justice.

Believe or not, this is how the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are understood in this country, trivial as they seem, and people win and lose elections on the basis of these issues.

Relations between Africans and Black Americans

This was originally published in the Weekly Trust newspaper on December 2, 2005.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

You would expect that it is natural that African immigrants in the United States and Black Americans should have a robust relational intercourse. However, the relationship between African immigrants here and Black Americans is often hallmarked by mutual suspicion and distrust.

“We may have a common ancestry, and even a common skin color, but we view each other as different,” said Andre Reynaud, a black American freshman from Lafayette, Louisiana, majoring in secondary education.

He said American blacks traditionally tend to have a dim view of all immigrants, and that African immigrants here are tarred with the same brush as other immigrants.

“Their accent is different; the way they live is strange,” he said. “What you don’t know, you either learn or ignore. And I think we generally ignore here.”

But Uwaila Osaren, a final year journalism student who was born in Nigeria but raised in the United States, said the strained relations between African and black American students at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette is not representative of the general pattern of relationships between African immigrants in the United States and black Americans.

“I grew up in Houston, Texas, and it’s not the same,” she said. “I think it has something to do with the African-American culture in Louisiana. “They’re not exposed to many different cultures. Here, it’s either black or white.”

Osaren opined that the reluctance of black Americans to relate with African students is not because they don’t like Africans.

“They don’t even mingle with the whites they grew up with,” she said. “Why would they mingle with Africans they never knew? It’s two separates, and they can’t mingle.”

She said she has been caught in the web of a huge relational ambivalence since she came to study at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, four years ago.

“I didn’t fit with Africans because they consider me too American, and I didn’t fit with Americans because they consider me too African,” she said. “I’m the true meaning of African American.”

For Richard Bargblor, a Liberian native majoring in nursing, the relational tension between African students and black Americans is the consequence of a historical grudge that black Americans have been conditioned to hold against Africans for the alleged complicity of their ancestors in selling the ancestors of black Americans into slavery.

“A lot of them have told me that our forefathers sold their ancestors to the white men,” he said. “Maybe, that’s why they’re holding back from us.” He insisted, however, that guilt is not inheritable. “Besides, our ancestors didn’t willfully sell their ancestors,” he added. “It was done under duress.”

Bargblor also said he finds black Americans’ use of swear words in their everyday conversations repulsive. “They use the ‘f’ word so easily,” he said. “We don’t use that in Africa. It’s an offensive word.”

Kyle Ward, a black American sophomore from Mississippi majoring in political science, suggested that it is difficult for African immigrants in the United States to mix smoothly with black Americans because over 400 years of spatial separation between the two groups also created an enormous gulf of cultural separation.

“They [Africans] are not used what we do,” he said. “They don’t understand why we do what we do. They have a totally different view of the world. That’s why they don’t hang out with us.”

He contended that most African students who come to the United States devote little time for leisure, entertainment and sports—areas he said black Americans consider central to their cultural uniqueness. He said this fact limits avenues for interaction between the two groups.

“They’re more focused on their studies because they appreciate the opportunities here,” he said. “We take these opportunities for granted. They’re foreign students. Period.”

For Ben Adobor, a native of Ghana and graduate student in engineering, a major stumbling block in the relationship between black Americans and African students is the almost mutual unintelligibility of their English accents.

“It’s ironic that I understand white Americans more easily than I understand my African-American brothers and sisters,” Adobor said. “But I realize that they have as much difficulty understanding my accent as I have understanding theirs. They’re easier to understand when you relate to them on an individual basis, but when you find yourself alone in their midst, they could as well be speaking Greek. You’re lost, and wonder whether they’re speaking English.”

This sentiment about language barrier is mutual.

Rosetta Pickney, a black American student from Lake Charles, Louisiana, majoring in health information management, also expressed frustration with African accents. “We don’t understand their accents, so we avoid them,” she said.

But Adobor said the language barrier is secondary to the distortion of the African image in the mainstream Western media as a contributing factor to the strained relations between African immigrants in the United States and black Americans.

“All that they see about Africa in their media are images of starving, barely clothed children, AIDS victims, and so on,” he said. “I wonder where the media get these images from. I think African-Americans are ashamed to identify with us because of this.”

Pamela Hamilton, a black American graduate student in communication from Shreveport, agreed. “We have negative views of Africa that we received from slavery, passed through generations and now transmitted through the media,” she said.

However, she pointed out that this negative perception is reciprocal. “Some African students that I have met also have negative views of African Americans,” she said. “Few Africans understand what slavery has done to us.”

Hamilton said although there are obvious cultural and even experiential barriers between Africans and black Americans, those barriers are not sufficient to break the social, historical and ancestral bonds that bind Africans and black Americans.

“There are people who have been able to overcome these barriers,” she said.

But Kimberly Malveaux, a black American nursing major from Lafayette, Louisiana, said she thinks there are no barriers to overcome.

“My personal experience is that I relate with African men better than I relate with African-American men,” she said. “There may be Africans who also relate better with African-Americans than with Africans. I don’t see any tension here.”

Meanwhile, Arinze Okolo, president of the University of Louisiana’s African Students’ Association and junior mechanical engineering student from Nigeria, said it is difficult to give a blanket and definitive description of the attitude of black Americans toward African students.

He said there are as many black Americans who are reluctant to relate with African students, as there are who are enthusiastic about mixing with them.

“I think those of them who take the trouble to go beyond media stereotypes and read up on Africa or ask questions about Africa tend to be friendly,” he said. “Many of them attend our social functions, and we attend theirs too.”

Bradley Pollock, Ph.D., professor of African and African- American history at the University of Louisiana’s department of history and geography, attributed the reluctance of black Americans to relate with African students to their lack of exposure to different cultures.

“On this campus, most of the African-Americans are from small towns,” he said. “They’re just frightened of what they don’t know. They may even be frightened of other African Americans they are not used to. It’s not a Louisiana problem; it’s a small-town problem.”

Pollock added that even though there is some basis for the hostility of some black Americans toward Africans because of the notion that Africans sold their brothers and sisters into slavery, “it is not an accurate historical assumption.”

“For instance, countries in East Africa, such as Uganda, were not involved in the slave trade,” he said. “In any case, if you’re nursing animosity against Africans because of that, what do you do with the white slave owners? It’s been centuries ago. It’s time for healing.”

For Patricia Holmes, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication, insufficient communication between black American and African students is the cause of the mutual distrust between them.

“When they communicate, they’ll realize that they have more reasons to come together than they have to stay apart,” said Holmes, who is black. “Our shared ancestry and our shared history of slavery and colonialism are big enough reasons for us to come together.”

She said the excuse of differences in accents as a reason for the low level of interaction between African students and black Americans is “rather weak.”

“People from New York also have a different accent, so you won’t talk to them because of that?” she asked rhetorically. “Africans don’t all have the same accent. Do they stop talking to each other because of that?”

My sojourn in a country within a country

I have decided to archive all my columns in Weekly Trust. The following is my first column, which appeared on November 25, 2005 under the name "Notes from Louisiana."

By Farooq A. Kperogi

As a tribute to the meteoric but richly deserved elevation of my good friend and former classmate, AbdulAzeez Abdulahi, to the position of acting editor of the Daily Trust, I have decided to start a new weekly column. But more than that, the Trust Newspapers have a special place in my life in more ways than one.

It was in Trust Newspapers that I’ve had my most productive professional experience after graduating from the university. The excellent tradition of journalism that I was exposed to at the Trust has continued to inform and nourish my professional judgments.

And the best part: it was also at the Trust that I met my wife! So the debts I owe to Trust are actually heavier than the owners of the paper probably realize, and it is inconceivable that I can ever sever my umbilical cords with the papers.

I have been in the United States since the beginning of this year pursuing graduate studies (that’s how Americans call postgraduate studies) in journalism and communication, and I want to deploy this column to chronicle my sojourn in this strange land and share with readers my experiential encounters as they occur.

This past one year has been an incredibly exciting experience for me. Although this is not the first time I’m visiting the United States, it’s the first time I’ve been away from Nigeria for this long.

While I deeply miss being with my wife and feel intensely guilty about leaving my lovely little girl when she was only a couple of months old, the robust intellectual and cultural exposure I get here daily compensate for the sense of emotional loss I feel for being temporarily away from my family.

Like the title of my column suggests, I live in the state of Louisiana—an oil-rich state in the Deep South of the United States that shares so many similarities with Nigeria.

Given what I now know, I couldn’t have hoped for a better state to live in the United States. Louisiana is a warm state—in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. It has very mild winters and hot and sticky summers. That makes the state closer to what I was used to in Nigeria than the northern parts the U.S. where winters can get so chilly that they can literally freeze one’s blood.

The people here are also unbelievably friendly, convivial and obliging. Everybody seems to smile here, even to total strangers. But charming smiles from an equally charming girl to people from different cultural experiences can sometimes send unintended cues.

(One of my Ghanaian friends here told me that when he first got here two years ago, he thought he was so good-looking that girls couldn’t resist him—until he realized that everybody smiled to everybody). The warmth and courteousness of the people here is so very inconsistent with the stereotype of America I had been led to nurse before coming here.

Another beauty of the state is the rich racial alchemy of its people. In spite—or because—of the vicious racial segregationist history of the state, there is robust intermarriage between blacks and whites in both the biological and cultural significations of the term.

If the Creoles (light-skinned descendants of European, mostly French, and ex African slaves, but who are nonetheless considered “Black” in U.S. racial categorizations) are the biological consequence of this alchemy, Voodoo—a strange but fascinating mixture of African traditional religions and Catholicism—is its definitive cultural artifact. Even the food, music and art of Louisiana have more than a casual convergence of African and European influences.

However, the people who enjoy numerical dominion in the state, especially in the southwestern part of the state where I live, are called the Cajuns (pronounced k-ei-j-u-n-s)—an English corruption of the French word Acadien, which is itself derived from Acadia (pronounced a-k-ei-d-i-a), the ancestral home of the Cajuns in Nova Scotia, a region in the French-speaking part of Canada.

The Cajuns were originally French settlers in Canada who were expelled from there between 1755 and 1763 for refusing to pledge allegiance to the British Crown. Most of them came to settle in what is today Louisiana.

The really intriguing thing about these people is their fastidious doggedness in preserving their cultural idiosyncrasies in America’s enormous multicultural cauldron, or melting pot, if you will.

A great proportion of the people still speak a variety of French, called Cajun French, which is actually a mishmash of Canadian and Parisian or metropolitan French.

Although there has lately been a noticeably progressive decline in the number of people who speak Cajun French, there have been concerted efforts to make the language appealing to the younger generation. To this end, Cajun areas of Louisiana often form partnership with Acadians in Canada who send French teachers to reteach the language in schools.

Similarly, the University of Louisiana, where I teach and pursue graduate studies, has an internationally renowned undergraduate and graduate program in Francophone Studies. The medium of instruction in the program is French.

When the Cajuns speak English, they speak it with a distinct accent that sets them apart from other Americans. Their words are relatively slurred together, and they can be extremely fast—and incomprehensible to a first-timer.

I have always had to tell my students to enunciate more clearly and speak more slowly than they are won to when I want to understand them. But after almost one year of learning and teaching here, I’ve almost become a Cajun myself.

Louisiana is a country within a country in many respects. It is not only that most of the people here are unlike most Americans by being mostly bilingual in Cajun French and English, they also have parallel systems of administration, and use nomenclatures that are markedly different from the rest of America.

For instance, while every state in the United States calls its local governments “counties,” Louisianans call theirs “parishes.” It is a celebration of the people’s Catholic identity. (Most of America, apart from Boston, is predominantly Protestant).

But while Louisiana and its are people are great, the state’s proneness to hurricanes can be disconcerting. This year was particularly bad for the state. It was hit by two devastating hurricanes, which were given such deceptively innocuous names like Katrina and Rita.

Even though the city where I live was not affected by any of the hurricanes because it is situated inland, the auxiliary effects of the hurricanes have been very disorienting for us. I had never seen more violent winds in my entire life before. I can only imagine what people who were in the eye of the storm went through.

A few days after the hurricane, I had occasion to travel to the state of Florida, which required me to go through parts of Louisiana that were directly hit by the hurricane, and to such other affected states as Alabama and Mississippi. The consequence of the fury of the winds was immense. Huge trees were uprooted and dumped on the road and whole towns were literally wiped off the map.

Long lines for fuel—reminiscent of what I was used to in Nigeria—surfaced. The people had never experienced that in their lives and thought that was the worst thing that could happen to a nation.

Predictably, every body on the fuel queue had a short fuse—literally. In Mississippi where we stopped to refill our car, somebody’s fuse blew. A guy attempted to jump the long line, but an angry and frustrated man jumped forward, grabbed the man and shut him on his head.

His skull was blown to smithereens. He died instantly. And everybody scampered away in terror. There were several such reports all over Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes.
When I think of the fact that Nigerians go through more severe fuel scarcity with perfect equanimity—or almost perfect equanimity—I can’t help concluding that we’re indeed a rare breed of humanity.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama's election: a postmortem

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Last week’s epoch-making election of Barack Obama as America’s 44th president will be remembered not just for the novelty of ushering in the country’s first nonwhite president but for the dramatic shifts it has engendered in American presidential politics.

First, because of the unusually high enthusiasm this year’s campaigns generated, this election recorded one of the highest turnouts in decades. According to Michael MacDonald of George Mason University, at least 133.3 million people voted in the presidential election this year, which represents about 62.8 percent of all registered voters.

This feat is matched only by the 1964 presidential election and outrivaled slightly only by the 1960 election in which John F. Kennedy narrowly beat Richard Nixon. It easily outstripped 2004's 122.3 million turnout, which had been the highest grand total of voters.

The turnout rate in 1996 was about 49 percent (that is, less than half of registered voters actually voted).

North Carolina, where Obama won in a major upset, had the greatest increase in turnout, according to election data. Other states where turnout increased dramatically were Indiana (where Obama also had a historic win), Georgia and Alabama.

A landslide or just a massive victory?

Obama’s win of 364 electoral votes dwarfs President Bush’s two previous mandates but falls short of others. So is it a landslide?

While there is no agreement among politicians and political scientists on what constitutes a landslide, Obama’s victory seems to fit the bill.

Kathleen Thompson Hill and Gerald N. Hill, in their book, The Facts on File Dictionary of American Politics, say a landslide can be defined as "exceeding expectations and being somewhat overwhelming."

President Bush won with just 271 electoral votes in 2000 and 286 in 2004. It takes 270 votes to win the presidency.

Lyndon Johnson had one of the biggest landslides in America’s modern history. He got 486 electoral votes against his opponent’s 52, earning him the moniker "Landslide Lyndon."

Obama’s coalition of strange bedfellows
Barack Obama’s decisively overwhelming electoral victory against John McCain was the consequence of an unstructured coalition of many strange political and cultural bedfellows: African Americans, Hispanics (immigrants from Spanish-speaking South American countries), young people across all racial groups, white women, and university-educated white men.

In ordinary times, these demographic categories are not the best of friends. For instance, there is an enduring tension between African Americans and Hispanics.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the wave of legal and illegal immigration of Hispanics into America has robbed many black people here of low-income jobs that used to be exclusively reserved for them. Second, Hispanics have displaced African Americans as the biggest minority group, and this fact has spawned intense rivalry between them, manifesting in sometimes violent aggressions between the two groups.

This tension was reflected in the refusal of Hispanics to support Obama during the Democratic primaries. They supported Hillary Clinton by huge margins. A Hillary Clinton pollster, Sergio Bendixen, for instance, told The New Yorker in January this year that “the Hispanic voter — and I want to say this very carefully — has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

It turned, however, that he was wrong. Data from last week’s election showed that Obama won almost 70 percent of Hispanic vote against McCain’s 31 percent. That’s the highest any presidential candidate, whether Republican or Democrat, has ever won.

Similarly, 56 percent of women went for Obama. Only 43 percent went for McCain. Obama and McCain split the male vote almost equally. Forty-nine percent went for Obama while 48 percent went for McCain. This is a feat for Obama as no Democrat has managed to win the male vote in decades.

White voters collectively favored McCain 55 percent to 43 percent, but Obama made this up by getting 95 percent of the black vote and nearly 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Death of “Bradley Effect”
Perhaps the biggest surprise in last week's election was that there was not the slightest evidence that the much feared “Bradley effect” (the phenomenon by which white voters who oppose a black candidate mislead pollsters about whom they will vote for) was in play.

Although Obama did not win the majority of white male voters, a higher percentage of white men voted for him than they did any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton included.

Evidence that there was no “Bradley effect” is demonstrated by the near mathematical precision of the prognosis of several major pre-election opinion polls. None wildly overstated Obama’s share of the vote or understated McCain’s.

Shortly before Election Day, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal opinion poll showed that 51 percent of voters preferred Obama and that only 43 preferred McCain. The Gallup Poll showed a 53 percent lead for Obama against McCain’s 42 percent, while CBS News had Obama up 51 percent to McCain’s 42 percent.

An Associated Press-Yahoo News poll in late October had Obama ahead 51 percent to 43 percent. An AP-GfK poll in mid-October showed a virtual tie, 44 percent for Obama to 43 percent for McCain.

Web sites that combine major polls to estimate support also performed well. Among some popular sites, had Obama ahead 52 percent to 44 percent, saw Obama up 52 percent to 45 percent, and gave Obama a 52 percent to 46 percent advantage.

In the actual election, Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote against McCain’s 46 percent. That figure is close to most of the polls that preceded the election.

This confers on Obama the distinction of having won a larger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since President Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Senator that McCain has succeeded, 44 years ago. Even Bill Clinton won just 47 percent of the popular vote.

The youth vote took Obama to the edge

One of the most defining moments of this year’s presidential election is the unprecedented ways in which hitherto apathetic young people got passionately involved in the presidential elections.

According to data from the election, 66 percent of voters under the age of 30 voted for Obama. Only 32 percent voted for McCain. Obama’s share of the youth vote, which cuts across race, religion, educational attainment, is the most impressive youth mandate for a president in modern American history, according to analysts.

It outrivaled John F. Kenndy’s 1960 share of the youth vote by about 4 times. This feat becomes even more historic when it is realized that JFK’s share of the youth was considered so impressive that, in his inaugural address, he acknowledged the feat he had made by declaring that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

Until this election, no Democratic presidential nominee had won more than 45 percent of young whites in at least three decades. Obama won 54 percent of young white voters, who accounted for 11 percent of this year’s electorate. Young black and Hispanic voters accounted for 3 percent each.

“Never in post-war American politics,” declares, “have youth voted so differently than older generations as they did in 2008.”

Interestingly, most of these young voters are also newly registered voters. According to a report by Tuft’s Tisch College Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 60 percent of all new voters this year were under the age of 30, cumulatively accounting for 18 percent of the electorate this year. Nearly 70 percent of these new voters went for Obama.

Political analysts had predicted that the youth enthusiasm for Obama would dissipate before Election Day. “Are they going to show up?” Cokie Roberts of ABC News asked in February. “Probably not. They never have before. By the time November comes, they’ll be tired.”

He was wrong. According to CIRCLE, 53 percent of eligible youth voters turned out to vote, the highest percentage since 1992.

"Young voters have dispelled the notion of an apathetic generation and proved the pundits, reporters and political parties wrong by voting in record numbers today," said Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote.

Obama also won among young white women without a degree by 54 to 45 percent, the first time a Democrat had more than 50 percent support from this group in decades.

But Obama’s highest level of support from young white voters came from college-educated women, who backed him by 61 percent. Only 38 percent of them voted for McCain.

While Obama won only 24 percent of white evangelicals (an ultra-conservative sect of Christianity that believes in personal conversion and the inerrancy of the Bible), a slight improvement from Kerry's 21 percent, 32 percent of young white evangelicals supported him, double the 16 percent who backed Kerry.

Obama redraws America’s electoral map
Although Obama lost miserably in the still racist Deep South (making him the first Democrat in decades to win a presidential election without having a southerner on the ticket), he made hitherto unthought-of inroads into traditionally Republican states.

(The Deep South refers to southeastern states of the United States such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana that were notorious for producing cotton and permitting slavery)

He won North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia, three reliably Republican states. No Democratic candidate has won North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976; Indiana and Virginia (where the erstwhile capital of the seceding Confederate states is located) last voted for a Democrat in 1964.

In addition, he won Ohio, which Bush won in 2002 and 2004. But the remarkable thing about Obama’s win in Ohio is that it is the first time since 1964 that a Democratic presidential candidate has won there with over 50 percent of the popular vote.

Even Clinton won the state with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, perhaps because third-party candidates in the 1992 and 1996 elections burrowed through his votes.

Obama also broke the Republican Party's decade-and-a-half-long hold on the American West by handily winning Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada due, in large part, to the massive support he got from Hispanics. Colorado has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only three times since 1948.

So Obama has not just redrawn the electoral map of America; he has printed an entirely new one.

Other electoral upsets
Some pundits had predicted that Obama would lose the numerically insignificant but symbolically powerful Jewish vote. It was thought that Joe Liebermann’s endorsement and campaigning for McCain would sway Jewish voters to the Republican side.

(Liebermann, the former running mate to Al Gore in 2000, is the most visible Jewish American politician).

It was also thought that last-minute smears about Obama’s friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian scholar who has taken the late Edward Said’s place at Columbia University, would scare Jewish voters.

Well, Jewish voters favored Obama 78 percent to 21 percent. That’s 4 points higher than John Kerry in 2004. The only demographic group that exceeded that support in percentage terms is African Americans, who voted for Obama 95 percent to 5 percent.

The changing demographics of the new American voter

What also became clear in the last election is that white Americans are progressively losing their majority status. A projection of the U.S. Census Bureau released August 14 this year said white majority in the U.S. will be outnumbered by Americans of other races by 2042, eight years sooner than previously projected.

This shift in demographics has already manifested in the last election, jeopardizing Karl Rove’s famous promise of a “permanent Republican majority” in the country.

(Karl Rove is the powerful former deputy chief of staff to President Bush whom Bush publicly acknowledged as the “architect” of his 2004 victory).

According to exit polling data, whites made up 74 percent of the 2008 electorate. In 2000, the percentage of the electorate that was white was 81. The downward slide in the percentile strength of white voters is attributed to the surge in black and Hispanic voters.

Breakdown by party voting also shows that Republican (read white) turnout rates are down quite a bit, while Democratic turnout rates are up. In Republican states, data shows, turnout dropped drastically in large part because the voters had given up hope that McCain would win.

Another disturbing sign for Republicans is that, according to exit polls last week, more and more self-described conservatives no longer consider themselves Republicans.

In addition, 51 percent of Americans now say they favor government doing more, not less. The centerpiece of Republican ideology has been less government.

Americans also overwhelmingly reject the Iraq war. That indicates a country moving center-left, and that’s the coalition that voted for Obama.

Further, and even more worrisome for the Republican Party, Obama was dominant among self-described “moderate” voters, a 60 percent swath of Americans who neither self-identify as “conservative” nor as “liberal.”

Has Obama devised a winning strategy for Democrats?
In his concession speech, McCain said, “I don’t know what more we could have done to try to win this election.” The conventional wisdom is that Obama won the election because of the precipitous slump in the U.S. economy.

Even McCain campaign staffers are pushing this narrative. “We were crushed by circumstance,” communications director Jill Hazelbaker said after McCain’s speech. “The economic crisis was a pivotal point in this race.”

But it is entirely conceivable that Obama would still have won this election convincingly even if the U.S. economy hadn’t cratered. McCain and his campaign lagged far behind Obama in every key index—money, organization, discipline, deployment of technology.

The cutting-edge technological prowess Obama deployed in his campaign was unprecedented in American political history, and was responsible for bringing in so many new voters.

For instance, as late as Tuesday afternoon on Election Day, the Obama campaign was able to deploy technology to identify and bring to the polls a last wave of supporters who hadn’t yet voted.

Through the Internet, Obama also raised more money than any politician in the entire political history of the United States.

However, it would seem that Obama’s biggest asset is his broad political appeal and positive message. While McCain and his running mate expended energies in ugly partisan attacks, a strategy that worked in the past, they only succeeded in exciting their xenophobic base and alienating moderates and liberals.

Obama, on the other hand, while swiftly and effectively repulsing the false attacks against him, sought to transcend partisanship and to court the affection of his rivals.

That explains why, for the first time in modern American history, he was able to persuade Republicans to cross over to the Democratic Party in large numbers. The reverse had often been the case.

The Obama campaign’s early decision to play on a more ambitious map than other Democratic nominees and their decision not to get negative were the source of his mandate.