Part 2 on Monday.
The Real News Senior editor Paul Jay and Jonathan Schell, activist, journalist and author discuss the importance and meaning of the election of Barack Obama.
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What Obama win means?
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Jonathan Schell is a noted writer, writes for The Nation, is a fellow at the Nation Institute, teaches at Yale, and is also a board member of The Real News Network. He joins us now to discuss the importance and meaning of the election of Barack Obama. Thanks for joining us, Jonathan.
JONATHAN SCHELL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Good to be with you.
JAY: So what did this feel like? And what do you think about it?
SCHELL: Well, it felt truly great. Here in New York there was just an explosion of joy out on the streets. I drove from Manhattan through Brooklyn, and everywhere you went there were knots of people on the corners cheering, yelling out, you know, “Obama, Obama.” That went on for hours after the election was announced. So it was a mood or an atmosphere that I’ve never experienced before in connection with politics. It was just remarkable.
JAY: He’s being received as a people’s candidate, but his first appointment, Rahm Emanuel, I’m not sure that’s a people’s candidate’s appointment.
SCHELL: Well, that’s true. You know, I tend to divide my reaction into two parts, really. One, which is very complicated and gets into the whole discussion of Rahm Emanuel in the future, and what his presidency can actually bring faced with the obstacles that are there, and in view of his campaign promises, that’s one whole huge, you know, virtually endless subject. But I think there’s another subject that we just shouldn’t rush past, and that’s the reaction that’s already occurred to the election. I think the election is an event unto itself to a certain extent and deserves consideration in that light. It’s something that’s really happened, it’s in the can, so to speak, and I think it has a meaning that’s extremely positive that’s now emerging.
JAY: I saw a list someone prepared, a list of the sort of things that are true about McCain, for example his marital issues, and how badly he did in school, and so on, and so on. You compare that to Obama’s Harvard education and his academic success and family life and so on, that if Obama had these marks against him that McCain had, there never would have been an Obama candidacy, given that he’s African-American. So what does this tell us about American society? And perhaps it’s more about that than it is about what it tells us about Obama.
SCHELL: Well, I think it’s about both, really. But what’s just remarkable is, you know, during the campaign neither side chose to talk about race—McCain, obviously, because they might get labeled racist, and Obama because he didn’t want to campaign as a black person or as a champion of the black cause in white America and so forth. So they both just shut up about it. But as soon as the results came in, immediately the issue of race just leaped to the fore, and everybody saw what might have been perfectly obvious, which is that it’s really an amazing and marvelous thing that the United States has put a black man in office as president. It’s not the most important thing about the event, but it’s a tremendous thing, especially in view of the fact that, you know, Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist, wrote a book, [a] classic on racial issues, back in the 1930s or ’40s called The American Dilemma. He didn’t say “an” American dilemma; he said “the” American dilemma. And I think that’s an abundantly justifiable choice, because if you go right back to the founding of the Republic, the Constitution was really based on a covert deal between the North and the South to suppress the issue of slavery, and they dealt with it, or failed to deal with it, in sort of underhanded and indirect ways, including calling slaves three-fifths of a person and so on and so forth. And that terrible flaw really cracked—deep crack in the foundations of the whole constitutional order really led us directly, you know, more than a half-century later, to the Civil War with its 600,000 killed. But even that wasn’t enough, and we had 100 years of Jim Crow, until Martin Luther King—really the greatest social movement and the most successful, I would say, of the 20th century in the United States. And, of course, as we know, that too was incomplete. And even after the election of Obama, obviously, it’s not the end of this story by any stretch, but it’s a true milestone.
JAY: But I thought there was another that I thought quite striking. In the last few days of the campaign, particularly, McCain and Palin really stepped up the “he’s a radical, he’s a socialist, he’s a communist.” They had pro-McCain people with pictures of Marx and hammer and sickles, trying to dredge up all the demons and devils of the McCarthyite period. And I thought, one, it didn’t work, and, number two, I thought his reaction was pretty good. Instead of being at all defensive about it, he had this thing about, “Yes, I shared my sandwich and I shared my toy.” And then he said, “Well, yes, I am my brother’s keeper.” And I thought that was quite important how he diffused that without being defensive. So in spite of all this McCarthyite kind of rhetoric, people more or less ignored it.
SCHELL: Yeah. I think that’s remarkable. And that is really a sea change, because these dips into the slime bucket—”socialist,” “terrorist,” “Muslim,” you know, various code words for race, and so on and so forth—have really been the stock and trade of Republican politics really since Nixon, or even before Nixon, going straight back to Joseph McCarthy, and changing the subject to all these dark fears and terrors, and somebody is weak on this, weak on terrorism, weak on communism, weak on—.
JAY: But they’ve also tried to equate this idea of public interest, sharing the wealth, and socialism is this evil thing. And he took it, and he said, “I am my brother’s keeper.”
SCHELL: Well, he turned a socialist thing into a Christian thing, and there is not so much of a difference between those two as the Christians on the right would like to think.
JAY: In our next segment of our interview, Jonathan, let’s turn our minds now to what to expect from an Obama presidency and the new world he’s facing, both financial meltdown and climate change and geopolitically. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Jonathan Schell.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.