Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Stark stance of sacrifice contrasts with our moral pygmies
So, bookies didn’t want to pay out on Barack Obama before he was fully stamped into place. You can see why. Politicians who stay on principle get it in the neck; Marat, Lincoln, Kennedy, Luther King, Sadat, even Jesus. But I reckon Obama is more likely to be committed than shot. Or maybe just medicated out of existence.
Joan of Arc first heard voices in 1424, age 12. These days we’d have her on anti-psychotics before she could say “flame me”. For Obama, the shrink notes would go more like this: “Man has a confidence not based on wealth and connections, a direction not set by the greasing of palms or the filling of troughs. Clear delusional disorder, suspected co-morbidity of true principles. And now he talks sacrifice? In America? Psychopharm on the hour, every hour.”
Sacrifice is a hard sell. Sacrifice is a downer. Jesus is just fine but sacrifice? Sacrifice is un-American – which makes the most extraordinary feature of an extraordinary election more extraordinary still. It’s one line in that spine-tingling, straight-to-the-tear-ducts acceptance speech. It’s this. “It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.”
He might as well have campaigned on higher taxes. Against the McCain/Palin “drill baby drill” message, their habitual hip-pocket appeal, their insistence that “you should not think you have to work for government; your government should be working for you,” Obama made a stark moral silhouette. Sacrifice.
And yet he won, hugely. This is Obama’s achievement.
Of course, cynics may see it as a direct attempt to Kennedy-up; an unearned borrow of JFK’s immortal “ask not . . .” aura. They’ll point out that America is the last place on earth we associate with sacrifice. From Adam Smith on, they’ll say, the American way has been the selfish way. And it’s not going to change in a hurry.
Naive, they’ll say, to expect it. Ridiculous to swallow it. Babe in arms. Man’ll prove all hat no cattle. Stick with what we know.
Our politicians, they’ll point out, understand sacrifice. And it’s true. They do.
On a daily basis, fully decorated in woad and buffalo horn, our politicians sacrifice our most sacred coastal treasures, our bays and inlets, lakes, villages, heritage. Currawong, Pitt Town, Bermagui, Sandon Point, Catherine Hill Bay, Anvil Hill; all sacrificed to the gods of absolute waterfront, mateship and that great three-in-one deity, coal-carbon-cash. Within days of Obama’s election, they’d made the supreme sacrifice, leaving Paul Keating’s Barangaroo vision to bleed to death on the altar of the tacky, the expedient and the lowbrow.
Oh, our government believes in sacrifice alright. It’s just that, like Abraham, they think sacrifice is a transitive verb. Something you do to something else. Whereas, for Obama, sacrifice is a reflexive verb, with self as silent prefix. Sacrifice is something you give.
It can happen. Last year, the Japan Airlines boss Haruka Nishimatsu, announcing massive job losses, relinquished his personal office and chauffeured car and took a 60 per cent pay cut, to about $100,000. When told of US executives on $200 million salaries he laughed, incredulous. “We have learned,” he said with a shrug in his voice, “businesses that concentrate only on money fail.”
And don’t we know it, suddenly. Market wisdom, like modernism, always did seem too reductive to be true. And now we see our instincts were right.
But that just makes it more tempting to cast Obama as messiah, deliverer from all evils. Like the plumber you’ve been hanging out for all morning, and now he’s finally here you can’t see why he shouldn’t fix Iraq and Wall Street by lunchtime, then climate change and racism before the mice can run up the clock, tick tock.
We all know this is silly. Obama’s job is harder, not easier, for being founded on principle – not least because the string-pulling privateers that ran George Bush for so long are lining up even now to and bamboozle, bully and blind Obama into business-as-usual acquiescence.
And yet, as shown by the massive surge of hope across a hope-starved world, it’s not just the pointyheads who feel this way. Not just the press, the latte-lappers or the self-appointed elites. Had the election been global, Obama’s landslide would have been bigger still.
It says much about the world’s most powerful electorate. They voted for him. Not just because he was black, or supported climate action or gay rights. Not just for the fabulous speeches, the good teeth or the family like a black version of the Kennedys, though all those things counted.
They voted for him because, across the world now, electorates are way ahead of the politicians. For decades we’ve been forced to vote for people we despise, appointing leaders we know to be moral pygmies. In good times, in the fat years, we put up with it. But when the chips are down – this is the amazing part – we can make hard choices. We can vote for sacrifice. Obama is the only politician brave enough to say what we all know is true. It’s going to be hard. Let us simply hope he doesn’t become the sacrifice.