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Yes. We did.

You've all heard by now. I hope you watched (or at least read the transcripts of) Obama's victory speech, and McCain's concession speech - they are both very moving, and McCain's especially highlights his dignity and grace in defeat - attributes that not a few commenters have pointed out might have gained him more votes than the silly political shenanigans he thought he was forced to play during the campaign.

I don't have much to add to the "Yay Obama won" posts that are already clogging up the blagospherimoboweb, but I do have one or two thoughts.

Firstly, although America did well to vote the big guy in, that choice was an obvious one - it was almost impossible to screw that up. There were some other decisions that needed making, perhaps not as obvious to them, or maybe just not as publicly discussed. Running a quick eye down the ballot measures should make it clear that America may have chosen the rock star to lead them, but they still need to do some hard thinking about what freedom really means. (Also, way to take a firm grasp of the issues that matter, Maryland.) I think Antoine van Gelder's usual succinctness puts it best about the presidential elections and proposition 8.

Secondly, in watching the coverage of the election results, there was a rather disturbing amount of bile and vitriol forthcoming from McCain supporters, who didn't heed their candidate's plea to unite behind their new President-Elect. They lost no time in putting this little gem up, for instance. And for the first time, the bigots hate more than just their president(-elect)'s policies, which makes me worried that they might take more drastic action this time round (instead of just sinking back into apathy as they've always done before). And things likes this don't assuage those fears. Well, roll on January 20th - we'll see where we go.

Now, let's turn our eyes inwards.

Thoughts From America 3: National Identity

This is the third post in a series, discussing ideas and thoughts that arose from my recent trip to California. The first two are here and here.

National Identity

Over three years ago, I wrote this entry, which contained a piece by Martin Amis about America, and how she was going insane, and yesterday I wrote about how the American Dream has led to a culture that celebrates mediocrity. However, I don't think that America is a nation that has gone mad, or bad. I think that she is a deeply conflicted nation that no longer knows where she is, and what she is supposed to be doing in the world.

One look at the electoral map makes it perfectly clear that America fights a constant internal battle between two distinct personalities, but recently, she seems to have become even more confused and unsure where the line that separates them lies.

If you'll pardon a quick switch in the gender of the anthropomorphized nation, these Sinfest comics excellently illustrate the problems the nation (Uncle Sam, with his sweetheart Lady Liberty) is having:

Remember When

Uncle Sam Not Depressed

Drunk Uncle Sam

Identity Crisis

This internal conflict is manifesting itself in the strangest of ways. We have Rednecks for Obama, Gays for McCain, and Feminists for Obama, and even white supremacists supporting Obama. The electorate just doesn't seem to know how to identify itself or which side to fall on. The campaigns are behaving even more strangely. Arnold Schwarzenegger broke the political mould by using the brave "he has scrawny arms" attack on Obama. There's been recent news claiming that Obama has been using hypnosis and mind-control to get people to vote for him. Senator Elizabeth Dole brands her opponent as godless (what is "godless money"?).

Watching how the actual candidates handle this is interesting - specifically John McCain. Watching him mock himself on Saturday Night Live really reminds you that he is a decent man - one who has had a very noble career, and has repeatedly taken stands against the Republican Party when he believes in something (immigration reform, free trade, and climate change are all things he has taken unpopular positions on). But this campaign has forced him to do and say things that I think he really dislikes, and sometimes you can actually see a look on his face that just says "what have we become?". I think the most notable instance of this was in Denver, when he was booed by his own supporters, when he took a stand against the racist bile that they were shouting about Obama. He had to quieten them and say "he is a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that is what this campaign is about". The look on his face when he takes the microphone away from a woman who has just called Obama an "arab" is almost piteous as he corrects her.

While that incident does show that McCain is fundamentally a decent person, it also highlights the schizophrenia of the American people, who find themselves booing John McCain, because he is defending Barack Obama, whom they hate (hate!?) because he is running against... John McCain.

Tonight is the eve of the elections in America (which is, of course, why I am writing this entry). As I've said above, I think John McCain is a great man who would not make a bad president all in all. However, and this will come as no surprise to anybody who has spoken to me recently, I think that Barack Obama is an amazing man, with excellent policies, and a firm moral grounding that will, if all goes well, drive him through to an excellent term in office. For two really excellent comparisons of the two candidates, and the way they diverge from each other, I recommend this newsweek article, and The Economist's endorsement of Barack Obama.

Update: I forgot to add that the world seems to agree with me, according to this page, and the Economists global electoral college.

One unbelievably sad piece of news that has just come in is that Obama's grandmother has passed away, on the eve of what could be the greatest victory of her grandson's life. I present that without comment, but with great regret.

So, as her citizens go to the polls tomorrow, I'm holding thumbs that America will let her rational, sensible, unbigoted personality shine through. They have a lot of hope for themselves, and I've said before that I have a lot of hope for them. I'll leave you with some quotes from a few of them:

A really moving tweet by the delightful nictate (who was just as moved when I thanked her for saying it):

We owe it to the world to vote Obama. It's a gift, an apology and a promise in one gesture.

The always amusing J. Adam Moore tweeted a confirmation of the internal battle America is fighting:

Is it just me, or does this election feel like a pass/fail national IQ test?

And finally, something that has been doing the rounds quite a bit:

"Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama is running so our children can fly"

Watch the results and the commentary!

Thoughts From America 2: The American Dream

This is the second post in a series of musings I had during, or on my return from, my recent trip to America. The first one is here and the third one is here.

The American Dream

The American Dream has always been held up as a kind of generic golden ideal of hope for the common man: "Whatever your mind can conceive and believe it will achieve". However, what the American Dream actually is seems to be somewhat ambiguous, and has changed somewhat over the history of the nation. The original concept comes from the actual Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

In other words, where you were born, what race you are, and what your immediate circumstances are, should not affect the opportunities you have to strive for greater things. Everybody should have the same freedoms to pursue their goals without prejudice or bigotry. This is a noble ideal, and one that I think any rational human should agree with.

Devolution of the dream

However, the American Dream seems to have evolved somewhat, recently. The form it now takes in a large part of the national consciousness seems to be more along the lines of "there is the possibility for anybody to become rich and powerful, regardless of their circumstances", with a definite emphasis on material wealth. This, again, is not a bad thing, if you retain the implication (taken from the declaration of independence) that your success should rely on your innate abilities, hard work and determination, instead of on your class, race or gender. However, I think that this implication is increasingly disappearing from the Dream that pervades the subconscious of the American people. Now, there is a simple belief that anybody can become rich and powerful, if... What? They deserve it? They believe it hard enough? They try hard enough? I don't think that there is even a condition attached any more.

Celebration of Mediocrity

This has become especially apparent in the recent presidential campaigns: Obama has been accused of "elitism", and Sarah Palin has been joyfully accepted by "Joe Sixpack" as "one of us". In many of the adverts I saw on TV while I was there, there was a constant undertone that whatever product was being sold was one that suited the common man, the everyday person on the street, the masses. It seems that being intelligent or qualified or educated is starting to become socially frowned upon, because it is "elitist" and "snobbish".

It is my opinion that the reason for this celebration of mediocrity is this latest evolution of the American Dream. Or rather, the reason being excellent is unfashionable is because it goes against this latest evolution of the American Dream. Being intelligent, or otherwise well qualified for something, is not something that just anybody can achieve, no matter how much they want to, or believe they can: seeing somebody who is actually really great is an uncomfortable reminder that you can't be good at some things, no matter how much you want to be. I don't think that this is an explicit thought in people's heads, but the reason they prefer a pathetically mediocre candidate like Sarah Palin, because they "can relate to her", and "are comfortable with her", is that she doesn't scare them or break the comfortable notion that they can achieve anything.

As this newsweek article puts it:

Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?


Another aspect of this is a phrase that has also always been associated with America: "rugged individualism":

The USA is usually thought of as being at the individualistic (its detractors would say "atomistic") end of the spectrum (the term "Rugged Individualism" is a cultural imprint of being the essence of Americanism), whereas European societies are more inclined to believe in "public-spiritedness"

This "I got mine" attitude also dominates the American sub-conscious. "I worked to get where I am, and I deserve it, and I will fight you if you try to take it away from me". Obama has been vilified as a "socialist" because his tax program will slightly increase taxes on the richest 5% of America, so that he can give tax cuts to the other 95%. In his now famous talk with Joe the Plumber, he used the unfortunate phrase "spread the wealth around" - meaning that everybody would be a bit more prosperous if we just slightly penalised the richest 5% of America. That phrase, to your American Rugged Individualist, means that he is going to take what you worked hard for, and give it to somebody else who clearly didn't work nearly as hard, because they are not as rich as you.

Get what is yours

The whole time I was in California, there were adverts offering people a way to get hold of the money that was "locked up in pension plans". "This money is yours, you have the right to do whatever you want with it!" they crowed - as if saving it for your old age wasn't fulfilling one's potential. Then there were the lawsuits: "Have you been in an accident recently? You deserve to be compensated! Phone us and we will sue for you!" One advert I saw actually spoke about personal income in terms of "pension plans, trust funds, or lawsuit payments" - as if being litigious was a valid career option.

The whole atmosphere was one of "it's yours by rights, and nobody else's, and you must have it now". I was frankly flabbergasted that I was seeing adverts offering pension cash-ins and easy loans in a country that had recently been crippled by an economic crises brought about by bad lending, but it fits with the idea that an Individual can do What He Wants, and if he tries hard enough, he will achieve Great Things.

A bad dream

Like I said at the beginning, the American Dream is a noble ideal when applied right, but to remove the rationale behind it (that one should not be unfairly prejudiced by irrelevant things like race and gender), and add to it an individualistic attitude that makes you fight for what is yours, even if it's to the detriment of others, seems to me to have had a very bad effect on American society.

South-Africans, Awake

What about us, here in South Africa?

We have our own version of this problem, you know:

Thabo vs Zuma

If you haven't read Thabo's excellent letter to Jacob Zuma, do so now. In it, he warns strongly about people developing a cult of the personality, based around just this "common-man appeal". I've always liked Thabo Mbeki, the pipe-smoking, Yeats-reading, eloquent intellectual, who failed to survive against the sharks of politics, but who went out with a quiet dignity that I really admire. Yet the same accusations of "elitism" have started to be thrown about on the South African political scene. Suddenly, being intelligent and speaking in a certain way, reading certain books, using certain words, and so on, qualifies you to be labelled "elitist".

When it gets hard to tell whether this article is satire or not, the warning bells should start ringing. South Africa has a high enough education rate that we should be able to see past populist rhetoric and party lines and start choosing based on the actual issues. Democracy is meaningless if the vote that we all so proudly have gets given to the guy who can toyitoyi the fastest.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you should always pick the intellectual. Don't forget that in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is the intellectual with seven university degrees and fourteen honorary degrees, and Morgan Tsvangirai is the populist union leader who struggles with public speaking. Being biased against somebody because they never had the chance to get an education is almost as bad as being biased against somebody because they did.

I think there's a good chance for this country, as a relatively young democracy which is still very much finding its feet and struggling with working out how it should be doing things, to define its own national consciousness and make its own South African Dream, rewarding those who deserve it, but not punishing those who didn't manage to achieve their goals.

Remember, we have our own founding fathers, and they also had a vision. I leave you with the words of Nelson Mandela:

We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

Update: Bizarrely, Ze Frank posted a blog entry about the American Dream at almost the exact same time as I did.

Thoughts From America 1: Necessity and Invention

Apart from a broken rib and an iPod touch, I brought a few other things back from my visit to California. This is the first post in a series of thoughts and ideas I had during my trip to San Francisco.

Update: (The second one is here, the third is here.)

Old Ma Necessity

We've all heard the old chestnut about necessity being the mother of invention. It really hit home when I got to San Francisco, and one of the first emails I received from the office manager included Google Maps directions to the office. I know, we've all seen these before, and academically, I knew they worked, but it was still a surprise to see Google give real life directions that were actually useful to me. In South Africa, we become accustomed to things not even being meant to work for us - they're for the posh people in the first world, you know? (Although, now I think about it, most of the times I've ever encountered these maps it was because people were going "LOL GOOGLE SAYS DRIVE INTO THE SEA" and so on, so even then I didn't have much of a good impression of them.) The Google Maps for Cape Town barely have the highways fully drawn in.

Having underlined our necessity, where's our invention? Look again at the above-linked Google map of Cape Town, and then compare it with the OpenStreetMap equivalent.

Now, I know a lot of the drive behind OpenStreetMap is a desire to have open/free maps, rather than the necessity to fill the gap left by the inadequate Google Maps, but the two do go hand in hand. When you're in America, and everything works, you don't even realise that there's a niche in which to innovate. If you'd like another example, consider bandwidth. I won't lie to you, American bandwidth is FAST. I watched the presidential debates streaming live off the internet, in fairly high definition. When you've got that bandwidth, you don't even try to save it. But here in South Africa, the need to save bandwidth has led to some very clever solutions.

I attended BarCamp Africa at Google HQ in Mountain View, and one of the overriding themes was that Things Are Different In Africa, and that there is some amazing innovation happening here, simply because there's no other way the problems we encounter in our unique situation will ever be solved. One of the discussions underlined this for me: we were discussing Android and the iPhone, and I realised that there will be an enormous market for phone applications that are so specific that they're useful for only like thirty people in a tiny village in Kenya. Like I've said, things are different in Africa. There are places in Africa that desperately need a solution for a problem that no other place can even understand. There is a lot of necessity. And as a result, there is a lot of potential for a lot of invention. Of course, to return to phones (although phone apps obviously, aren't exactly the solution to many of Africa's problems, they suffice as an example), Apple just doesn't have the resources to create (or approve) apps to touch a fraction of this necessity, and that's where Android can swoop in and fill the void. An African entrepreneur can take advantage of the Long Tail to produce a large number of apps that are only used by a few people, but whose total uptake is enormous.

A final example before I leave the subject, just to illustrate how different Africa is. In Ghana, apparently, you just don't get street addresses. If you want to know where somebody lives, you'll get told "Akua lives two compounds behind Kwabena". Addresses are relative, and that's the way it's always worked. If you read this article, you'll see somebody trying to pull Ghana into a western ("modern" !?) way of thinking, but what they should really be doing is coming up with a Ghanaian solution to this Ghanaian problem.

The western world's maps (and things) already work, and so they don't even realise that we face these problems in Africa. This is where we can step in and start providing African solutions to our uniquely African problems.

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