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Irish Voice News
America: A Shining New City
November 12, 2008
By Kevin Whelan
LIKE a surprising amount of Irish people, I stayed up late and bleary eyed to watch the election unfold. My wife Anne always says that Irish people should have a vote too, as the American presidency has such a huge impact on our lives.
The next day, I remained so pumped up that I sent the following message to my many American friends:
“Whatever one’s party political affiliations, no one could be unimpressed by the way that this election demonstrated the very best in American democracy. Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric about the American dream and its reality vindicated in his victory, John McCain’s dignified and generous concession speech, the tremendous turn-out of American citizens, the reinvigorated sense that everything is indeed possible in America — last night displayed the robust health of the American political system to the world, and delivered a result that would be unthinkable in an increasingly racist and xenophobic Europe.
“For those of us who love America, this election reaffirmed everything that we admire about that extraordinary country — its can-do qualities, its openness to talent and hard work, its optimism, its ability to self-correct quickly, its fundamental decency and its sense of honor.
“Looking on from Ireland, outside the fray of party contestation, what we saw displayed in America last night really was a shining city on a hill on our Atlantic horizon — a beacon of hope to the whole wide world, an exhortation to us all to seek to be our better selves, and an extraordinarily moving demonstration of the vigor and majesty of American democracy in action.”
I was overwhelmed by the tidal wave of responses that my little message elicited. A common response was simple pleasure that America was inspiring again.
I sensed the genuine hurt that many Americans had endured over the last years when they felt that the world had fallen out of love with them. My message touched some chord.
I always emphasize to my Notre Dame students how much the rest of the world needs ‘the promise of America.’ What I had not realized was that America equally needs that sense of itself. This election rejuvenated that inspiring sense of the transformative power of America.
Secondly, my American friends reported feeling that a dreary jadedness was being rinsed away and replaced by a bracing optimism, buoyed up by the engagement of so many young people in active politics.
Thirdly for Irish Americans above a certain age, the election irresistibly brought the Kennedy election to mind. Dundalk-born Ron McCaffery, a Boston-based doctor, wrote, “I was a first year medical student, and had just become an American citizen when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected. Could his name have been more Irish Catholic, and therefore more suspicious in connotation? Was he going to have to check everything out with the Pope?
“While the Kennedy election was totally intense, it has been topped by Obama’s. This morning, I sense transformation.
“America is back, yearning to be again the place where every woman and man, every boy and girl, are given an equal opportunity to be as awesomely brilliant and as happy as they want to be.
“As I wandered through Dublin the day before the election on a rare warm, sunny November day, I wondered, as I inevitably do when I am back in Ireland, whom I might have become, had America never happened to me.
“This morning, I sense my great good fortune that America did happen to me, and that I am now restored to the America that existed when I first came to it, in 1955. America, again. From sea to shining sea. America can now once again become the hope of the whole world. This morning, we are all Americans.”
The novelist Alice McDermott, sensitive chronicler of Irish America, wrote, “When JFK was elected, my aunt pulled all kinds of strings to get my Bundoran-born grandmother a front row seat at his inauguration — you can make her out in some of the photos of the day, as proud, my father once said, as if she’d given birth to him herself.
“Now friends are trying us to get a seat at Obama’s inauguration for my adopted mixed race nephew in Ohio. Same story, same pride — same country, although today it feels like a country that has been given back to us, out of the shadows.”
Sister Cathy Nerney in Philadelphia wrote, “This election has been life changing. Black men spoke of how Obama’s election has released them from their own demons of self-doubt and feelings of not belonging, challenging them to step up and be accountable. No excuses that they grew up with an absent father.
“If racism and the evil of slavery have for so long marred our American soul, this is the beginning of our atonement — a new beginning of work for inclusion and a better life for all people throughout our world. Yes, we did reflect the best in our American spirit, and now we must draw upon it to help heal the harm that we have done through an injection of hope. Today we experience a renewal of faith, hope, and maybe even charity.”
Katie Gough, a university professor who teaches Irish drama in Scotland and Canada, wrote, “Working in several countries where I often hear that it is America alone that has a ‘race problem,’ this election opens up Europe to different possibilities of imagining citizenship. If America has racial problems, it also has a language for analyzing these problems and now a representative who can address the many interrelated issues we face in the years ahead.”
Reflecting from an Irish perspective on these and hundreds more messages, I drew the following conclusions. Compared with the endless, wearying whinging in Irish politics and society today, this election was a breath of the freshest of American air.
We need to find a political language that speaks to our young people with the passion of Obama. We need our own injection of hope, our own reinvigoration of national spirit, our own sense of the nobility of politics.
(Kevin Whelan is professor of Irish studies at the Notre Dame campus in Dublin.)
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