Bookshelves are filled with advice on how to change ourselves—our looks, weight, clothes, spouses, kids, pets—and on how we live, how we think, and how to do life again.
How does a country change itself ? How does a world? If some big realities about a country or about the world change and if old, ineffective ways don’t work any longer, what do we do then? To find an answer, for Canadians, it is instructive to look at the United States and Obama, and to the climate-change debate.
We live in a world where destruction is easy. Not just wholesale destruction by nuclear bombs, for example, but the killing of hundreds, if not thousands, by simple but deadly materials that cost almost nothing and can be put together in a basement or a shed. Where once this capacity for destruction had taken a country to afford its cost, to do its science, to deliver its blow, where once it had taken an army to unleash its devastating power, it now takes only one person who believes in something just as strongly as does a nation of a few hundred million and who feels his or her belief is no less worthy because he or she is only one person. This person may also believe that killing the right people in this life will lead to a better life for all eternity, while many of those he or she is fighting don’t believe in a life after this life and need to squeeze every possible second out of this one. One person has everything to gain; another has everything to lose.
We live in a world where we can no longer get away from one another. There is no mountain or desert or ocean that can’t be crossed; no wall built high enough, no fortress so fully defended, no political or economic boundary that can protect us. Information and viruses travel freely, as does envy and resentment. We can no longer isolate ourselves within our own language, culture, or religion. It is not possible to imagine transforming everyone else to make them just like us. No one is going to conquer the world. The only way is to listen, discuss, learn, respect, negotiate, compromise, work together. There is no way out but to get along.
We live in a world of nearly 7 billion people, a population that can sustain itself only as long as many millions die each year of malnutrition and many millions more of preventable diseases, as long as hundreds of millions have a life expectancy of less than fifty years, and as long as several billion don’t insist on living, or don’t have the capacity to live, a Western middle-class life.
What if the 2.5 billion people of China and India, twice the population of Europe and North America combined, were to have this capacity and insisted on living a Western lifestyle? Environmentally, we could not sustain the possibility—the planetary math doesn’t work. Yet year after year, we see both China’s and India’s capacity grow, we see that insistence increase—there are now 10 million cars in China, up from fewer than 1 million just eight years ago—and we see that destruction escalate too.
We live on a planet that was not made for—or even made especially
for—human beings. A mere shift of three degrees in the world’s temperature—from 14°C to 17°C or -24°C to -21°C—a change not great enough to make us take off or put on a sweater—could melt glacier ice; alter evaporation and precipitation patterns; change ocean currents and atmospheric air flows; reduce available water for human consumption, agriculture, and energy use; generate more violent hurricanes and other extremes of weather and, in fact, more extremes of all kinds—floods, droughts, fires, diseases; and create deserts, destroy rain forests, and raise water levels. In short, this temperature shift would cause disruption, increase stress on people and structures, and generate more and more unknowns—turning a life we know how to live, even if it wasn’t always desirable, into a life we don’t know how to live. Only three degrees.
Human beings appeared on this planet only in the last 2.5 million years, which in Earth-time is hardly a blink ago. For almost all those years, we didn’t matter much. We were only a few million in number. We weren’t large or strong. We didn’t dominate our landscape like a saber-toothed tiger, woolly mammoth, or bison did. We lived only a few years. We were only one of countless other species—like an otter or a parrot.
For all but the last few hundred years, our existence on Earth has been modest. Other living beings had greater muscular power—they were able to run faster and longer and overpower their prey—or had greater physical weapons—bigger teeth, stronger jaws, powerful claws. Others could see or hear or sense far better. Not long ago, we developed our own greater power—to think—and with that to create memory, learn, conceive of the future, work together, plan, and make tools to do work that had once been beyond our capacity. We developed this greater power sufficiently to allow us to live longer, do more, make more, have more—and also to cut down, build over, pollute, and kill off other species, bringing about their extinction. As human beings, we are able to live for our own convenience, to create weapons of mass destruction, to change our climate, to put life at risk.
How does a world change its story? How does a country? This is what U.S. president Barack Obama was talking about during his 2008 election campaign. He didn’t ask the American people the question that all political challengers ask, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” He asked them, instead, to stop and look around at America itself: “Is this
the real America we see?”
The war in Iraq? Torture? Health care that has no room for tens of millions of citizens? The exaggerated wealth and the exaggerated poverty and the exaggerated gap between them—is that what the United States stands for? Is this the American dream? Is the purpose of all this freedom and liberty only to accumulate more and more and more? More and bigger cars, more food, more things,
more than Americans can use, more than they even care about, more than is good for them—as people, as a society, as a planet. This obesity of body, mind, and spirit that has crept into their lives and seems unstoppable. “Is this the real America we see?” Obama asked the American people. “No,” he answered. “We are better than this.”
More than being about economic prosperity, national security, the environment, or even justice or fairness, Obama’s message during the campaign was about “America”: “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” “the land of opportunity,” the “melting pot” for the world’s peoples. “America”: that special place of forever new frontiers—geographical, intellectual—of forever optimism, forever possibility, and forever becoming. The United States is a physical place; “America” is a place of the heart and of the imagination. “America,” Obama was saying, is their best story and their right story. And what makes “America” special is not its separation of powers and checks and balances, it is not its separation of church and state, or even its frontier. What makes “America” special is its “specialness,” that instinct and capacity always to do the important and necessary thing when it needs to be done. To reinvent itself, to be able and willing to go off in new, amazing directions, yet always to stay at the centre, still to be “America.”
Because the world changes, what is important and necessary is not the same at every moment. What made the United States special during the twentieth century, in the last age of empire, was its overwhelming economic and military power. The United States used its abundant resources, more abundant than anyone else’s, to make things the world would come to want. It made weapons that could win hot wars and cold wars. And because being bigger, richer, and more powerful had made the United States special, it seemed to most Americans that being bigger, richer, and more powerful was what special was. The United States kept on being that America in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It continued to be that America in creating suvs and sub-prime mortgages. It kept on being that America even as the world community was shaking its head, wondering where “America” had gone. All this came to a disastrously clear focus with George W. Bush, who, with his blue jeans, Texas ranch, and love of baseball, was the most American yet least “American” of all presidents—in image, a Teddy Roosevelt but a century out of time. The world had changed; what defined “specialness” had changed; and what America needed to do to be “America” had changed. George W. Bush hadn’t noticed.
Now we live in a global community in which no one country, not even the United States, is big enough or strong enough economically or militarily to control and dominate. In a global community, specialness is not the Iraq War or suvs; specialness is being smart enough to see the ice caps melting and to know that the age of carbon is coming to a close. It is being smart enough to launch “America” into “the next thing,” as if on a mission to the moon, to develop new benign energies, to restructure the economy, to change the way people live. It is being smart enough to change our relationship with the planet and with other nations and peoples, to get along with others, to get along with the planet, to get ahead and to stay ahead, yet to bring along others in the task.
And “America” is about succeeding. In “America,” you don’t just say something, you do it, and there is always a way. That is not optimism. That is not Obama’s legendary hopefulness. That is “America,” and that is Obama’s own life experience of “America.” “Yes, we can” is not so much a slogan as it is a simple observation. It was “America’s” phrase long before it was ever Obama’s because it had been America’s experience played out thousands of times a day, year after year. Succeeding is not about ideology; it is going where your best answers are, wherever they are. And specialness is about feeling the pride and excitement that were once a part of being American. Specialness is doing the important and necessary thing when it needs to be done.
Americans are good, Obama was saying. They need only the right story; they need “America” to make them better.
The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama embodied the story. The media tried to understand him as they do everyone else in politics, as a progressive or a liberal or a conservative, but “America” is what Obama is about. The public understands that, or at least they did during his campaign, and Obama knew this. He knew that what was inside him was inside them—“America”—and whatever he said and did resonated from that point deep inside himself to that point deep inside them. His words sounded like their
words, words they hadn’t heard in a long time, words they didn’t even know were still inside them, words they didn’t know that they had been waiting to hear; words that made them feel that there is so much more in them as human beings, so much more in their country, so much more in their world. These Americans wanted to—and needed to—matter, and not only to themselves. They had known that about themselves, but something was reawakened in them during the Obama campaign. Life was not all about money; it was not all about things.
They wanted to feel empowered
, that emotionless word that speaks of such an emotion-filled need. They needed somebody who was looking for the best in them.
It is easy to look for the worst and find it. Far harder and far more important is to seek out the best, appeal to the best, and bring out the best. People need that best in their own lives, and countries do too. But as a leader, you don’t bring out that best only by highlighting its need. You have to set out tasks that demand it, and if you set the challenge bar too low and ask for little, you will receive little in return. For these Americans, it had been such a long time since anyone had asked something of them. And Obama sounded so touchingly naive when he did. He made important things seem possible. He made people want to try. He made people believe that perhaps the future can be different.
Obama sought out the best in the rest of the world too. He sent a message to the world’s pariahs that he wanted to talk to them, to Iran’s Ahmadinejad, Sudan’s Bashir, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. These leaders may deserve to be pariahs. It may feel good for us to make them pariahs, in that too rare moment of superiority we’re unwilling to pass up. But this strategy hasn’t worked well in the past. These leaders have been able to handle anything that the world has been willing to throw at them—economic sanctions, criminal charges from international courts, and words. Tightening the screws on them and on their countries has made them only more pariah-like. To invade their countries would be another matter. Ahmadinejad, Bashir, and Kim Jong-il know, however, that the rest of the world would not dare. These pariahs would make it too costly, too deadly, with too uncertain results, and if any of the world’s countries did dare to cross their borders, the invasion itself would become the issue, and the invading countries would carry with them into the future the stain of being colonialists and imperialists and would never be trusted again. Other countries might one day see these invading countries as pariahs themselves and do the same to them.
When Obama sent out his message to these leaders, those experienced in the world saw it as one more sign of his weakness. This is not how the world works, they said. If you talk to these people, you give them a world audience; you legitimize them. But in Obama’s reading of the world’s history, of human nature, shutting off a rogue regime makes it only more rogue. Shutting off a fool only hides a fool. Letting a fool speak reveals a fool. By engaging these leaders, Obama believed, he would not legitimize them; they would de-legitimize themselves. He would act like “America” and do what other countries could not.
In September 2008, Ahmadinejad spoke at the United Nations. In January 2009, Obama, now U.S. president, announced he would reopen dialogue with Iran. In June 2009, after rigged elections in which Ahmadinejad had again been proclaimed president, millions of Iranians took to the streets, protesting day after day, the response of the government growing ever more violent. Maybe things can be different, these Iranians believed. These three events were not unrelated, and there was a fourth event too. In October 2009, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The response from many in the United States, and from Obama himself, was one of surprise and embarrassment. Many others were angry. The prize was too much, or at least too soon, they said. In his nine months as president, what had he done? Yet there was little surprise in the rest of the world. It was the trips he had made and what he had said, in Cairo particularly, and how he had said it. The United States is part of the world, he told his audience, and the United States must think that way and act that way. But Obama’s real
impact came from his tone and from the respect he showed his audiences. He treated the other countries as if they mattered. All the rest—negotiations, agreements—could follow. All the rest now had a chance.
Slowly during the campaign, and little by little during the first months of his presidency, without even knowing it, the public was developing an immense stake in Obama, perhaps bigger than in any other U.S. president. People watched and waited for him to fail. They were certain that he would, and hoped that he wouldn’t. They saw failure even when it was not there, and in doing so made failure more possible. They hoped so hard and feared so hard because if he did fail, imagine what that would say about America, and about the future. And who would take on the important issues now? Who would dare? Who would succeed? And why would the public ever believe anyone else who did try? Why would they believe that government could play any important role at all? Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you supported him or not, whether you agreed with him or not, one thing is undeniable: he is good. He has it all. If not him, who? If not in the United States, where? If not now, when?
During his first year as president, at times Obama had the look of a cartoon character being chased off a cliff, where, up in the air, with nothing visible beneath him, he just kept on running. And if, like a cartoon character, he kept on running and didn’t look down, he could
keep on running, discovering as he did that there was more in him and more in others than anyone had ever imagined; as if the cliff had wondrously extended out beneath him. For Obama, the cliff was the always-solid ground of “America.”
Excerpted from Becoming Canada by Ken Dryden. Copyright © 2010 by Ken Dryden. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.