As I watched the inauguration of America’s 44th president, I wondered what the commotion was about. It was billed as a larger than life historical event that would usher in a new era of change, but where was the tangible evidence for such a grandiose notion? Scenes of ecstatic joy, bringing multitudes of people to cry, break into song and exhibit a whole range of emotions, must find their rationale in a person's track record — in real historical achievements. What exactly had Barack Obama done to inspire such hope?
We Filipinos are media junkies; decades-long exposure to American news and soap operas had convinced us that racism was defeated long ago. If this was Obama’s achievement it was old news, an old story. Moreover in his case the racism narrative of slavery and segregation was a borrowed one, not something from his own heritage. Stories are the stuff of symbols and, surely, America’s 44th president must have his own story—something in the tradition of Augustus Caesar, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II who were all heroic achievers.
By contrast, there is nothing very remarkable about what Barack Obama has done with his life so far. That he is an African-American with a diverse background within the context of America’s racial past may be enough these days to make him a symbol of hope, but it is hope premised on his potential to deliver great deeds, not on historical acts as in the case of the heroic figures mentioned above. In the case of Obama, the symbol precedes the story and the story precedes the acts.
Not until Obama acts will we know his true story and be able to judge whether it is a good story, capable of inspiring great deeds all round. If, for example, the new president were to honestly address the evils besetting the modern world — not only wars in the guise of liberation to protect American interests, but also, at home, the destruction of marriage and the war on the unborn child (both of which disproportionately afflict black Americans) — then he might begin to shine as a real symbol.
Obama's symbolism is very like that of America itself. Like the Obama story, the American story is also premised on potential. Disregarding what the New World’s settlers did to the Native American, the pilgrims’ background story of the oppressed seeking — and finding — liberty served as the perfect recipe for the American symbol as it has been officially known.
But the premise of liberty in the American story is but a potential and has remained in potency since the unfurling of the Stars and Stripes.
Proof that the story of the American symbol has not been actualized can be culled from America’s behavior, its policies, and most especially the popular ideas and lifestyles it has introduced to the world and established as norms: consumerism as the lifeblood of a capitalism oblivious to global warming and the logic of good values; liberalism as the essence of freedom; and imperialism as the motive of charity in the form of aid and intervention. All these ambiguities have left their mark on developing countries like my own.
The question now is whether Obama will actualize the American story. Will he write the story of the symbol and do the acts that should have preceded the story in the first place? Will Obama be that larger than life symbol that has been so grandiosely represented by America?
There is a serious threat to America, and it is not terrorism, global warming, or the economy; these are but consequences of the real threat. It is the illusion that symbols create reality.
An empty symbol cannot sustain itself. Like art and literature that are unable to capture the nature of things, they are forgotten. This is what sets apart the classics from the rest. Moreover, classics are filled with symbols which can be directly associated with reality, and so they stand the test of time and last. Symbol making seems to have become a frivolously empty process with empty stories, devoid of reason. This is what I thought as I watched the faces and various displays of emotion during the inauguration.
Ironically, the television screen that enabled me to watch Obama-mania in full flight is largely responsible for this state of affairs. Marshall McLuhan best captured it’s ambiguity in 1964 when he coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” The visual media’s confusion of the reel and the real has become the very life of our times. Life imitates the media and reason has been replaced by the emotional force of personalities and symbols.
Hopefully, Obama will actualize the story of that American dream which has remained in potency for centuries. If he decides to do the acts needed to complete the story of the symbol that has been stamped on him, headlines will change and much of America’s (and the world’s) problems will eventually disappear. This is the real story of America—that it has yet to be great and that it has the potential to be so. I believe it can be realised.
Caterina F. Lorenzo-Molo is an Assistant Professor of the University of Asia and the Pacific's (UA&P) School of Communication (SCM) in the Philippines. She teaches and does research in communication ethics. Her articles have been published in Public Relations Review, Media Asia and Asia Business & Management (ABM). She is a mother of three young girls.