Howard Jacobson: Obama's cool can translate into political substance

The President-elect manages to link good citizenship to street cred

Saturday 08 November 2008 01:00

We try to keep our head in this column, no matter that all about us are losing theirs. Eleven years ago we celebrated another famous victory, staying up all night, dancing in the streets, afraid to go to bed for fear that when we woke up it would all have been a dream and Portillo was still Secretary of State for Defence. And all for Tony. All that optimism and ecstasy to vanish in a cloud of Tony. Will we never learn?

Still and all this has been an infectiously rapturous week. You know the times are special when the sight of that waffling old Jew-baiter Jesse Jackson in tears makes you shed a tear yourself. This is the transformation there's been so much talk about – not in a miracle cure for the economy, or in withdrawal from Iraq, or in the closure of Guantanamo Bay (if there can be found among its critics any country willing or humane enough to take its inmates), but in the submersion of ourselves in others. For an hour or two, maybe a day or two, maybe even a week or two, the black struggle becomes our struggle and their vindication becomes our vindication. I am not being cynical: I don't mean to suggest we have purloined what isn't ours. Simply that the best of all illusions has for a time overwhelmed us and we can dream that we are all brothers not just under the skin but on the skin as well.

We should be so lucky. He is one fine-looking man, that Obama. He silhouettes well – slender and willowy, steely but not inflexible, taut and elegant among the slack and overfed, suggesting just the right amount of bodily asceticism, fussy without being fanatical. After eight years of looking at the blurred, impervious features of George W Bush, those small screwed-up eyes suggesting, perhaps unfairly, that there was no entrance to his soul because he had no soul, it will be good to have a decorously handsome face to contemplate even as we slide gradually back into political disappointment.

I am not being lookist. Obama's handsomeness has been bequeathed to him by the good luck of parentage right enough, but it is also a function of intelligence. His mind shines through him. We might be singing the virtues of democracy right now, but his are refined, educated looks. They are not available to everybody. An Ivy League university won't guarantee you a demeanour like Obama's – Bush went to Yale, don't forget – but you'd be hard-pressed to bear yourself that way without the assured enlightenment that education confers.

When Bush smiled – and his crinkled smile was probably the best part of him – you always thought he was remembering a bar-room joke. Maybe that was what his advisers had told him to do: think of the one about the Texan showgirl and the senator, Mr President, even while you're wandering through a city laid waste by a tornado. The light in Obama's eye is colder. Is he a puritan? It is possible. Enlightened puritanism is no bad thing. I know puritanism of the unenlightened kind is America's besetting sin, and we don't want Obama siding with the Creationists and Right to Lifers, but if part of what he's for is to reimagine a future for black youth, then a little moral preciseness will not go amiss.

He is closer to 50 than 40 (older than Blair was in 1997), but still manages to look cool. Make no mistake, cool has played its part in this extraordinary victory. Shouldn't have to, but has. No doubt Cameron will now try even harder to look and sound cool, though cool is the last thing he will ever be, no matter what colour bicycle helmet he wears or however many names of rock bands he commits to memory.

What Cameron would do well to notice is that Obama has pulled off cool without evidently trying for it. Which is where the moral preciseness come in. He commands a way of talking to the young which is neither dismissive nor patronising. As a consequence he is not the joke to anyone under 15 that Cameron is, assuming anyone under 15 has ever heard of Cameron.

The cultural effect of Obama might turn out to be greater than the political. While Cameron is hugging hoodies, Obama is suggesting they change their wardrobe. "Here is my attitude," he said in an interview with MTV – and "attitude" is a smart word to have used in this context. "I think passing a law against people wearing sagging pants is a waste of time. Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What's wrong with that? Come on... You know, some people might not want to see your underwear – I'm one of them."

Thus, at a stroke, the question of respect for family is yoked to the question of respect for yourself, and both are yoked to the question of style. In this country no one would dare comment on the pants down-below-your-arse, just-out-of-borstal look, a) because we are too worried about sounding prim and middle aged, and b) because it would be seen as an assault on the aesthetic rights of the young (especially the black and would-be-black young) to look like shit if they want to. Ah, the harm we do protecting people's rights when all along we should be protecting them from themselves.

Imagination could have helped us here. Picture yourself walking the streets with your pants down and what in north Manchester we used to call your "unterhasen" showing. It's cold, it's hampering, it's self-demeaning, it confirms you in your belief that you are nothing and will amount to nothing. Now, wonderfully, a cool black President-elect, a man you wouldn't at all mind looking like, and maybe even dressing like, links good citizenship to street cred and shows the way to be more comfortable in your trousers and your skin. Suddenly there's a way out and it isn't only through rap music or through sport. Is it too much to hope that schooling too will become cool now?

Politics are politics and will not change. The greedy will get greedier and the fanatical more fanatic. I don't see the Taliban rejoicing over Obama's victory. But a leader can show the lead in other ways, and if, in this duplicitously egalitarian age, Obama can be an example of something worth being an example of, can show that knowledge is cooler than ignorance, that thought is cooler than bigotry, that it's cooler to wear your pants up than your pants down, then these might be momentous times indeed.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments