Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ciao Professore!

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines the word "professorial" in British English as "of or like a professor." The American Urban Dictionary defines the same word in very much different terms: "approaching hot real life issues in an analytical, absorbed, and abstract manner." Instead of being a term of praise to Brits, it means to Americans being aloof, difficult, superior. It seems to me that it is precisely when confronting "hot real life issues" that such an approach is most effective. But try and convince Americans.

And try and convince Americans that such a demeanor is a good thing in a president. If the otherwise inexplicable success of Donald Trump, a bonafide fool, reveals anything about his followers, it is that, for them, eight years of a "professorial" president has been a nightmare. Not to mention he's the wrong color. And belongs to the wrong party. But the real reason why Obama's "professorial" demeanor as president has not gone down well with so many Americans is because they have never had much respect for teachers or for learning.

In American politics, 2016 is quickly becoming a year of astonishments. That finding a successor to Barack Obama was going to lead to surprises was to be expected. In the case of the Democrats, two candidates are running who have either upheld some of Obama's accomplishments or questioned them. Hillary Clinton is clearly the candidate most likely to accept Obama's inheritance and to carry on some of his triumphs, like managing to keep us out of further wars, and maintaining the slow but steady improvement of the economy. Bolstering what has, for better or worse, become known as "Obamacare" is something that Clinton promises to do. But Bernie Sanders, who uses the scary word "revolution" too much (this is coming from a fellow socialist), says that he plans to expand Obamacare into something like Britain's NHS - despite Prime Minister Cameron's efforts to undermine it. Sanders is also promising the moon for anyone who wants, but can't afford, to go to college.

The debates on the Democratic side have been substantive arguments about the direction in which a post-Obama presidency should try to lead the country. Although a degree of skepticism about precisely what Obama's accomplishments have been in eight years of Congressional gridlock, I didn't expect there to be such a wholesale debunking of them by the opposing side. The state of the nation is decidedly different from what it was in 2008, which was the last time a Republican was the Commander-in-Chief. George W. Bush ran the country like there was no tomorrow - and there damned near wasn't one. But the stories that have circulated since the election of the first African-American to the highest office - stories that I once considered too extreme and rather insulting expressions of Conservative angst - now seem to have been true. How many Americans awoke on the morning after the election in November 2008 thinking that Obama's victory was a bad dream, only to turn on their TVs and discover that it wasn't a bad dream but (for how many of them?) the most unimaginable result?

The nature of the unimaginable is, I'm almost afraid to believe, probably of racial origin. There's a black man in the white house. It's just as simple and outrageous an objection as that. Not only is Obama the representation of everything (or just about everything) that they despise, he is the physical embodiment of it. When the various anti-Obama movements manifested themselves one by one, with their avowed ambition to de-ligitimize his presidency and remove him from the White House by an means necessary, many observers who were black saw only that their opposition, which seemed to be so angry, was being directed not at a president who happened to be a black man, but at a black man who happened to be the president.

Just a few weeks ago, while most of the world marked the historic occasion of a sitting U.S. president setting foot in Cuba, Fox News was talking about what a betrayal it was of JFK, who started the ridiculous embargo. JFK, you'll recall, green-lighted the Bay of Pigs debacle, only to pull the plug on it during its execution, stranding thousands of Cuban-American volunteers on the beaches without air cover.

I have commented before about how some presidents get elected because they are - or seem to voters to be - the antithesis of the preseident who came before them. It seems obvious to me that George W. Bush, an unsubtle man of few words, succeeded Bill Clinton, who was branded "Slick Willy" by the press, not simply because he managed to slip out of so many potential legal prosecutions, eventually even surviving impeachment, but because it was difficult to get a straight yes or no answer out of him. Bush was utterly unequivocal, which was a refreshing change from eight years of Clinton's masterful equivocations.

Donald Trump appears to be the candidate who is most unlike Obama. Not only are his racial credentials impeccably WASP (Trump is American for the German name Drumpf), but he is the absolute antithesis of a thoughful, studious (if rather aloof) professor. Instead, he is a bullying doofus who shoots his mouth off before its fully loaded (half-cocked).

I stole the title of this post from a film released in the States in 1992. The distributor of Lina Wertmuller's film, known as Io speriamo che me la cavo (Me, Let's Hope I Make It) in Italy, gave it the American-release title "Ciao Professore!". The film is about a conscientious teacher who is sent by some bureaucratic error from a relatively prosperous school district in northern Italy to an urban school in a poor district of Naples. Like Obama in the White House, the teacher, faced with seemingly impossible odds, uses his wits to convince his students and their parents the value of learning and the unwisdom of taking the easy way out of their problems.  

While Bernie Sanders would claim that Barack Obama is too close to the center to be effective, Hillary Clinton - to her favor, I think - is promising to carry Obama's legacy forward. While I agree with Sanders about the dubious history of Centrism, I think in the balance that Obama was a successful president.

Obama will officially depart from the White House on January 20, 2017. Will Hillary return, as she might to a cherished old home to which she grew attached for eight years (even if some of the activities of her husband under the same roof showed lapses in judgement - not to mention taste)? Will it be darling old Bernie Sanders who puts his feet up on the furniture? Or will Trump move in with his trophy Slovenian wife, and turn the White House into another Trump hotel casino? A letter by Harper Lee from 1990 has recently surfaced in which she tells a friend that "the worst punishment God can devise for this sinner is to make her spirit reside eternally at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City." Four years of a Trump presidency might seem like an eternity to many Americans, an ill-devised punishment for our sins. But if we're not too careful, Trump may turn out to be exactly what we deserve for not being "professorial" enough to properly educate our citizens.

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