Russell Shorto

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The Election, Seen from Amsterdam

November 7th, 2012

While people were voting in the U.S., I was on a panel in Amsterdam that was part of the city’s huge American election extravaganza. First, I doubt that other foreign cities go to such lengths: every TV network, the country’s top politicians, thousands of people, a rock concert vibe. Second, the panel was meant to talk about the election and the American melting pot. I was the only American: the others were three Dutch journalists and a Ugandan who talked about how he looks at Obama as an older brother who sometimes disappoints but of whom he is still proud.

One of the panelists, the very smart Dutch writer Paul Scheffer, zeroed in on how Obama is black but not “black,” not part of the African American experience, and how he can thus represent in a way few other people could the melting pot ideal. He can be a model for black people, but also for recent immigrants.

Obama continues to have an intruguingly powerful hold on Europeans, and I would say on a lot of people outside the U.S. His reelection–and the fact that the same coalitions that elected him in the first place did so again–reinforces that. The questions that I got from the Dutch audience all danced around one topic. The issue of how to identify as an American while also being whatever else you are (black, gay, Jewish) has mostly been solved by Americans. And lots of other people out there find that fascinating, and long for something similar. How can the French solve the identity puzzle? Or the Germans, or the Dutch? Or, for heaven’s sake, Israelis and Palestinians? Obamas two elections seem to point to a new American alignment. And a lot of other parts of the world will be very interested in how that plays out, and will be looking for tips.

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