It is so important that the first black President is only half-black. The black side of Barack Obama’s heritage is the non-American bit. His black, Kenyan father was absent. His Hawaiian upbringing was white. One day, he recalls in his autobiography, his white grandparents, who were bringing him up, had a row. His grandmother (who died this week, just too soon to see her grandson elected), told her husband that she did not want to take the bus to work the next day. She asked her husband to drive her instead. He refused, and words were exchanged. Barack asked what was going on. His grandfather told him that she had been harassed at the bus-stop for money. He was annoyed with her because what frightened her particularly about the incident was that the aggressive panhandler had been black. Young Barack thought about this: his grandparents had ‘sacrificed again and again for me… and yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears’. Nothing in Obama’s attitudes or demeanour inspires raw fear. The racist caricature of a black man is of an ape. Obama is a cat. He is agile and stylish and somehow alone. His beautifully judged acceptance speech was cool. As he became part of American history, he spoke almost as an observer of it. Quite right to remind his audience that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, quite right to say to those who did not vote for him ‘I will be your President too’; but the intelligence, the historical sweep, the ability to understand more than one perspective are the opposite qualities of those of the ghetto. His blackness seems skin-deep, which is why people can accept it.
‘Not by the might of our arms, or the scale of our wealth, but for the enduring power of our ideals’ is America the greatest nation, said Obama. True, but arms and wealth help. As he approaches office, that might of arms has faltered and that scale of wealth has slumped. Does this mean, then, that America should end exceptionalism, build coalitions, work through international institutions? You might think so, but the dilemma will quickly present itself. Will other nations respect a weakened America? Will a multilateral world actually be able or willing to project force against the enemies of law and democracy? Will Iran, which has allowed Iraq to go so quiet during the presidential campaign, now produce a challenge even before the new President is in the White House? When President Obama calls the bluff of European powers delighted by his election and asks them to send far more of their own men to fight in Afghanistan, will they shy away? If things go right for Obama, he will restore American leadership which, as he says, requires moral authority. But if they go wrong, he will preside over the decline of American power. Then his fate could resemble that of Gorbachev — hailed abroad for recognising the need for change, excoriated at home for losing a great imperium.
Unlike Gorbachev, though, Obama has real votes. The most moving thing this week is the return of an almost religious respect for the ballot. To think that your one ‘X’ (or chad) among millions makes a difference requires a deep belief in your country’s constitution. But it does: it has.
Pursuing the BBC’s belief that one must ‘push the boundaries’, I have decided to refuse to renew my television licence fee so long as Jonathan Ross continues to be employed by the Corporation. I shall go on watching television at our house in Sussex, pay the equivalent of the fee to Help the Aged (since the BBC likes persecuting the old) and wait to see what happens. When I disclosed this plan to readers of the Daily Telegraph last week, several emailed to say that they already do this. It was interesting to hear that none of them has been prosecuted. This confirms something I have noticed from my earlier (and continuing) dispute with the BBC about my London flat, where I do not have a television, but constantly receive threatening letters from TV Licensing telling me that I shall go to court unless I get a licence. The threats are never fulfilled. The BBC are in a quandary. If they do not get their licence money, they cannot survive, but if they take action against protestors, they will make martyrs. It is a bluff. I am beginning to think that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
The row about Brand and Ross has been a turning point for many people. Up till now, we have been uncomfortably conscious that the BBC puts out amazingly revolting things, but we have simply tried to avoid them. Rather like residents who dare not venture out on to the streets at night because of yobs, we have despaired. But the Brand/Ross scandal has reminded us that we do, in fact, ‘have ownership’ of the BBC, and we are being denied owners’ rights. The favourite argument that ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it’ makes no sense if you are made to pay for it. It is like going to a café and being told that if you want a nice cup of tea you will also be charged for a plate of dogshit. And then it turns out that the charge for the biggest piece of dogshit — Jonathan Ross — is £6 million a year. Sorry to use this unpleasant image, but I thought it might be ‘edgy’ enough to fit the bill.
‘I worry,’ says Matthew Bannister, a former BBC panjandrum, ‘that the BBC will become more cowed by this affair.’ Cowed by whom? Think of the Flanders and Swann song, ‘Ma’s out, Pa’s out,/ Let’s talk rude./ Pee, po, belly, bum, drawers.’ Ross/ Brand/Mock the Week (which makes gerontophobic jokes about the Queen’s sexual organs)/ Little Britain/ numerous foul-mouthed telly chefs, etc, etc, resemble these naughty children. Mark Thompson and other senior BBC executives are like parents who come home and, instead of sending the children to bed without any supper, nervously applaud their rude words. So they get ruder. ‘F***! C***! W***!’ they yell, and make jokes about masturbating about Mrs Thatcher (Ross), or how they crippled a woman by raping her (Little Britain USA), or whatever. ‘Clever children,’ say the parents, ‘let us give you more money!’ The BBC bosses have been cowed for years by their feral children. We are asking them to stop being cowed, and to exercise their parental authority, for which, unlike real parents, they are very well paid.
Most eloquent on this subject have been teenagers of my acquaintance and people in their twenties. They are angry at the BBC’s idea that Ross is the acclaimed voice of their generation. He is, after all, only four years younger than I. The most common description I hear of him from my children’s generation is that he is a ‘dirty old man’.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 8, 2008