There are some interesting quirks about Tom Hanks’ endorsement of Obama.
He basically says that electing a black man would be a historic improvement for the US, comparable to Washington’s handing off power to Adams. It’s hard to disagree that having a black man being president of the most powerful country of the world is a good thing. Especially because this is a white majority country that has a nasty past of discrimination.
However, this is looking at facts without really understanding the context. Ironically, Tom Hanks gives us a great example of how easy it is to fall in this trap. He mentions that this is a country where “people of his skin color were only worth three fifths of a human being”. Well, Tom should know that the famous 3/5 compromise was made to decrease the power of slave owners in the south. Initially, southern states wanted to count slaves’ votes entirely, something that would give them much more power since slaves would obviously be forced to vote for their masters. By counting only 3 votes for every 5 slaves the Northern states hoped to tame that vicious cycle and elect more representatives that could outlaw slavery.
That is: even though the 3/5 compromise sounds horrible, it was clearly the better of two very imperfect options.
I see our country in a similar situation now. Electing a black man sounds like a great thing to do. It would show people how great the American democracy is, and maybe work as a message that could help other minorities around the world.
But for the most part the world doesn’t work based on imagery and pure ideology. What really matters is what the US actually does. Things like whether we will continue to be a force for free trade and democracy. What would be the message to places like Mexico and China if we start to say that we can only trade if they follow exactly our labor code? Will democracy be weaker or stronger if we just leave Iraq behind and say “sorry, we changed our minds folks!”
Are we willing to risk everything just to improve our image?
Tom is right in one thing: History with capital H will be made this November no matter who the elected candidate is. The question is whether people will understand what their choice is really about.