To Liverpool, then, and the MTV Europe awards, in an attempt to make sense of this historic week in politics. At the tender age of 24, Katy Perry is already a veteran of the culture wars; despite its utterly insipid lyrics, her chart-topping paean to lipstick lesbianism, I Kissed A Girl, attracted the ire of conservatives and gay groups alike. Who better, then, to interpret the sudden shift in the American zeitgeist for an audience of screaming European teenagers?
Jared Leto, from 30 Seconds to Mars, made the crowd stand in honour of the US President-elect Barack Obama. Amid rapturous cheers, he said: "Liverpool, let’s hear it for Barack Obama."
Perry responded: "Maybe Europe will love us again now."
I can only speak for myself when I stress that Katy’s message was in no way compromised by the image of her entering the arena, moments earlier, straddling a giant chapstick. But her careful use of the qualifier “maybe” was entirely redundant; there’s no question about it. Europe loves you again now. Can you feel it? Doesn’t it make you warm inside? What? Oh.
Certainly U.S. visitors and residents over here noticed the change almost immediately; apocryphal reports even spoke of American girls spontaneously being offered flowers on the streets of Paris. (You must never underestimate the opportunism of a Frenchman.) Politicians from across the spectrum were maintaining a public silence, but privately crossing their fingers and praying for a Democratic victory; their subsequent congratulations had an unfamiliar tone to them which at first I couldn’t place, so long was it since I’d heard sincerity in their voices. If the member states of the EU had electoral college votes up for grabs, Obama would have swept the continent 27-0.
The press were especially pleased. The week’s most predictable about-turn was to be found in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, for eight years the house broadsheet of every self-respecting left-wing Bush-hater on this side of the pond. In a gushing editorial, they rejoiced that “So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world”, conveniently ignoring the fact that they have been doing much of the caricaturing this past decade. “Today is for celebration, for happiness and for reflected human glory. Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America’s hope and, in no small way, ours too.”
This ludicrous theme recurs again and again in European reactions to Obama’s triumph. It is perceived in some sense to be a victory for Europe; somehow, it vindicates European values, the European outlook on the world. How or why this should be the case is not entirely clear, though there’s no doubt that Obama’s urbane cosmopolitanism hews closer to the way Europeans like to think of themselves than Bush’s grating cowboy image. But the myth has already started to take root; finally they have listened to us and seen the error of their ways, the European chatterati tell themselves, with a preening amour propre that is faintly ridiculous to behold.
Wiser voices have urged caution. Matthew Parris, the most sane and sanguine of British conservative commentators, tried to prick the bubble of misplaced euphoria in a column in the Times towards the end of last week:
He, we sense, understands. He cares. He is like us, understands us, surely agrees with us, even though he has not yet said so. He would be our friend if ever we were to meet him. In some strange way he knows us already, though we have never been introduced. He is the pop star whose poster adorns the adolescent’s bedroom wall… the David Beckham who is surely deeper/cleverer/gayer/more cultured (depending on your bent) than he seems; the Queen Mother who, if she ever had come to tea, would have got on with us like a house on fire.
It is desperately important that we never meet these people, for reality would be cruel.
A reality check, too, from the head of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, Sir Trevor Phillips, who warned that a British Obama would never manage to rise to the top in our own society. Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, once expressed similar reservations about his own prospects had his family chosen this country ahead of the US. But quiet surprise that Americans have chosen a black leader has been more in evidence than much critical analysis of the reasons why it hasn’t ever come close to happening here.
For those Europeans, and Brits, who delight in criticising American policy at every turn, it has been the convenient refrain of the past eight years that they are not anti-American but anti-Bush. When the last high-fives have been done and the balloons are cleared away, it will be time for Europe’s new pin-up to get down to business, and it will surely be a mere matter of weeks before the first howls of outrage start emanating from the usual quarters. We will see then what their excuse is this time.