The stunning victory of Barack Obama in last Tuesday’s election is a cause of great joy not only for Americans but for people all over the world.

After nearly a century and a half of unresolved racial conflict — conflict that brought untold suffering to nonwhite Americans — the 1861-65 U.S. Civil War is finally over. The message is clear: There is no place for institutionalized or personal bias on the basis of race or color in the 21st century.

The rednecks have retreated to the woods. George W. Bush and his band of merry robber barons are about to return to the havens of their red states, or those states that once were red. Men and women genuinely motivated by a sense of justice dictated by the rule of law will surely transform Washington, D.C. into a more compassionate and humane center of politics. It may not be Hollywood, but the good guys have won.

There must be, however, millions of people who voted for Obama who believe that all that has to be done now is to fix up the American economy and their nation will return to its former glory. Just give Joe the Plumber enough washers and America will again rule the world.

In reality, the American legacy of the past half-century, criminally exacerbated by the policies both at home and abroad of the Bush administration, needs not to be enhanced but rather to be redressed.

Let’s look at where this legacy has taken us.

Arrogance: The notion, entertained by Americans on both sides of the political fence, that the American way of life is ideal for everyone on the planet. The American insistence on universal human rights has served, on many occasions and in many countries, as a mask for domination and the pursuit of American corporate interests. It should go without saying that not every institution and custom established and followed in the United States is suitable when transferred to the cultures of others. Indeed, President Obama could well look across both oceans to find ideals and practices that might remedy the gross inequalities built into the “American way of life.”

Exceptionalism: The notion that Americans should not be subject to legal restrictions imposed on citizens of other countries. A world in which Radovan Karadzic stands in the dock of the International Court of Justice in the Hague but neither soon-to-be ex-Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld do not is a world where injustice passes for its opposite. Justice for some is a far cry from real justice.

Shock and awe: The notion that brute force will bring those perceived to be enemies to their knees, and that conquering is the be-all and end-all of foreign policy. What actually presents itself as “schlock and gore” — a fitting epithet for the Bush administration — leaves heaps of dead bodies on the battlefield and a fierce antagonism among the “conquered” population. This antagonism readily turns against the conquerors, resulting in hundreds of thousands of future casualties on both sides. Such American-style victory produces only losers. It also underscores the fact that American governments are not interested in establishing democracy elsewhere, only in creating a base for the aggrandizement of American interests.

A just society: The notion — more correctly, myth — that America is a country of pure opportunity for all its citizens. The reality is a place where access to satisfactory medical care is a privilege not a right; where nearly 50 million of its 305 million citizens are without medical insurance; where more than a million people every year file for bankruptcy due to the burden of medical bills. A society that does not provide security for its citizens, particularly its children and elderly, is hardly a role model for others. A country where torture is condoned has no right to boast or preach to others.

Violence: The notion that it is a citizen’s right to possess a firearm and that the state has the right to execute people found guilty of certain crimes by the courts. No, Virginia, Santa doesn’t bring guns to people all over the world at Christmas time. It’s only the stretch socks of Americans that are bulging with more than 200 million of them. Just because men called “the Founding Fathers,” who are revered as saints in the U.S., thought it once appropriate for citizens to be armed, it does not follow that this is equally appropriate today. The second amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing that the right to bear arms “shall not be infringed,” is an outdated and pernicious blight on a peaceable society. No other democracy recognizes such ill-conceived “rights.” And people who call themselves “pro-life” yet support the death penalty are what the Bible calls “hypocrites,” not “Christians.”

Religion: The notion that religious precepts and teachings have a place in the laws and classrooms of a democracy.

There have always been two Americas. The first is that of the rule of law, where law is wholly secular in its formulation and execution.

The second is the rule of God, where God is a Christian whose mind is interpreted on Earth by robed proselytizers and evangelical zealots, some of whom look pretty snazzy on television. The nation vacillates between the two, more often than not preferring secular guidance to religious. Even presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, had little time for the high-toned twaddle of the religious fanatics. George W. Bush gave these people, his own private Taliban, free rein on the roads of America. President Obama will be faced with the task of putting God back in his place — in Heaven — and people here on Earth at the helm of state.

When Wall Street once again becomes America’s main street, and the economy sails on an even keel, will Americans remember that they chose “change” in November 2008?

This election has given them the opportunity of a lifetime.

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