By ROBERT MACKEY Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktWxdPH6naI
Unlike the American Congress, which interrupted the Israeli prime minister’s speech with 29 standing ovations on Tuesday, the British Parliament forced America’s president to stop for applause just once during his address in London on Wednesday.
While some of that difference might be chalked up to a culture of cheering in Washington (Congress clapped for President Obama 79 times during his State of the Union address in January), it is interesting to note that the applause came in response to the American leader’s reference to his identity as “the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army.”
The Britons were not cheering a favorable reference to their military, however, but a statement about the possibility of postcolonial reconciliation and forgiveness.
Just days after becoming embroiled in a dispute with Israel’s prime minister as he tried to referee one of the globe’s most intractable ethnic-nationalist disputes, Mr. Obama referred to his own multicultural heritage as he praised the fact that Britain, like the United States, does not define citizenship by ancestry. Mr. Obama said:
[T]here is one final quality that I believe makes the United States and United Kingdom indispensable to this moment in history, and that is how we define ourselves as nations.
Unlike most countries in the world, we do not define citizenship based on race or ethnicity. Being American or British is not about belonging to a certain group; it’s about believing in a certain set of ideals â€” the rights of individuals, the rule of law. That is why we hold incredible diversity within our borders. That’s why there are people around the world right now who believe that if they come to America, if they come to New York, if they come to London, if they work hard, they can pledge allegiance to our flag and call themselves Americans; if they come to England, they can make a new life for themselves and can sing “God Save the Queen” just like any other citizen.
Yes, our diversity can lead to tension. And throughout our history there have been heated debates about immigration and assimilation in both of our countries. But even as these debates can be difficult, we fundamentally recognize that our patchwork heritage is an enormous strength â€” that in a world which will only grow smaller and more interconnected, the example of our two nations says it is possible for people to be united by their ideals, instead of divided by their differences; that it’s possible for hearts to change and old hatreds to pass; that it’s possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament, and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as president of the United States.
Then, too, there might have been a hint of relief in the ovation Mr. Obama received at this point from members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
That’s because there was some anxiety, just after Mr. Obama was elected in 2008, that he might bear a grudge against Britain after The Times of London reported that his grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama had been “imprisoned and brutally tortured by the British during the violent struggle for Kenyan independence.”
Although Mr. Obama made no reference to allegations that his grandfather had been tortured in his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” the British newspaper reported that Hussein Onyango Obama was held for two years in a prison camp and very harshly treated. The Times explained that Britain’s attempts to quell the rebellion that led to Kenyan independence were extremely violent:
Mr. Onyango served with the British Army in Burma during the Second World War and, like many army veterans, he returned to Africa hoping to win greater freedoms from colonial rule. Although a member of the Luo tribe from western Kenya, he sympathized with the Kikuyu Central Association, the organization leading an independence movement that would evolve into the bloody uprising known as the Mau Mau rebellion. [...]
The British responded to the Mau Mau uprising with draconian violence: at least 12,000 rebels were killed, most of them Kikuyu, but some historians believe that the overall death toll may have been more than 50,000. In total, just 32 European settlers were killed.
In her history of the Kenyan rebellion, “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” Caroline Elkins estimated that “somewhere between 130,000 and 300,000â€³ Kenyans might have been killed by the British or died in mass detention camps like the one Mr. Obama’s grandfather was held in for two years.