Obama's Conspiracy of Hope: Now that he is President, the Hard Work Begins
A few years ago a movie came out titled Head of State whose protagonist was the African-American comedian Chris Rock playing Mays Giliam, an ordinary community organizer and politician (a mere councilman) who regularly and magnanimously comes to people’s aid. A twist of fate (due to a presidential candidate dying suddenly) makes some political campaigners scheme to make Mays the presidential candidate, with the certainty that the idealist Giliam, lacking the necessary Machiavellian instincts, could not possibly win.
However, Giliam gets wind of the scheme in mid-campaign, stands up for what he believes by addressing issues that are central to the hearts of the majority of Americans, such as taxes and health care, and clinches the country's top political office by appealing to the apathetic middle and lower class voters and educating them on their plight. It is this population of the unseen, constituting the backbone of America, that ultimately gets Mays Giliam into the White House.
At the time (around 2003) when the film appeared, most viewers, including myself, interpreted it as pure fantasy; a spirited comedy for pure enjoyment and entertainment, not reflecting the real world of “real politik.” Such a naïve strategy, most of us mused, would never impress the people and win the American presidency. In retrospect Obama proved us wrong, for the film can now be seen as a sort of prophetic precursor to Obama’s winning campaign. Like Jiliam, he was thrust in the limelight by a speech he gave at the 2004 DNC and the unexpected withdrawal from of a strong Republican candidate from the US Senate race because of a personal scandal. Synchronicity or providential? Be that as it may, we viewers of the above mentioned film were unable to muster enough imagination, or to put it in Obama’s own words, the audacity to hope to dream such a scenario. We feared being disappointed and so opted for the safety of our tried and true political cynicism; this film was a mere fantasy and would never come true. In other words we continued contemplating things as they are existentially and not things as they could or ought to be. Here too Obama proved us wrong. Five short years after the movie he showed us that what appeared dreamy fantasy could become a reality, for to merely contemplate things as they are is to be stuck in a pathetically pessimistic world, a sort of deterministic trap wherein the human being far from being endowed with freedom is seen as a mere Hobbesian social cog in the big mechanistic machinery that is the universe. It is difficult to extricate oneself from such a trap and that is why we need wise leaders to show us how.
Let us now analyze the post-election political environment and hazard a few final comments, for in the final analysis, history will render the final judgment and that may take some time. In my opinion, Obama’s victory signals what the American middle class desperately needs at the moment: hope, despite the odds. The last time African-Americans had this hope was in the 60's, during the movements for social change led by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the US, and the independence movements in Africa and Asia. Africa in particular revolted because it could no longer stomach the exploitation and suffering of Western Capitalism and Imperialism. But something was lacking: in order for the emancipation to last, people also needed a vision of what they wanted to be, and to commit their "brains and muscles" - as Fanon would say - to making that vision a reality. More than that, the people needed an ongoing political education to understand why, within the dynamics of western capitalism and imperialism, the empowerment of ordinary people would continue to be fiercely opposed. Frantz Fanon did indeed spell out one such vision in his last book, The Wretched of the Earth, but even his vision underestimates the importance of one essential ingredient, the one that Obama's victory offers us today: HOPE. Indeed, Obama's victory affirms two things: hope as the passion that drives humanity in a quest for a better life and a better destiny transcending even time and space, and the crucial role of ordinary people - rather than the elite intelligentsia - as the essential driving force for change.
All of the above is another way of saying that much work remains to be done. Winning the election was only the first modest step of a long arduous journey; important symbolically but still the first step. Hopefully, now that he has been elected, Obama will continue reminding people of that important fact. The changes he wants to implement in the fields of education and health-care can only come about through the hard work of the citizens themselves, rather than solely through policy. A crucial element of this work will necessarily have to be a fundamental shift in America's basic attitudes. We Americans will need to be encouraged by our President to abandon the myth of pulling oneself by one’s own bootstraps, so dear to right wing protofascists and social darwinists such as of Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged fame; we will have to disabuse ourselves of the utilitarian delusion that the common good requires that we all pay as little taxes as possible, or the illusion that a society can long last without subsidizing the vulnerable and less privileged sections of that society such as the poor, the single mothers, the sick, the historically disenfranchised minorities, the native Americans, the Latino populations. As the African proverb, well popularized by Hillary Clinton, has it: “it takes a village to raise a child.” Obama’s charisma can perhaps lead Americans to this understanding but there is a caveat: he has to accompany his considerable eloquence with political education via concrete policies that are so demystified as to be comprehensible to the population at large, thus disabusing them of the mere veneration of grand ideas such as freedom, democracy and, in this case, hope, without an accompanying discussion of what concrete pragmatic measures will establish those values. Which is to say, theory and a thorough education in that theory comes before a mindless praxis. It takes more than mere political slogans. For indeed, liberation movements, when examined closely, reveal that they have always begun with theory and afterwards have matched rhetoric and theory with concrete action carried out by the people under the leadership of visionary wise leaders. Martin Luther King, for example, led bus boycotts and strikes and Malcolm X instilled discipline in young men, advocated for self defense by black Americans. Gandhi led people not with armies but with soul power and non-violent opposition.
Obama's historic achievement can in some way be compared to that of Nelson Mandela's release from prison and South Africa's first multi-racial elections. In both the United States and South Africa, events were accompanied by great excitement and hope, and marked a significant milestone which African peoples had worked hard, for centuries, to achieve. But in South Africa, as in other African countries, the leaders failed to impress upon their people that the change they expected would not come easy, that it required hard work from the citizens themselves and not a mere change in government leadership. They failed to demand reparation from those who had benefited from racism, or to implement a process of healing and reconciliation among the disenfranchised, something of which Bishop Tutu alone was very much aware. This is the failure that led to the high rates of crime and rape, and most recently, of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa from a population unable to see that their destiny is in their own hands, rather than in receiving a slice of the national cake presumably baked during apartheid.
I submit that the same disillusionment could occur during Obama's presidency unless he is able to mobilize the same energy he has used for the campaign to change America and its relationship with its oppressed minorities and the world at large. Obama needs to educate the people to an awareness that they, more than their leaders, have to implement the changes in their own homes and communities; those changes that he says we can all believe in. Paradoxically, President Obama will have to transform himself again into a community educator and organizer; the only difference being that this time around the community is the whole country and indeed the whole world. One of his most important tasks will be that or restoring the respect and admiration of the rest of the world (especially the Europeans) for the United States; a reputation which, after eight years of Bush policies is now in shambles. In other words, he has to educate the rest of the world to the true ideals and inalienable rights on which this country was built. To accomplish that particular task he has to move beyond rhetoric and lead by example.
It is indeed up to us, in our classrooms, offices, farms, places of worship and homes to take concrete measures that begin to redirect humanity from the current insane direction of a savage, uncaring, greedy and dehumanizing capitalism, towards human values, compassion, sharing, solidarity, the common good, caring and working for the benefit of each other. That is a vision which Ignazio Silone dubbed “the conspiracy of hope.” It is a vision which transcends the mere sharing of material possessions which only serves to confirm a materialistically oriented mind-set. What we urgently need to share is our very humanity. Only thus we can hope to envision what lies beyond mere material prosperity, as important as that might be, to a vision of a society with a genuine understanding of the concept of distributive justice (unfortunately trivialized and caricaturized by McCain and Palin as mere “distribution of wealth,” a la Santa Claus), conscious of a great spiritual truth: that it profits a human being nothing if he gains the whole world and loses his integrity, his humanity, and his very soul.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Obama's Conspiracy of Hope: Now that he is President, the Hard Work Begins
Another article on the day after, this one from Ovi.