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January 19, 2009

Obama Thoughts: Hope and Despair

Stimulating and challenging discussion with Shailja yesterday over the course of a writing date. She expressed distrust towards the Sense of Hope TM that has risen around Obama's campaign and election (and now inauguration.) She's concerned that it's another mass-opiate.

I was thinking rather that it was a swing back to the other emotional extreme, after 8 years of the American public (and that is both right and left) being completely helpless to influence or affect the administration or national policy, and the concomitant despair that has been collecting over that. The despair, interestingly enough, although felt increasingly by the farther left all along, has only manifested in the mainstream in the last eighteen months or so -- not coincidentally, around the same time that long-ass campaign started. So I think the public can't maintain a sense of hope OR despair for very long: we avoid despair for as long as we can, and I think hope is fickle, if not fragile.

What I'm saying is that despair can't motivate us for long, and hope can't motivate -- or opiate -- us for long.

It also makes me think about the alchemy of the election. Our sense of despair arose right around the same time as our sense of hope. I think neither could manifest in the collective consciousness without the other. As a people, we staved off despair about Bush until two not merely viable, but transformational alternatives appeared. Then we all, as a mass, dropped any hope of Bush transforming his administration into something of any value and turned to Hillary and Obama.

And let's not gainsay Hillary's importance in this alchemical equation. The Hope TM came from a conjunction of symbolic sources (and when I say "first ____ candidate," I mean "first viable _____ candidate"):

  1. First Woman candidate = potential final barrier to gender inequality being removed. Curiously, at no time since the women's movement has there been a moment, or an issue, that has been elevated to Symbolic of the Continuing Oppression of Women TM in the public consciousness. Not Anita Hill, not the many abortion fights, not the Duke Rape Scandal, not Lorena Bobbitt. Each of these and many others simply elevated its specific issue to public consciousness, but feminism failed in -- or was blocked from -- connecting each issue to the general issue of gender inequality. I think this is part of the reason that misogyny could be so blatant in this campaign. People think of sexism as smoke and mirrors -- whiny, crocs-wearing women -- and don't connect it to unequal pay, workplace sexual harrassment, rape, domestic violence, and reproductive control.

    And yet we carry with us as a nation a vast, painful uneasiness with each other (after all, half of us are men and the other half women), a vague sense that something is not right that we wish was right. And the appearance of Hillary, while arousing a terrible, sexist rage and hatred in men -- particularly men of my generation, heartbreakingly enough -- also aroused a strong, if vague, hope in them that her presence in the election, and her potential election, would lay this terrible uneasiness to rest.

    And let's be clear: it was only Hillary who could have done this. Immediately below I point out that only someone like Obama could have done his part, and I say that not to discount Obama's individual personality, but to point out that Obama had to simultaneously build his individual image and build his image as symbolic of national and racial healing. I don't think -- I really, really, really don't believe -- that a woman could have done the same thing in the same amount of time. I believe that there is a much greater resistance in the public consciousness to accepting a woman in a leadership image than there is to accepting a man in a leadership image. And that includes men of color, because we've been seeing strong, amazing men of color in leadership roles since Frederick Douglass ... and even during the Civil Rights Movement men-as-leaders of the race wasn't a hard concept to take in. The resistance to women is greater, so women have to take more time to develop their image. Compare Obama to Sarah Palin, who had even less time to build an image than he did. She was very popular on the right, but popular as a mascot, an attraction, a curiousity ... NOT as a leader. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes her to become leaderly in the public consciousness. I'll take bets as to whether she manages it by 2012 or if it'll take until 2016.

    In any case, I've argued before that for liberal or moderate women to achieve leadership in government, they have to be part of a political dynasty (and also that conservative women have to claw their way up through the ranks, be more tough than the mens, and have husbands who aren't in politics, all of which obtains in the Hillary/Sarah Palin case.) Hillary isn't just the only moderate/liberal in American politics who fulfills that requirement (although that's enough); she's also the only one who has a powerful and distinct public image both as an individual, and as a leader. It is this last -- her image as a leader -- that has caused such rage and hatred among sexist men: they don't think she should be viewed as a leader, Because She Hasn't Earned It TM. And this is part and parcel of what made Hillary so effective as a woman candidate: deep down, the men who oppose her don't believe that any woman could deserve such a position, so if Hillary won it, it might be enough to shut up those feminists.

  2. First Candidate of Color = potential final barrier to race inequality being removed. I really don't think I need to comment much on this except to remind everyone that the general confusion about what Obama actually IS, racially, worked entirely in his favor. He was able to stave off the descent of the usual stereotypes onto his image for long enough to build a distinct, and unique, image for himself. That is entirely to his credit and the credit of his campaign team, but he should be credited for taking advantage of the blessed circumstances he was born to, and not for inventing a world in which a strange, multiracial, transnational man of partial African descent is the only possible person who can simultaneously tap the hope for racial union and short-circuit the fear of the Angry Black Man TM.

    And he was the only possible person. A Gen-X, American-born descendent of American slaves could not have done it. A woman of Obama's background could not have done it. Someone of a non-African lineage could not have done it. It had to be someone like Obama, and we, as a nation, did not -- prior to this election -- have the imagination to realize that it wasn't The Next Jesse Jackson TM, who was going to get it done but someone as peculiar and Inexplicable and twenty-first century as Obama.

  3. First Gen-X-ish candidate (just as Gen-Xers are taking over leadership positions in all sectors) = potential final enfranchisement of our generation, otherwise known as accession of our Generation TM to boss-status. We've been ruled by Baby Boomers in the media since Reagan, and in the government since Clinton. The worst president in living memory (and that includes Herbert Hoover) is a Baby Boomer. It's Time for A Change.

  4. First Woman + First Gen-X-ish Candidate of Color + Horrible Failure of a Conservative White Male = we're ready to lay off all our white, male guilt on George W. Bush and cleanse our own souls. We can only be talking about a post-race, post-feminist era now because all these terms and ideas have finally reached -- if not penetrated or convinced -- the mainstream public consciousness. No white, and no male, can walk comfortably around in the world without worrying if they're racist or sexist -- or at least worrying if others will see them that way.

    Combine this with the utter and complete failure of every single Bush policy to achieve what he said it would, or to even achieve anything of value unexpectedly, not to mention the steady deterioration of the national sense of self-esteem as we watched ourselves turn into rabid, nationalistic torturers and imprisoners (seriously, we can justify becoming brutal until the cows come home -- and believe it, too -- but at the end of the day, we're still brutal) and what we have is a perfect storm. Nobody wants to be the horrible, entitled white, or male, or white male, and Dubya pretty much set himself up to be hated. So let's pile our load of guilt on his goatish back and slaughter the bastard (now, if only we could take that symbolic slaughter past the election and into a courtroom ...)

If any of these elements had been missing, Obama might not have succeeded (it took a scary white women to frighten the decisive number of recalcitrant white males into supporting Obama.) More importantly, if any of these elements had been missing, our plate of hope would have been missing a major food group. Not a balanced meal. The Obama campaign made us feel completely healthy for the first time in 8 years of junk food. If a vegetable or a fruit had been missing, or protein, or whatever, it would not have been the whole hog: Hope.

So yes, it's definitely a monolithic Feeling TM that is easy to exploit commercially (although I think it's appropriate and salutary that Obama's first effect in office will be a minor boost to our economy through Obamabilia), but I'm not too worried about it opiating people indefinitely. Losing that Perfect Hope Storm TM will pique the public (I hope), and the first time Obama feels like compromising (or maybe the second or tenth) the More Than A Feeling TM will go away and people will sink back into Apathy As Usual or be moved to protest.

Obviously, I hope it's the latter, but I don't believe that people as a group entity can sustain political action -- or even political concern -- for very long. It's more important that we have an administration that is affected by the protest and action of the few, than that we mobilize everyone forever ... and to possibly little effect.

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