Monday, February 04, 2008

Obama: hope and false hope

Bob the Builder and the politics of promise
This is a somewhat lengthy post and not simply about American politics, though this is where I begin.


If you missed Barack Obama's stirring concession speech in New Hampshire a few weeks ago, make sure you check out this music video by Black Eyed Peas, directed by Jessie Dylan (son of Bob), which will give you the vibe (H/T Benjamin):
For a video of the actual speech, try here. It concluded like this:
We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told that we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness. Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land. Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

And so tomorrow, as we take this campaign South and West; as we learn that the struggles of the textile worker in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas; that the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in America's story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea: Yes - we - can.


Now I am a fan of Obama, at least more so than any of the other remaining likely candidates. And despite facing possible litigation from Bob the Builder over intellectual property, this speech exemplifies the future-looking politics of "hope" and "change" (the two key buzz words in the Obama campaign) that are drawing thousands, especially young people, to the senator's bandwagon.

This is a politics of dissatisfaction with the present. Indeed, Obama might have been reading some Jürgen Moltmann on this point; true hope, far from being a sedative, an opiate for the masses, is correlated with frustration towards the status quo.

Politics that trades on hope, as Obama's does, works by noticing the points of tension in society, the places where there are problems and offering an alternative, a possibility of change, something new and previously untried. For Moltmann, however, the movement between hope and dissatisfaction is the reverse: hope is generated by a divine promise of an inbreaking future that undermines our unthinking acceptance of the present. Something more is possible.

The problem with starting from the problem is that the more the present can be demonised, the more the politician offering something – anything – new is necessary. Change is made attractive in the abstract. The fear of the ongoing disaster overrules our default conservatism until we are ready to say "better the devil we don't know".

Now Obama doesn't simply offer change; there is content to his agenda, which can be compared with alternatives. But I am speaking about a mode of politics, a tone that arises most often in his campaign. For example, take these sentences: We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. There is a subtle shift in the meaning of "false hope" between the first and second sentences. The first speaks of particular hopes that may end up proving dangerously unfounded; the second of whether hope itself is misleading. By making this shift, the former possibility is obscured behind the noble sentiment of the latter. If we are simply discontent with how things are now to the point where we are willing to try almost anything else, then we would do well to reflect on which particular hopes may prove false, but these lines subtly discourage such reflection in an undifferentiated call for "change".

In contrast, for Moltmann, the content of hope is given in the gospel of Christ, particularly his resurrection from the dead. The new life of the crucified is a promise to a godless and godforsaken world that what God did for Christ he will one day do for his entire groaning creation. The deadly powers that destroy relationships will not last forever. The guilt of those who have collaborated with those powers will not hold back God's new order, nor will it disqualify the repentant from enjoying that order. It is this vision of a resurrection world gathered together and healed by the Spirit of the living Jesus that makes those who hold this hope dissatisfied with all that undermines life and love today. This is a healthier direction: from a specific promise to hope to dissatisfaction and action, rather than dissatisfaction generating a hope for any change that is then manipulated by politicians through their promises of action.

Against this divine great promise the human little promises of the politicians can be (at least provisionally) evaluated. The sure hope for this divinely-achieved future frees the present political system from the ultimately destructive burden of having to repair the world itself. Liberated from this impossible task, it can begin the smaller, actually possible one of taking one step in this direction. Not in hope that with enough steps we will climb our way to a heavenly existence, but in hope that such steps are possible as signs of trust in a God who will one day cause heaven to dwell on earth.

As I said, I still hope Obama wins, but this is a little hope, not a great one. He is not the messiah; neither he, or even we, can heal a nation or repair a world. Change is indeed necessary, but not any change, not at any price. Change is necessary because being too scared to love our neighbour as best as we can would be a demonstration of our unbelief in the God who will raise the dead.


Mark Stevens said...

Hi Byron, I was wondering how much your interest in the US election has been stirred by "The West Wing"? I noticed one Josiah Bartlett is a hero of yours! Since the primaries began in the States I have revisited season 6 to catch a glimpse of what life might be like on the road. My wife calls me a a WW junkie. I just say call it educated drama! My only concern so far with Obama is his confession that he believes in Jesus and the rights of gun owners...mmmmmm!

byron smith said...

Guilty as charged. Or rather, perhaps that is not the source of my interest, so much as my education in the US political system. My interest is because I try to care what's going on the world, and the US has a big say in what that is, and the President has a big say in what that big say will be.

If that's your only concern, you need to listen harder. ;-)

My main concern is the continuation of the myth of the redeemer nation. Listen again to this speech and ask "who is going to repair the world?"

Looney said...

I like your discussion of hope. Obama has even been emotionally attractive to me - a right wing nutcase! Still, the engineer in me asks questions like "how do you intend to accomplish the change?". With Hillary it is clear. With Obama all we have is a blank sheet. Perhaps the "devil we don't know".

Of course, my right wing instincts then kick in and I interpret "change" and "progress" to mean reinforcing the status quo. "Bringing people together" means making certain groups irrelevant to the point that their dissenting voices are no longer heard, even by their children. But somehow Obama really is different. He isn't mean like so many others.

Thankfully God is in charge and I just hope and pray for good to come of our naive decisions.

psychodougie said...

why is it that we care so so much about the US election process/circus?

i admit i'm likewise guilty - but in the same breath fail to comprehend this fascination.

and no, i don't watch the west wing!

Drew said...

WW has been a lot of my US politics education too.

Interestingly, in WW the rhetoric of the US-as-healer-of-the-world, a decidedly scary prospect as Byron suggests, is replaced in the WW by the US as reluctant hero who only acts because no one else will stand up for the bruised and weak.

Absent from the discussions of foreign policy in the last couple of series is any thought that an international politics, a reformed UN might, make any of those small steps that Byron mentions.

Anonymous said...

Gosh why would anyone be fascinated by the "hope" of an empty-suited Marxist is beyond me.

I hope you are well and truly over that illusion now that the election is over.

byron smith said...

Saint - why do you call Obama an empty-suited Marxist?