On January 20, 2009, the United States witnessed a historic event. The first African American was inaugurated as president of the nation, symbolizing the partial fulfillment of a constitutional premise that until that moment had existed mostly in word rather than action: “all men are created equal.” I can only describe the mood on the East coast as electrifying. Even those who did not attend the inauguration participated in various ways. At the college where I teach, hundreds of students showed up to watch the event collectively, cheering at various points as we were witnessing in real time the various celebrations.
It was enormously significant that the inauguration coincided with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Ithaca College students had organized a day of action. The program began with the MLK Scholarship Program students’ presentation on their civil rights tour to the South, spreading a vivid, informed and intense awareness about the meaning of those that had come before us, of their willingness to die for justice, equality, and for the mutual recognition of humanity. The MLK scholars reminded us how recent the history of disenfranchised votes, structural exclusion, and racial violence was for African Americans in the United States. The day continued with community action and informative workshops, and finished with a concert that involved every ensemble and choir in the Ithaca College music school. There was a spirit of community instead of the technological isolation and individualist indulgence I had come to accept as normative; there was deep reverence for past history rather than the usual ruminations of ostrich-like historical amnesia.
What had moved people’s spirits toward this collective jubilation, I asked myself? What was it about the moment that provoked tears and smiles of pure joy? How had hope and history been cultivated, and toward what end?
I should preface these questions by saying that I am generally suspicious of ‘herd mentality,’ and I scrutinize the phenomenon of masses relinquishing their agency and control to any political leader closely. Indeed, we cannot afford to disengage from such scrutiny, since history has taught us of the dangers of such euphoric belief in political leaders (Hitler and Stalin being only two examples). In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich asks a provocative question that we generally avoid: Why do people relinquish their agency and freedom to charismatic political leaders rather than engage in acts of self-determination and freedom? Reading fascism psychoanalytically, Reich argued that the people essentially imbue charismatic political leaders with superego qualities, submitting to their authority in much the same way a child would submit to the authority of a father. What they gain in return is a sense of security, a sense of protection, and relief from the anxieties raised by having to be the agent of one’s own destiny.
Getting swept up in the public sentiments of President Obama’s inauguration, I found myself oscillating between two emotions: concern that Americans would relinquish too much of their agency to the political leaders of Obama’s Administration and a surge of hope that we were on the cusp of a new historical bloc. For the moment, the affective surge of hope and possibility for a new era overshadowed the concern about relinquishing freedom to charismatic leaders. Let me explain why.
A few days after the inauguration, in Time Magazine’s commemorative issue, there was a behind-the-scenes photo essay of the Obama family as they prepared for the historic ceremony. There were two photos that caught my eye in particular. One was of Obama speaking to an African American man who was serving the president-elect the morning coffee at the White House. Obama was smiling as he talked to the server while the server seemed at ease in his demeanor, and certainly not deferential. The symbolic power of the photo—its ability to mark a historical shift in race relations—was enormous. The peculiar historical relationship African-Americans have had to ‘servitude’ seemed to burst apart at the seams, since both the servant and the president were Americans of African descent.
The second photo was of the entire Obama family amidst ornate White House furniture clad in gold and red. Obama is talking to his daughter Malia while pointing to a portrait of President Reagan, as if giving her a history lesson while she listens attentively. Michelle Obama, dressed in her attractive gold ensemble, is sitting on the ornate couch clasping Sasha’s shoe buckle, while Sasha casually lies on the couch welcoming the assistance. This second photo struck me for its remarkable naturalness, its lack of posturing and absence of stoic portraiture. It was marked by an unassuming atmosphere, as if the subjects in the photo were not taking themselves as seriously as everyone else was. Rather than acting like the key actors in an event being watched by the entire world, they were acting like themselves, like an everyday family. There was a remarkable absence of self-importance and affinity with the everyday normally unseen among the elite, let alone among the presidential family. This second photo allowed an emotive identification, because the Obama family did not seem to place themselves on a pedestal beyond the reach of ordinary people.
These two photos, along with the consistency with which Obama has spoken forthrightly and genuinely, symbolize to me the possibility that political leaders can certainly be the agents of authoritarianism, but they can also be the agents of progressive change. There are a few patterns I have noted to make me believe in the possibility that the hope that had been cultivated in the presidential campaign might be put to good use.
The first is that I have heard people say repeatedly, “It’s time to get to work.” Noting a similar revitalization in the notion of citizenship participation, Joe Klein of Time noted in the commemorative inauguration issue, “During the transition, the Obama website called for supporters to hold community meetings to discuss their health-care priorities. A staggering 10,000 meetings purportedly were held; 5,000 sent written reports — more paper! — to the transition office. This is a new kind of politics, with the potential to be the most powerful citizen army in U.S. history.” Indeed, it has been a long time since a political leader has not only asked for a new level of participation in civic engagement but has regarded the citizenry as a partner in creating a cultural ethic that elevates the good of many over the good of a few. I draw my hope from the idea that a practical engagement with this ethic might produce effects that Obama’s Administration cannot predict and may not even desire. In other words, once people feel empowered to act as agents of their own destiny, their ideas and actions can move beyond the intended and controlled effects desired by political leaders. The emergence of a new historical bloc means the reorganization of power relations. We do not yet know what this reorganization (if it happens) will produce and whom it will benefit. That people see themselves as workers of change rather than as passive spectators, however, is a hopeful prospect.
The second pattern that has permitted my usually skeptical self to follow this early surge of hope is the tone of Obama’s addresses. The most remarkable aspect of his inaugural speech, as well as past speeches, is the ways in which he permits complexity rather than the simplistic binaries we had grown accustomed to under the Bush Administration. On the stalemate discussion of “big vs. small government,” Obama stated, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.” On the stalemate discussion of “free markets without oversight” vs. “government-controlled economies,” Obama stated, “Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.” On the question of war vs. constitutional principles, he stated, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
Binaries of ‘good vs. evil’ may be useful invocations in the art of political rhetoric, but they rarely paint an accurate picture of people’s complex realities. Simplistic thinking encourages ignorance, and ignorance is almost always a conduit for more violence and suffering in the world. The permission to address the world’s problems in a more nuanced way, in a way that doesn’t ignore difficult choices, in a way that conjures people’s ability to be good to each other and move toward the considerations of shared humanity—that, is hopeful indeed.
The Politics of Hope in the Making of History
- Scris de Paula Ioanide PhD
- Categorie: Paula Ioanide