Barack Obama does the near-impossible: He makes hope cool.
One myth following Iowa’s caucuses is that Obama’s fandom arises from a visceral human attraction to hope. We see columns like, “Youth and hope: could Obama be the new RFK?” by Rupert Cornwell in The Independent of London. Similarly, on a Chicago Tribune blog, Frank James described “the power of the hope message” to “speak to the human heart.” The philosophy: Hope is a cultural foundation, as natural as “the human heart” itself.
I wish that were true. Obama’s confidence belies how hard he must work to make hope popular.
Firstly: What is hope? When we hope, we recognize something bigger than ourselves. If each of us could be 100 percent self-sustaining, we would not need to hope. But we all rely on forces outside our control: friends’ generosity, strangers’ kindness, luck, and depending on one’s beliefs, divine providence.
Our hopes are bigger than us in another way: in whom we hope for. We hope not only for ourselves, but also for our families, friends and communities. I hope my sister gets into her top choice for graduate school. I hope my hometown, Washington, sees less crime. I hope Yale, if it builds new colleges, does not build on faraway Prospect Street. To hope is to let something or someone beyond ourselves matter to us.
An odd paradox emerges from the fact that our hopes go beyond us:
As an ideal, hope wins wide admiration. Faiths and cultures laud it. People who like to flatter themselves often dub themselves dreamers.
In practice, people treat a hopeful person very differently.
The reason why arises from what draws one person to another. Too often, people seek relationships — romantic, social and political — with those whose presence reflects best on their own social attractiveness. Feeling good about such boosts one’s ego. It is human nature (though what is natural is not necessarily the most satisfying, let alone right). So, too often, people want to be around the person who is not most hopeful, but most hard to attract.
Consider: Person A meets two people. Person B is hopeful and caring. Person C would not go out of his way to hurt someone, but (unlike Person B) he is less than eager to go out of his way to make someone happier. He appears to need little more than himself. To A, the prospect of inclusion in this aura is exciting.
Person A may value this thrill of being chosen more than he would pay attention to the way C actually treats him. In contrast to C, Person B might, initially, strike Person A as powerless. Person B’s hopes take him beyond himself — into enjoying making others happy, and feeling friends’ hurts as his own — and leave him no aura of exclusivity to peddle.
We have all seen this phenomenon. The political version is Ronald Reagan’s line to Jimmy Carter in 1980’s presidential debates: “There you go again.” Carter was discussing his hope of health insurance for all Americans. Reagan, with a grin and a wisecrack, made Carter’s eager generosity seem weak, and his own carefree — careless — sunniness seem strong. Viscerally, everyone wanted to be let into that aura of “strength.” The debate was Reagan’s.
From James Dean to James Bond, from Daisy Buchanan to Brenda Patimkin, countless celebrities and characters have induced us to need them by seeming to need nobody. Consider Neil Strauss’ 2005 autobiography, “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.” It spawned a sequel, 2007’s “Rules of the Game,” which defines “the dating dichotomy” as “between weak guys and strong guys.” What is “strength”? It is seeking no one’s approval, “realiz[ing] that most people are … actually seeking your approval.” One possibility eludes Strauss: a relationship in which nobody seeks anybody’s “approval” — in which people genuinely likes to make each other happy, not out of fear, but out of love.
At one Yale party, I heard a loud conversation in which a girl snidely told a guy, “I love your child-like enthusiasm” — and a third person told her, “No. He’s just enthusiastic.” I thought: What a strange thing for her to say. To her, enthusiasm had to be child-like, just as for Strauss it is “weak,” and as for Reagan it merited a “there you go again.” Strength is the attitude (presumably hers) of holding back, of needing nobody, and thus alluring everybody.
Imagine if Carter’s idea was that the world is not divided into weak and strong. Imagine a culture in which personal attraction arose — not sometimes, nor often, but normally — from caring about each other.
To wish the best for America is to regret that Carter had such a tough time selling this idea.
So how does Obama succeed? I will offer some thoughts in my next column.
Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.