Three words have been running through my mind ever since I finally forced myself to watch the YouTube video sensation that features an all-star cast singing one of Barack Obama’s speeches. Yes. We. Can. In the video, this three-word refrain gets picked up at an increasingly frenzied rhythm, with celebrities entering trances at every utterance of the word “change.”
It is difficult for me to watch all four minutes of this video without feeling alarmed, perhaps because I am one of those cynics that Obama denounces. Paul Krugman’s labeling of the Obama movement a “cult of personality” was much derided by the Senator’s supporters, but how can that description be avoided when electoral speeches are now being recited as sacred creeds, even stamping their chanted slogans in the heads of skeptics like myself?”
It is one thing to be inspired by a social leader whose rhetoric is a call to action and to reorganization. But inspirational power is dangerous when exercised in the political realm. The Illinois senator’s speeches are often compared to those of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. But there is a major distinction to be made between figures like King, who use their oratory prowess to voice demands that can be directly acted upon, and politicians like Kennedy, for whom seducing a crowd is first and foremost designed to get elected. One thing that history has taught us is to always maintain a distance with political authority and to keep a skeptical watch on our elected leaders. When has reciting a politician’s words and admirably talking about fainting spells at a political rally ever been a idea?
Just imagine how uncomfortable we would get if Bush’s speeches inspired people to tears.
“Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change,” says Obama and the chorus in the video. Voiced by an activist during a strike or a rally, such a statement would be powerful and its rhetorical strength capable of moving mountains. But pronounced by a presidential candidate, that change is nothing but the leadership of one man, one individual with a magnetism so great as to unify the nation behind his speeches. When listening to Obama (and to this video), it is difficult to know what exactly we are being inspired to do — beyond voting for him — or what it is that we are proclaiming is within our ability to accomplish. And it is telling that “Yes we can” has long been a motto that unions and advocates of immigration reform use to further their agendas — a motto that is now trivialized in these acontextual chants.
I, too, want change. But I do not believe that one man by himself can represent change, nor that we should passively be waiting for it — or is it him? — to arrive. When a political candidate draws upon such rhetoric, he reduces activism to the simple act of casting a ballot. This is not to say that voting is unimportant — such a claim is laughable after George Bush’s two terms — but it is tragic to believe that the demand for change begins and ends on Election Day.
It is unfair to say that Obama’s message is all talk. The senator is very well versed in the issues of the day, and holds his own when the discussion turns to substance. It certainly doesn’t help that he has stayed as idealistic as possible in his speeches, and I for one find Obama much more effective in debates where he has to showcase his mastery of policy.
I will naturally support Barack Obama if he becomes the Democratic nominee. But how will progressives hold him accountable when he is surrounded by such an aura of fanaticism? At least there is this video to reassure me that yes, “we can repair this world” while achieving justice, equality, opportunity and prosperity. All of this is within our reach next Election Day, if we first cast our vote for one man.
Unfortunately, none of this evokes a particularly new chapter of American history. It merely proves that we can still chant our way through elections.
Daniel Nichanian is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.