Our world offers public prominence to far too few people who live by sincerity and big-heartedness. Trying to defy these odds can leave one flummoxed, excluded, even embarrassed. In my last column, I discussed how a false dichotomy of strong and weak warps our culture. The trend runs from Reagan’s bullying Carter to the principles (or lack thereof) of Neil Strauss’ hit book, “The Game,” which cleaves the dating world into “master pickup artists” and “average frustrated chumps.” Per this philosophy, self-infatuation is derring-do. Hope is weak and needy.
But Barack Obama baffles that canard. His spirit is eager, his platform selfless, yet he is nobody’s chump. Bill Clinton called Obama’s candidacy a “fairy tale.” The New York Times labeled it “exciting” but “amorphous.” Still, Obama has risen from the second tier to win two of the first four contests.
We can use Obama’s methods to bring our world closer to one in which his spirit is not just possible, but normal. Here is a look at three such methods:
1) Vilifications do not stick to Obama because he does not vilify others. At times, Obama makes jabs, slamming Hillary Clinton in South Carolina’s debates for playing “the kind of political games that we are accustomed to.” But whereas Clinton routinely spars, Obama critiques the “political games” themselves. As he said in Saturday’s victory speech, the “status quo … extends beyond any particular party.” The only thing for which Obama bears vitriol is vitriol itself.
Clinton does not oppose Karl Rove’s edifice of the powerful vs. the overpowered. She just wants it to be liberals who do the overpowering. In her Iowa concession speech, she appealed to “Republicans who have seen the light.” (Yes, progress begins with insulting half the nation as unenlightened.) For Obama, liberalism means erasing the whole strong-weak game — and with a broad coalition, tackling problems, not each other. Once one tastes this notion, the barb that says Obama’s hope makes him “naive” does not stick to him. It signals how much we need him.
When one has long been bullied, one might feel the only option is bullying back. But truth will out. When it does, those who held fast to it emerge victorious, as Obama’s ascension shows. Those who sold it out risk being the last ones left playing someone else’s false game — embodying, as the Clintons do, the very incivility that hurt them first.
2) Obama never pretends that life is not challenging. His platform is not the “false hope” that Clinton mocks. Consider Raffi’s protest album, “Resisto Dancing.” Raffi’s heart is in the right place, as always. But what stymies his endeavor is that he never wrestles with life’s challenges. In Raffi’s universe, “every household could sing a song of joy” if only “leaders” would quit “counting only the money” and “put their children first.” Is that all it would take? Even in the fairest world, people would sweat to procure food and raise children, neighbors and companies would have disagreements, small anxieties would freckle psyches and relationships, mortality would abide — and ameliorating these difficulties would be hard work.
Grappling with these truths is not corruption. It is the balancing act of living. Nor is ducking these truths “hope.” Saying so gives the Karl Rove-Neil Strauss axis the evidence it craves.
Obama recognized this in his Iowa victory speech: “We’ve been teased … for talking about hope. But we always knew that hope is not … shirking from a fight. Hope … insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage … to work for it.” The consistency of Obama’s support for bringing our troops home, strengthening health care and making college more affordable gives his rhetoric force.
3) Obama does not let anyone make him afraid of his own ideas. Amid Bush’s hawkish McCarthyism, one could be forgiven for fearing that only dampening liberalism could make liberalism palatable. But the failure of tepid, waffling John Kerry proved the opposite: One might lose by professing one’s own beliefs, but one will do no better by professing someone else’s.
Too often, social forces leave us ignored, even ridiculed, for who we are. But when we let them warp our characters, we do no better than to spend a day uneasily being someone we are not, or, worse, someone we dislike. For those who yearn to replace power dynamics with hope, joy comes only in being oneself and acting accordingly.
That lesson sounds easy — until one thinks of each moment when being oneself leaves one feeling out of place. At these times, nobody is around to promise a spiritual dividend. But if Obama can overcome, so can we.
Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.