Like a jilted lover, staff columnist for the News Daniel Nichanian ’08 chastises Obama in his recent column (“Cult-like chant does not translate into change” (2/18)) for spurning “real change” in favor of inspirational rhetoric. Of course nowhere in his column does he define what real change is, but no matter. Like countless pundits before him, Nichanian is adapt at talking out of both sides of his mouth. (Perhaps he is the one who should be running for office?)
Quoting Paul Krugman, the author labels the Obama movement a “cult of personality,” comparing Obama to John F. Kennedy and other politicians “for whom seducing a crowd is first and foremost designed to get [them] elected.” Nichanian appears to have passed Political Science 101 because he is right: In order to enact change, politicians must first run for office. Despite that kernel of truth the author misses the larger point, that inspiration or hope does not necessarily equate with cults.
Nichanian seems to prefer a candidate who, like Obama, has detailed plans on health care, ending the war on Iraq and stabilizing the economy, but who lacks Sen. Obama’s “cultish” ability to inspire. I am sure Sen. Clinton appreciates his vote. Politicians, Nichanian intones, are not meant to inspire. And perhaps that is only a natural reaction, since for so many years they have not.
“Just imagine,” the author writes, “how uncomfortable we would get if Bush’s speeches inspired people to tears.” It is impossible to imagine, because Bush has governed from his ideological perch on the far right, attacking Democrats and Republicans alike who differed from his own radical view.
Obama, though certainly a liberal, believes in reaching across the aisle, in moving beyond the partisan debates that, in his view, stem back to the 1960s. The Senator has tapped into a zeitgeist for change, a thirst for something different, but does that make him a cult leader? Are his supporters ready to drink the Kool-Aide of this 21st century Jim Jones? No, of course not. And yet, by using the inflammatory language of cults, that is the impression the author leaves in one’s mind.
Nichanian compares Sen. Obama to President Kennedy. Both were young, idealistic politicians, running on a platform of change: Kennedy’s the New Frontier, Obama’s Change We Can Believe In. Yet perhaps their greatest similarity is their ability to inspire and engage an otherwise apathetic generation.
Kennedy’s call to government service brought thousands of young men and woman into the Peace Corps while Obama’s campaign continues to see unprecedented youth voter turnout and support. Is calling for an age of post-partisanship a bit hokey? Too idealistic? Perhaps. It certainly hasn’t connected with as many working-class voters. (Or so it seems safe to say with Nichanian.) But calling these ideas cultish is outlandish and offensive; what pundits like Nichanian don’t realize (or chose to ignore) is that, for many people, Obama represents what they have always wanted in a leader: He is smart, articulate, principled and, yes, even inspirational, getting people involved who for so long have been turned off by politics. That makes him a hero, not a cult leader.
David Hamstra is a sophomore in Davenport College.