[25 August 2008]
What is the nature of hope? The dictionary defines it this way: “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best; to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence; anticipating a positive outcome.”
By that definition, shouldn’t hope be a crucial feature of any political campaign? “Anticipating a positive outcome”—isn’t that what we all want from our leaders, a sense that they are moving us in a positive direction? Don’t all voters look across the amorphous timeline of a potential candidate’s term and anticipate positive results in exchange for their votes?
Yet this year, Barack Obama has had a corner on hope. More than 20 candidates threw their hats into the ring for the 2008 US Presidential election, and while many tried to emphasize the advantages of their own candidacy, very few of them spoke of hope. The pack spoke of facing challenges and confronting threats and ubiquitously referenced “change”, but few if any used the H-word. (Marketing a president without using “hope” seems akin to marketing a restaurant without using the word “delicious”.)
Granted, Obama had the foresight to lay claim to the word well before the election with his book, The Audacity of Hope, so perhaps other candidates worried that the word “hope” would make voters think of their opponent. But I doubt that’s the motivation: Talking about hope requires a candidate to talk about themselves, and the status quo of modern presidential politics is that it’s safer to lambaste the opponents position than it is to commit your own ideas and intentions to the public record.
Fear—now there’s a word most campaigns can get behind. Whether you support or abhor current President Bush, whether you believe we need to fight the terrorists “there” so we don’t have to fight them “here” or believe that we create more terrorists than we eliminate through military aggression, you have to agree that fear was a big motivator in The W campaigns: Fear that gay marriage would undermine the morality of the nation; fear that talking to our enemies would give them a leverage they didn’t deserve; fear that we might run out of oil if we don’t drill in Puget sound.
It’s not just Bush and Rove. (Though to their credit, they mastered the methodology.) Hillary Clinton sought to gain traction with her “It’s 3AM, who do you want answering the phone?” spot. (Apparently, the voter’s answer to that question isn’t “Hillary”.) Every candidate tried to paint McCain as Bush Jr., supporting all of the same policies that have frustrated so much of the nation. (The polling numbers clearly indicate frustration.) Sadly, in politics, fear works.
I watched V for Vendetta recently, a harrowing indictment of political machines intent on retaining power by manipulating the news and the populace, best summed up by the angry chancellor’s demand to his staff, “I want everyone to remember why they need us!” Of course, that movie is set in the future, but as author William Gibson wrote, “science fiction (is) always about the period in which it was written. 1984 is really about 1948. It can’t really be understood outside the historical context of 1948.” (source: “The cyberpunk arrives at the present”, by Adam Dunn, CNN.com, 4 February 2003) Indeed, that assertion applies to V for Vendetta, as the parallels between current political techniques and the story’s exaggerated atmosphere of generated fear and eroding personal liberties are discomforting.
With those evident parallels, the times feel ripe for a hopeful leader. Yet hope is inevitably optimistic, and optimism is increasingly an anomaly in modern America. Author Susan Jeffers wrote, “We have been taught to believe that negative equals realistic and positive equals unrealistic”, and that lesson has permeated American society. (Susan Jeffers PhD, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Random House, 1987).This is not to say that hope is an entirely dormant emotion, but it is considerably out of vogue in this post-modern ironic environment: Watch any local news program and compare the ratio of stories that grab your attention with shock and fear versus positive progress. A city can build 100 miles of bike paths without media mention, but a confrontation between a biker and a driver is urgent news.
These days, “realistic” has become a synonym for “pessimistic”. My daughter and I were watching Bob the Builder, and when the question was asked, “Can we fix it?” the enthusiastic response from the claymation crew is, “Yes we can!” (Hmm, that sounds familiar, somehow.) Yet in the real world, the question, “Can we fix it?” is too often met with series of caveats and back pedals that amount to an answer of, “Realistically, no.”
That so-called “realistic” view considers that people won’t work to their full potential, that financial projections will be inaccurate and additional funding will be unavailable, that red tape will strangle the project. We’ve gone from a problem solving mentality to a problem identifying mindset. Not all of us individually, but as a collective mindset, we’ve come to consider complaining about a problem as contributing to the discourse, even when no solution is offered with the complaint.
Personally, I like skepticism. Skepticism is an intellectual firewall that prevents our psyche from obediently believing the announcer when he assures us that a show like Cavemen is “the best new show of the year”. But while a healthy skepticism serves as a useful filter, its value is lost when it mutates into a debilitating cynicism, the filter so constricted that promising ideas get snagged in the same mental clog as the inane ones. At that point, hope just doesn’t seem realistic.
I’ve heard that broadly, science fiction writers fall into two camps: Those who think the future will be shiny, full of growth and prosperity, and those who think it will be rusty, full of the decaying hulks of generations of discarded machinery. Alan Moore (who wrote the original V for Vendetta comic series) and William Gibson fall into the latter set, those skeptical of a gleaming metallic future: Where would all of the ancient (read: 20th century) infrastructure have gone?
I’d be the first to admit, the landscape of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (dilapidation and collapse) seems more likely than Woody Allen’s Sleeper (minimalist, art-infused efficiency.) But the actual future isn’t a screenwriter’s concoction—it’s a story we are collectively writing right now. I’m not sure how we’ll handle the inevitable rusting of the infrastructure that surrounds us today, but I like to think that our presidential candidates see a little bit of shimmer and gleam in their vision of the future. While “realistic” seems infused with pessimism these days, I prefer to think there’s enough optimism in our culture to ensure that fear isn’t the pen with which we write our script.
At least, I hope so.
A scene from Idiocracy (2006)