Adam Mansbach 2008

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On Hope

You know you're the frontrunner when your primary opponent and the other party's presumptive nominee are both launching attacks on you.  You know they're both desperate, and strapped for ideas, when those attacks are practically identical.  That's the situation Senator Barack Obama finds himself in today, after his eleventh straight primary win – the latest a 66% victory in yesterday's Democrats Abroad global primary, in which he won commanding victories in every region in the world containing U.S. voters.  Coupled with a major endorsement from the 5.1 million member union colation United for Change and the continuing defection of superdelegates once 'pledged' (a word we should regard with major skepticism from here on out) to Senator Clinton, it's been another good day for Obama.

And thus, in language so similar that one might be forgiven for thinking the two candidates have pooled speechwriters, Senators McCain and Clinton have stepped up their criticisms.  The line of attack remains unchanged; they seek to portray Obama as a purveyor of empty rhetoric whose messages of hope and change can do little beyond inspire.  If he were a James Brown song, McCain and Clinton seem to agree, Obama would be "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothin'."   If he had their decades of Washington experience, he would understand that the presidency is a football game waged on a muddy, frigid field in the middle of a driving rain, and the proper strategy is to run the ball, slog forward one hard-won yard at a time.  Obama, they are intent on convincing us, is the kind of quarterback who'd risk throwing the ball. Anything could happen then. 

Like, you know, a touchdown.  

As the talking points against Obama solidify in both opposition camps – with McCain's campaign claiming that the argument sounds better coming from him, even if it's failed to work for the floudering Clinton – it's worth examining the nature of this suddenly controversial word, "hope." 

Certainly, as Clinton has said, hope does not "pay your mortgage."  But what does it do, and how has Obama tapped into such a large reserve of it, among an American electorate 63% disapproving of the Republican president, 66% disapproving of the Democrat-controlled Congress, and 70% disapproving of the direction in which the country is headed? 

A friend of mine who teaches at a prominent divinity school contends that the hope Obama invokes and inspires is couched in the duplicitous language of religion.  That hope, by its very nature, is focused on some perpetual tomorrow, and that Obama's rhetoric is the poltical equivalent of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, a method of engagement that encourages us not only to endure but to accept what we should rail against.  That the office of the presidency is by nature so constrained that for significant  progressive change to begin there is impossible.  His issues with Obama have little do with policy or experience, but with the belief that 'hope' is fundamentally disempowering.
We've been arguing about this for weeks.  Perhaps hope is problematic, I say.  Perhaps it is a placebo and a panacea, historically used to the manipulate the masses into docility.  But what, then, is the absence of hope?  What does it mean to accept the impossibility of substantive transformation – not just to accept it, but to ensure it by electing a leader too cynical, too 'experienced,' to believe that paradigms can shift – that, for instance, talking to our enemies makes more sense than ignoring them?  Wouldn't that mean that we had forfeited before the game even began?

Adam Mansbach is the author of Angry Black White Boy (Crown) a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005, and The End of the Jews, forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau/Doubleday in March.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing