Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday Food for Thought: Hope and Fear

Hope is nature's veil for hiding truth's nakedness.
- Alfred Bernhard Nobel

That's a fine quote and I could leave it at that but there's been much more on my mind about the subject of 'hope' the past few days since Barack Obama's Iowa speech which has sent some so-called left-wing bloggers like Ezra Klein to rediscover the religion of politics. If Obama keeps up this kind of rhetoric, I fully expect those who were so apparently so incredibly and inspirationally bowled over to start taking snake-handling lessons next week as a testament to their new-found faith.

Lord almighty, indeed.

It is practically tantamount to blasphemy to regard the idea of hope as being basically useless. All of the major religions, except Buddhism (of which I am a student), preach about the deliverance that comes through hope and faith. And that works for people who tend to see some sort of 'just reward' in their future. Zen Buddhism, being a much more practical and logical sort of belief system relies on living in the moment. I won't go into a Zen lesson here or claim that I live it faithfully - especially since I'm just a generalist Buddhist (not adhering to any particular sect and if there is such a thing although I suppose there must be since I am one) - but I did write a post On Hope in 2006 that more fully explores the thinking behind not living on hope as a concept and how it applied for me to the political situation at that time. I won't rehash all of that now but here's a snippet:

I thought I knew in 2004 that John Kerry would be elected. I had hoped it would be so. This time, I'm more of an observer who's decided not to feast on the empty calories of hope. If the Democrats win, I'll rejoice (even though I don't know how much of a difference they'll be able to make any time soon, but a change is as good as a rest, they say). If they fail to regain control of the house and/or senate, then here we'll all be again for the last two years of Bush's so-called presidency railing against the injustices and trying to put one foot in front of the other as he continues to lead America down an already dangerous and unsteady path aided by Republican guides who have no idea what they're doing besides hoping that at least one of them knows one end of a horse from the other. And so far, the only thing we know for sure is that they're most comfortable following the horse's ass who's running the country while hoping that the enormous amount of shit he's caused will be cleaned up by someone else sometime in the future.

My how things change (or don't) in a short and brutal two years. The Democrats (who I no longer support) did regain control and seriously mishandled their power so people are still waiting for someone to clean up the mess.

And that's where this faith in Obama's message of 'hope' comes in. Because of his ability to give inspiring speeches, he's being heralded as the new messiah and, for atheists like me, that spells danger.

Just look at the effect his last speech had on Ezra Klein, a member of the so-called 'reality-based' community:

In the days to come, just as in the days that have passed, I'll talk much more about Obama's policies. About his health care policy, and his foreign policy, and his social policy, and his economic policy. But so much as I like to speak of white papers and scored proposals, politics is not generally experienced in terms of policies. It's more often experienced in terms of self-interest, and broken promises, and base fears, and half-truths. But, very rarely, it's experienced as a call to create something better, bigger, grander, and more just than the world we have. When that happens, as it did with Robert F. Kennedy, the inspired remember those moments for the rest of their lives.

And therein lies the problem: when words of any kind can be strung together by a politician separate from their actual policy positions and held in such esteem that they surpass or suspend reality, you know you have just listened to a master politician at work. Never forget that Obama is not the leader of a movement, like Martin Luther King Jr. (who he's often been compared to and who he likes to harken back to just as often). He is a man running for the highest political office in the US of A. You can certainly view a politician in terms of their ideology and their platforms but they must work together as a cohesive unit - as they did with RFK (and I'll leave the Kennedy historians to fight that one out). Obama's don't.

Let's look at some of Obama's policies: his belief in violating Pakistan's sovereignty to go after al Qaeda without the permission of that country's government, his refusal to call for universal, single-payer health care (bowing down to the established forces in health care), his use of a lobbyist as his campaign chair in New Hampshire while he rails against the influence of lobbyists in DC, his pandering to AIPAC where he railed against the supposed evils of Iran and these statements from his Thursday nite speech (which ought to be troubling to anyone who thinks his 'hope' rhetoric is nothing but a positive message):

* Hope -- hope is what led me here today. With a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.

* Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.

So, what's wrong with that, you ask? Well, anyone whose temperature rises when they hear the echoes of American exceptionalism: [...difference is often expressed in American circles as some categorical superiority, to which is usually attached some alleged proof, rationalization or explanation that may vary greatly depending on the historical period and the political context] would immediately recognize that sentiment in Obama's "only in America" comment. It's an egotistical way of seeing one's country as being the sole provider of any supposed 'good' thing. Just think about how foreign interventionists like the idea of 'spreading American-style democracy' around the world, which brings me to the second bolded phrase - remaking the world as it should be.

There is nothing that smacks of empire more than that statement - this idea that somehow the USA has the right or the responsibility to 'remake' the world. Haven't we already seen enough of that throughout America's history? Failure after failure as the result of CIA-sponsored coups and assassinations while threats and bribes have been the tools of these American style extreme makeovers. Just how much more blood are Americans willing to spill in the name of recreating this supposed Eden known as the United States of America around the world? That is Obama's foreign policy dream. Does that inspire hope to you? Is that "change"?

One thing people often forget is that hope and fear are often two sides of the same coin. Let me use a current, common advertizing scheme that generates billions of dollars per year based on exactly those two emotions as an example of what I'm talking about. You've all seen the ads:

Queue the picture of a woman's aging face. This is how anti-wrinkle products are sold (and remember, politicians are nothing more than products sold to the electorate and they're about as effective as these numerous creams as well):

The fear message: Your wrinkles are ugly and no one wants to see them.

The hope message: Use this cream and your wrinkles will disappear.

As with every product, it's not the cream that's actually being sold, it's the underlying message: It is socially unacceptable for a woman to show an aging face because it makes her less desirable. Therefore, for the sake of society and the woman, this flaw must be corrected.

We're all exposed to whatever the big corporations choose to throw at us via ads every day about our numerous flaws (bad breath, stained teeth, limp hair, bad body nauseam) and we buy the products because they give us hope - that inspirational feeling that Klein and others who have seen religion after listening to Obama's speech are currently experiencing. America is broken and Obama is the cream to fix it. Before you buy that, it might be useful to look at the actual ingredients (policy statements) in that Obama cream and how effective or desirable they are before you waste your money (and your emotions) on something that might make you feel or look good for a couple of hours but cannot deliver on the larger promise of actually fixing your so-called problem for all time.

So, going back to the fact that there is a message you're being sold every time a politician campaigns for your vote, you'd do well to closely examine what that is - not only from Obama, but from all politicians - because, in the end, whether it's coming across as fear or hope-based, I think you'll find the message is the same.

Can I get a chant of 'USA! USA!'? Hallelujah!

You'll see now why I chose that quote by Nobel to lead this off. Don't be sold fear or hope. Invest in the truth. It's as simple (and rational) as that and you certainly don't need to be a Zen master to figure that one out.

No comments:

Post a Comment