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Fail to Inspire Hope and We Fail the Future

Thomas More's Utopia

Thomas More's Utopia

Those of us who pursue a progressive vision of America’s future are disappointed so far in Barack Obama. We should keep in mind, however, that neither America nor any other nation has achieved anything near our hopes for political equality and economic justice. The changes we are fighting for, changes some naively felt simply came with Obama’s victory, would be unique in human history. In my own case, the hoped for changes are, after all, utopian, a word that comes from the Greek for “no place.”

I don’t say this to diminish expectations, though. I say it to encourage focus on the real wellsprings of hope: ourselves. We face a crisis of morale. The 2010 elections will tell us more about ourselves than about Obama. Progressives have to remember that the president is not the symbolic hero in a movie we just sit and watch. We’re in the movie. It’s about us, not him.

America has never had a progressive president or a progressive government. We have achieved progressive reforms, of course, all of them due to the work of champions of freedom and equality who worked outside of government. Abolition, universal suffrage, labor reforms, civil rights – all of these were the achievements of a people, not a person.

On health care, Obama made a terrible mistake when he aimed at reform that would somehow not alienate the health insurance industry, an industry with unparalleled power over our lives. The insurance industry is the very source of the crisis. It is a business that earns all of its profits from the denial of coverage and benefits. Any solution that protects those profits will fail.

While we struggle to overcome that fundamental error, we run the risk of demoralizing Americans. In the long run, we need one another more than we need Obama. I might even say that inspiration should be our first and most important strategy. Our demoralization is certainly a key strategy of our opponents, as it has been with all authoritarians. A great essay on the renewal of hope in the face demoralizing tyranny is Vaclav Havel’s, “The Power of the Powerless.”

I have many acquaintances who can no longer even read news about the health care reform because they find it depressing. This demands recognition and action. These anxious folk are not weak or apathetic. Their hopes need renewing. We rely on our individual resources, but also upon one another for inspiration. If we don’t take steps to relieve the anxiety and restore hope, we will set the movement back a decade. The 2010 elections will be lost, but that may turn out to be the least of our problems.

I have no explanation for my own continued optimism. I think I’m just lucky. Many nights I go to bed discouraged. Most mornings I wake up with renewed hope and energy. I promise, it has more to do with some accident of metabolism than it does any act of will. Markos Moulitsas asked me this question many years ago. How can I stay in the fight after so many years, he asked, noting that I live in Texas. This was the only answer I could come up with.

However, after acknowledging the fact of hope, I can read back into it some beliefs and some consequences.

Hope requires a tougher realism than either cynicism or surrender. Without an eyes-wide-open view of what is, the necessary steps for change are impossible to determine. Also, hope can easily devolve into a sentimental “everything’s gonna be alright” passivity or naivety. Popular melodrama sells a lot of this.

As the poet Charles Olson said, “what does not change/is the will to change.” One thing we can be sure about:  life and the universe are going to change. The only question is what will the change look like. As the song says, the future’s not ours to see. But it is ours to make. One individual can seem a puny thing next to a multinational corporation, a government or a galaxy. But then, the individual consciousness is one of creation’s grandest achievements. We shouldn’t sell it short.

There are unlucky metabolisms, too. I can’t assume everyone wakes up as optimistic as I do. I have a responsibility to reinforce the hopes of those who may have suffered more setbacks or lived through more misery than I have.

Finally, as regards the movement’s public face, especially its online presence, we have to remember we are not just talking to ourselves. Relentless struggle in the face of disappointment and betrayal has to be always accompanied by confidence, courage, and steadfast belief in the possibility of success.

When we fail to inspire hope, we fail the future, which, one way are the other, we are bound to live into.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith