Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hope and paradox

Being an idealist by nature, I’ve always been a sucker for hope. The idealism is pretty tarnished by now—to the point where hope is really all I’ve got left. I certainly no longer have any faith in the institutions where faith should naturally reside, especially in the institutions of government.

So it was with a kind of wary hope that I watched Barack Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress last night—the non-state of the union. It’s been years since I watched a presidential speech, unable any longer to abide the insult of the illegitimate presence of George W. Bush standing where an actual elected president was constitutionally required. To tell the truth, I found the contrast reassuring.

Despite my misgivings about Obama, who has become the black Bill Clinton that I feared he would before the election, I cannot help but admire the man. He seems to have an amazingly focused intelligence, without Clinton’s psychological baggage, but with the same gift for politics. He’s the first president since JFK who I think I would genuinely enjoy having a beer with—if that’s still the standard by which we’re supposed to judge presidents.

He may also be the best that progressives could have hoped for, under the circumstances of an utterly corrupt political system. I sympathize with the view of my fellow radicals that Democrats and Republicans both work for the same puppetmasters. But after eight years of Bush, I don’t think that anyone can honestly say anymore that there are no differences between the two parties. The old saying is true: the difference is that Democrats think the corporate slaves should be treated humanely, in contrast to the ruthless exploitation that Republicans favor.

That seemed to be the message of the speech last night, as Obama highlighted the most popular components of his stimulus package and budget plans, to raucous standing ovations from the left side of the room. It was hilarious to see the dawning realization in the Republicans’ faces that they were getting punked; and by the end of the speech, they were standing up and applauding themselves, in opportune moments, just so their misanthropic ideology wouldn’t be completely obvious to the viewing audience. Even totalitarians have to cater to public opinion sometimes.

The dilemma for me, as a radical, became clear when Obama was talking about how important it was to save the present economic system. It was ironic, because I found myself in the same situation as the Republicans, but from the other side (triangulated again!). Here I am watching Franklin Delano Obama trying to save a capitalist system whose priorities are ravaging the Earth (I cringed when I heard him say “clean coal”) and inflicting untold suffering upon humanity (e.g. Afghanistan), and probably needs to crash and burn before the phoenix of a better system can rise from its ashes. Yet I also know full well that the impending collapse of the present system is already causing many people to suffer even more all over the world, and could easily lead to global chaos and a more militant fascism than what we already experience.

I suppose this makes me a gradualist. I’m not Rush Limbaugh; I don’t want Obama to fail. Yet at the same time, I don’t want him to completely succeed, either. I want him to be the pragmatist that he says he is, and come to the realization that the “change” he’s offering is not enough of a change to meet humanity’s real needs.

But of that, I have little hope.

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