Monday, November 3, 2008

Narratives of Hope

This morning, walking from home to the Online Cafe, taking in the array of Obama signs displayed before many of the houses and apartment buildings I passed, I thought about what what different things one of the key words/keywords of Obama's campaign, "hope," mean for the heterogeneity of citizens that I imagine are choosing to vote for him. Ninety percent of the US public are said to believe that the US is "on the wrong track." Such a belief isn't, of course, accompanied by a clear notion of what the "right track" would necessarily be. But the sense of "wrongness" (which such a characterization implies), without hope, can lead to despair. And although despair can be and has often been exploited by wily, unscrupulous politicians, it is, as with individual human beings, liable to a degree of chaos and disaster that en masse soon has the possibility of becoming intolerable and thus difficult to sustain as the new status quo.

"Hope," as a refusal of despair, allows us (finally!) to grab hold of the notion that it doesn't have to be this way. For decades, now, many people in the US have believed (or behaved as though they believed) that what is simply must be: that substantial change (except for the worse!) is simply impossible. Granted, the incompetents at the helm who've crashed the US economy are still insisting that their navigational principles are fundamentally sound. Rigging the system so that all wealth flows upward, into the hands of a very few, is, they keep telling us, the only way it can be. (Any other way is "socialism," which they've been telling us for almost two decades now was thoroughly discredited by the USSR's defeat in the Cold War.) But regardless of what the incompetents are saying, it is a fact that that key Obama word, "hope," carries with it numerous, partially glimpsed narratives that pose alternatives to What Is.

One of such narratives, because it involves race, isn't being discussed very openly where white people are present. And yet, it is absolutely palpable. An article in today's Toronto Star, King's Dream Nears Reality in Cradle of Civil Rights, focuses on it, though curiously without explicitly spelling it out.

On the Sunday before election day in America, politics and religion do mix. And few places are more fervently engaged than this town [Selma, Alabama], steeped in civil rights lore.

[Young boys play in front of the Brown Chapel, in Selma, Ala., Nov. 2, 2008. The church played a pivotal role in civil rights marches in 1965.

"It's your season to be blessed," sings the choir of the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. "God made you a promise, you stood the test."

Parishioners rise to join the refrain and there's little doubt that many are thinking about the "promise" of tomorrow's election, with their favoured candidate Barack Obama leading in the polls.

"He's opened up the window and poured you out a blessing." Everyone's singing now, rocking in frenzied holiness.

"It's your season to be blessed."

The article then moves to another church a few blocks away, with a "less effervescent audience" [clearly the reporter is not a church-goer], where someone visiting (from a Catholic Church) for the occasion remarks

"I feel like Dr. King is looking down," Dorothea says, King's bust towering down from the monument in front of the church. "I feel like he's reached that mountaintop. He had that dream; now it's coming to reality."

Back at Ebenezer, the choir has given way to Rev. Frederick Reese, 79, and still pastor. A legend, who got his head cracked open trying to march from Selma to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday. His sermon plumbs the familiar biblical story of the Jews' deliverance from Egyptian bondage.

And within minutes, Reese and his audience are in a holy synchronization.

Like the Children of Israel "we've endured many difficulties, but the Lord has brought us to possess the land," he intones.

"You can hold out a little while longer," he implores.

Another alternative narrative can be glimpsed in a quote from Obama in an article in the UK's Independent:

Barack Obama is promising a $150bn "Apollo project" to bring jobs and energy security to the US through a new alternative energy economy, if his final push for votes brings victory in the presidential election on Tuesday.

"That's going to be my number one priority when I get into office," Mr Obama has said of his "green recovery" plans. Making his arguments in a radio address yesterday, the Democratic favourite promised: "If you give me your vote on Tuesday, we won't just win this election. Together, we will change this country and change the world."

The election has come during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but he declared: "We'll invest $15bn a year over the next decade in renewable energy, creating five million new green jobs that pay well, can't be outsourced and help end our dependence on foreign oil." The appeal of the idea that clean energy could help to kick-start the economy is such that Mr Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain, has also promised "millions" of green jobs if he wins.
. . . . .

In the mayhem of the election campaign, Mr Obama has yet to deliver a major speech about his renewable energy plans. But he has pledged to create five million new "green collar jobs", largely by greatly expanding the use of renewable energy, which should supply a tenth of America's electricity within four years, insulating a million homes a year and to put a million rechargeable "plug-in hybrid cars" on the road by 2015.

He also wants the US motor industry to take a lead in producing environmentally friendly vehicles rather than 4x4s. He promises to invest in clean engine technology, to increase America's hitherto lax car fuel economy standards by 4 per cent a year, and to boost sales of green cars by giving a $7,000 tax credit to people who buy them. And he has pledged to convert the White House fleet to plug-in hybrids within a year of taking office.

There is growing acceptance from economists in the US that a Green "New Deal" should be a fundamental part of the solution to the financial crisis and to America's long-term security concerns.

At the same time, British ministers are planning a huge increase in environmentally friendly investment as a central part of its economic rescue plan. Japan's Prime Minister, Taro Aso, has called the green economy "a great opportunity for new growth". And plans are being laid in the Australian treasury for a 3,000 per cent growth in green jobs over the next decades.

But it is the American plans that could have the greatest effect in dragging the world economy out of crisis. Mr Obama believes that a new clean-energy economy "can be the engine that drives us into the future in the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades".

The head of Mr Obama's transition team, John Podesta, has called for "a new vision for the economic revitalisation of the nation and a restoration of America's leadership in the world", adding: "We must seize this precious opportunity to mobilise the country and the international community towards a brighter and more prosperous future."

The beauty of such a proposal is its absolute departure from two this-is-the-way-it-has-to-be narratives that have been dominating the political landscape since 1980. One of these narratives is the insistence that any opposition to the ever-increasing consumption of Oil is unthinkable; and the other, of course, is the rejection of any possible version of the New Deal's WPA program in the post-WWII US. We've been told over and over that it was an aberration and that it failed-- that wartime-spending was what bailed out the US economy, not government-provided jobs focused on building domestic infrastructure.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that tomorrow will see the start of a lot of new narratives, previously "unthinkable." Will we be entering the grammar of What Could be?

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