DAVENPORT, Iowa — Dear Reader(s?). If your dear writer’s intellectual idealism has suffered somewhat of a setback in Iowa, an evening with Barack Obama has reminded him that idealism itself is never really dead. Idealism is like Morgan Freeman, playing God. The other characters in those movies can ignore Lord Freeman all they want, but after a few scenes, he always waltzes back in with his white hair and his stylish suit (could you imagine God any other way?) to remind everyone what’s up.
If idealism is never quite dead—let’s say it’s choking these days—Barack Obama is doing a rousing CPR everywhere he goes. He is convincing more people every day that he is out to change not only policies, but American politics itself. At a rally last night in Davenport, IA that drew upwards of a thousand supporters, Obama asked those who were still undecided to raise their hands, and not many did. Perhaps they were bashful. But when Obama was finished, every hand in the place was clapping. He is running well.
He is running against cynicism.
Like many political attitudes, cynicism is an anthropological thesis. What do people do? They screw other people. Obama’s thesis is the opposite: hope. It is perhaps a bit more hazy of a concept that even his supporters care to admit.
Most Democrats are offering very similar policy options here, and it is very difficult to see the differences. (Dennis Kucinich, perhaps the authentic, if weird, Leftist of the bunch, is not even here in Iowa. He is certainly the only one who promises to pull the U.S. out of NAFTA in the pipe dream that is his first day in office. More on him another time.) But this homogeneity of policies is why you must see Obama to believe him.
Indeed, the choice about Obama might involve something like belief—as Stephen Colbert might call it, “unfiltered by rational argument.”
Obama himself has made a choice, perhaps a kind of leap, to see things differently. He wasn’t born an idealist. He has made the choice not just to see polarized voters and a polarized society (it is there if you want it). Rather than pro-choice and pro-life, he see hybrids: “the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager’s abortion.” That’s from his book. I would suggest reading it; but again, you really must see him to believe him. (So here’s hoping he makes it to Cornell!)
If I have been typical of fellow students in not knowing very much about the 2008 campaign—feeling, in fact, rather cynical about it—while allowing that Obama sounds like a good guy, then we have been bad Obama supporters together. That is, we have been the very cynics he is fighting. Even if students do not support him, we are getting too old too quickly if we play the role of the cynic in his way. We ought to leave that to our parents, if anyone.
Of course, you can’t really argue cynicism versus hope in terms of logical points. It is a war waged in charisma, and hope seems to act much more like a snowball than a conventional weapon. In this snowball fight, Obama himself can do nothing alone—and if he is alone, he is wrong that people want change, precisely because he is alone. But if he has company, he is right.
What could be more democratic than that? We decide if Obama is right. He isn’t right or wrong yet.
He might already have the momentum he needs, in which case you can sit back and let Iowans and media spin do your work for you. Just read the polls, and you’ll know who to vote for. But if, like many college students, you’ve got Barack on your mind, and if you don’t expect to mind when it comes out that he hot-boxed his car once (who hasn’t)… that is, if you might take the Obama leap, you should take it now. Otherwise, the media and the states with primaries earlier than yours will have done it for you.
And get out your Bibles, or your copies of The Origin of Species. Or your Kierkegaard. This is something like a leap of faith.
This entry was written on Dec. 31, 2007 and published on Jan. 1, 2008. Jeremy Siegman is a Sun columnist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.