Hope and cynicism and Barack Obama

As readers of this blog know, I tend to follow politics fairly closely. I have done so for as long as I can remember. In Sri Lanka, politics was our national pastime and you could always strike up a good political discussion almost anywhere, and it was easy to become a political junkie.

As I have got older, my feelings about politics have become more ambivalent, a mixture of hope and cynicism. My hope has arisen from my increased awareness that most people seek justice and fairness at a very fundamental level and so I have always been in favor of efforts to increase participation. The more that ordinary people get involved in politics, the broader the participation, the more likely we are to have good results in the long run.

This does not mean that in the short run people will not make terrible decisions. We are, after all, the products of our history and upbringing and carry with us all kinds of relics of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other prejudices that will influence people in negative ways. Those factors can subvert the underlying drive for fairness.

While my sense of hope springs from a belief in the essential desire for fairness that people have, my cynicism comes from awareness that the structures of politics are designed to shut ordinary people out from any meaningful decision-making, reserving it for an elite and wealthy group that will serve its own interests, while preserving merely the façade of democracy. The way that is being done in the US is by making the election process so complicated and expensive, and the decision-making processes so obscure and arcane, that only those who have deep financial resources can hope to devote the time and energy to influence policies. These elite groups want to make change hard to achieve unless it serves their own interests, and they have largely succeeded.

But despite the odds, significant changes do occur and have occurred. We have seen the end of slavery, increasing rights for women, and major civil rights victories. We have seen the elimination of child labor, the right to unionize, the introduction of the 40-hour week, and more protections for the health and safety of workers. All these were important.

There are three major areas where I think we are on the verge of major changes for the better, although there are still obstacles facing us. These changes will come about irrespective of who gets elected to what position, though those elections can affect the speed of developments.

One is the fight for universal, single-payer health care. (For my previous posts on this, see here.) This will definitely come about fairly soon, though I do not know exactly when. The present system is too unfair, wasteful, corrupt, inefficient, exasperating, and infuriating to not collapse under its own contradictions. What both candidates are currently proposing are like plugging holes in a dike, short-term fixes to preserve the unseemly profits of the health insurance companies, pharmaceutical industry, and some health professionals. It will not last.

The second is equal rights for gays. This, I believe, will come very soon. The now routine and bland acceptance of gay people in most communities, the lack of controversy about gay marriage in Massachusetts, and the likely defeat of the anti-gay marriage referendum in California, are all signals that we are seeing the final gasp of homophobia.

The third is greater concern for the global environment and health. Those who think that we can treat our environment and ecosystem cavalierly are increasingly being seen as religious or free-market extremists.

Why do I think these things will happen, even though they are all currently opposed by entrenched influential and powerful groups? Because those issues are on the right side of history and such issues always win in the end.

As readers know, I do not expect much from Barack Obama as president. I expect him to be a cautious and centrist leader, careful not to rock the boat, someone who will follow the largely pro-war, pro-business agenda adopted by the current one-party/two-factions system. This is not necessarily a reflection on his personal beliefs. People from under-represented groups (such as women or minorities) who are the first to achieve prominent positions always carry the extra burden of having to prove their competence. Failure will not be interpreted as an individual thing (as is the case with that of a member from the majority group) but as their entire group members being incapable of the task. In order to not ruin things for those who follow them, such people become conventional, ultra-cautious, and risk-averse.

But at the same time, I expect Obama to be thoughtful and informed and intelligent in his decision-making, and much better than John McCain, who strikes me as a reckless and hot-headed warmonger in the Bush mold, completely under the baleful influence of the neoconservatives. Somehow I cannot see Obama doing anything rash or stupid or dangerous, the way McCain might. In fact, it will be a real relief to have a president who will act with the dignity that the office deserves.

The absurd charge that the Republicans are trying to make that Obama is ‘elitist’ is really a charge that he is too cerebral, and that what we need is someone who talks tough and makes decisions based on his ‘gut’, like the present incumbent, the worst president ever. We need to educate the public that it is not a weakness to take the advice of Carl Sagan who said, “I try not to think with my gut. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.”

Although I rarely watch highly scripted political events, I made it a point to watch Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. It was a powerful one, extremely well delivered. I could appreciate the excellent craftsmanship that went into it and his rhetorical skill even as I disagreed with some points, especially concerning foreign policy.

There is no denying that in seeing a black person accepting the presidential nomination of a major party, something very significant was happening, a pivotal moment, and one that I am glad to have witnessed personally.

It aroused in me strong emotions similar to the ones I felt when Nelson Mandela was released from his South African prison in 1990, a sense that I was witnessing an important and uplifting moment in history. At that time, I had my daughters (then just 6 and 3 years old) sit on the sofa and watch with me, telling them I wanted them to be able to say later that they saw it, even though they did not understand the significance then.

All the major positive changes I described above had to be fought for and obtained against strong vested interests. But once achieved, such changes are irreversible. And Obama’s nomination and, I hope, victory in November will be another major irreversible step in America putting behind its ugly racial history.

Come November I will be voting for Barack Obama but not because he is black. I will be voting for him because he is by far the better candidate of the two major parties.

But I will be taking extra pride in that vote because I will feel that I am contributing to a positive and irreversible change in history.

POST SCRIPT: Race in American politics

There is no doubt in my mind that this presidential campaign is going to be ugly with race forming an unpleasant subtext. Yesterday Terry Gross of Fresh Air had an excellent and thoughtful discussion with political scientist and author Mark Q. Sawyer who runs the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA, on the role of race in American politics with reference to Barack Obama’s candidacy and what a tightrope he has to walk.

It is well worth listening to.


  1. Jared says

    ‘sup Mano.

    I’m curious if you are planning to write about McCain’s VP pick next week. I’m asking because I’m reminded of those “stealth” politicians you talked about in your posts about intelligent design subverting school boards. It appears that Palin is probably one of those people.

    Besides her ties with ID/creationism, “Feminists For Life” claim her as a member:

    I’m wonder if other people found the pick as shallow as I did.

  2. says

    Yes, I am planning to write about the selection quite extensively, starting tomorrow. I have been traveling over the Labor Day weekend and out of touch with events so need to get up to speed on later developments.

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