I’ve been thinking about hope a lot lately. Everyone and their dog appears to be reading-or has already read- Barack Obama’s book ‘The Audacity of Hope’ and it had such a powerful resonance with people that it was virtually his second campaign slogan during last years historic presidential elections; together with the official ‘change we can believe in’).
That slogan and book title has always made me uncomfortable although for a long time I couldn’t quite articulate why. It struck me later that my fundamental problem with the concept of the audacity of hope is that it doesn’t hold up at all.
For starters, what is so audacious about hope? Hope doesn’t strike me as an emotion that is worthy of being elevated to that level. At least with ‘change you can believe in’ there was a more concrete expression: it announced that there would be a move from the status quo.
It was not the most illuminating statement, but then again political slogans never are. You have to boil down a huge amount of information into one catchy sentence so obviously a lot of nuance is bound to get lost in the process.
However it was something you could sink your teeth into, irrespective of what you thought of the candidate himself. However the focus on ‘hope’ and its adoption as some kind of campaign mascot struck me as misguided.
This is not to say that the concept of hope is worthless. That is certainly not what I’m trying to say. Hope does help people get through tough times and can provide a rallying point for society in general.
It certainly tends to be a more positive emotion than a negative one and in the general scheme of things, it is certainly beneficial.
It is only in the context of such grandiose slogans like ‘the audacity of hope’ that it becomes a hollow thing. Obama has returned to this theme a few more times in his speeches and it always leaves me cold.
Hope in its more banal form is everywhere you look. The hope for better things to come is shared by millions from the humble street king to the swaggering rich and plenty of people in between.
While many people would argue that this is precisely why it is so special, this is also part of the reason it is so inadequate when it comes to socio-political discourse.
It is a common emotion but there is no audacity in it at all. Hoping for better things to come doesn’t strike me as a display of bravery. Indeed, it is the default mode for most people.
It is certainly a great book- I’m not attacking its contents- but it appears to me that Obama made a big misjudgment with that title and with his continuing fixation on ‘hope’ as an intellectual concept.
‘The audacity of hope’ also suggests that hope on its own is potent enough to get things done. This is not quite what Obama has in mind, but many who supported him and those who love the book have latched onto it as a sort of Zen-like message of inspiration which has practical use in real life.
I don’t see it that way. Hope on its own is inadequate and indeed can become a liability unless it is allied to something else. The slogan also suggests that those who cling to it occupy a higher moral plain than those poor unfortunates who do not.
The implication is that those who don’t cling to hope somehow morally inferior or less deserving but this doesn’t make sense- after all, hope doesn’t say anything about the moral content of a person’s character.
This may seem like nit-picking but its not. When everyone latches onto ‘hope’ and put it on a pedestal, proper political discourse suffered.
A blind adherence to the concept of hope became a default debating position in the same way that the word ‘change’ became one as well.
It’s an empty slogan masquerading as profundity. Hope is a catchy and emotionally-resonant thing, but it has its limits and it is certainly not a solution on its own.