Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thoughts on the Inauguration: Why Hope Matters

You notice I try to keep this blog pretty professional and rarely talk about anything outside of films.  And yet, I just walked into the campus bookstore to see a gigantic crowd trying to see the inauguration of our new president.  I just sat and stared as one regime peacefully changed to another.  I just listened to a beautiful piece of oration that promises so much and instills so much hope.  And I watched thousands and thousands of faces across the television screen echo this sentiment.

As I did, I thought about a conversation I had with a few of my very Conservative friends last night, specifically regarding a poster of the now-famous white/red/blue of Obama's face with the word DESTINY in bold beneath it.  Not HOPE, but DESTINY.  My friends understandably found the poster a bit silly, for what is Destiny and why does it apply to Barack Obama?  I'd like to talk about this by talking about this year's much-loved film, "Slumdog Millionaire."  It opens with a question, "Jamal Malick is about to win 20 million rupees.  How did he do it? A: He's a genius. B: He's lucky. C: He cheated. D: It is destiny."

By the way, the following spoils the movie a bit, but if you can't guess how the movie ends just by reading the question that opens it...well, it's a fairy tale, you KNOW what happens!

For two hours, the film lets you work this question, and eventually provides an answer.  The last image before the credits wipes away three of the answers, letting us know that D: It is destiny.  "Slumdog" is a film about difficulties, about a boy who wants more from his life and always looks past the terrible life he leads to the hope of having better - specifically love.  Jamal believes distinctly in HOPE.  His love, Latika, evades him for the duration of the movie; as their paths cross, they quickly part ways, and he never gets the chance he wants to profess his love and be with her.  And yet, he clings to this idea of DESTINY.  As he tells her at film's end, "This is our destiny."

In this film, as in the "mediated discourse" of these Obama posters, HOPE and DESTINY intermingle.  What do they mean?  One reflects a desire, one reflects a certainty.  Both are predicated on a belief in something that is intangible.  This is why I'm not particularly bothered by the use of the explicit word "Destiny," because in this toughest of times, people want something to believe in.  Like the Slumdog who watches his mother murdered, who watches his love fall into a world of prostitution and watches his brother turn into a man he can barely recognize; the Slumdog who has to steal and work a crap job to stay alive, who can't read and can't write, but rather understands the world through what he sees and what he believes, so are many of the people who believe in Barack Obama and the Hope he inspires.

We don't know what his presidency will bring.  We don't.  We hear what he has to say, we see him on our screens as he speaks with profundity.  But we are part of a time where it feels like the country has become more cynical.  In the past few months, I doubt anyone can say with a straight face that they haven't had a moment where they were afraid of what tomorrow would bring, afraid that their own personal world could crumble at any moment - financially speaking.  For some people, all they can do is cling to this Hope and Destiny, as farfetched as that idea might seem.

And speaking of 2008 films, let's talk for a second about "Milk," whose political ideologies reverberate off our contemporary situation.  The last lines of the film are, fittingly, "You've got to give them hope."  When people are down, when they feel beaten, they need this.  I say need because I think that adjective is the most fitting.  Just as people turn to God and to prayer, they turn to Hope, this idea that there may be some unspoken Destiny that can be fulfilled.  Remember FDR's immortal words - "The only thing to fear is fear itself" - what is that but a statement of hope, a plea to not give into cynicism and fear, but rather to HOPE for a better tomorrow.  And as our financial crisis has been compared to possibly reaching scales comparable to the Great Depression, don't we need Hope too?

Watching Barack Obama take the Inaugural Oath and give his eloquent speech, all these thoughts swirled in my head.  I thought all the issues he touched on were appropriate, I thought it encapsulated all his ideals, and I especially responded to a moment where he addressed cynics and further urged all people to join him in the "remaking of America."

They are words.  They are not actions.  We must not confuse the two, for sure.  The next four years will let us know the end to this story.  But to get to this point, not even looking at Obama himself, but to look at the entire history of race in America, the entire history of the ideas behind America, I can't help but feel a surge of that patriotism in my previously cynical veins.  I can't help but be shameless about this, and I'm sorry if that offends any readers.  I want to cling to Hope so I won't be afraid of tomorrow.

Maybe that's foolish, but this is a moment that focalizes and magnifies many of the principles we believe our country upholds.  Or maybe many of the principles I personally want to believe I can uphold, or a direction I personally want to see the country go.  I know there are many people who disagree STRONGLY with the new president's words.  I just hope over the next four years we can all come together, as Obama asked us today, and believe in the Hope to restore our financial, national, and international status.  I Hope we can all believe that there is a Destiny for our great nation that we may be able to attain through years of hard work.  Let's not delude ourselves that our problems will go away in a month or a year.  But let's believe there is a Destiny in our ideals, and that it may be tangible in four years.

Good luck to the President.

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