Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Audacity of Hope: Downright Inspiring

On the way to the beach, stopped by Borders to, unsurprisingly, grab some beach reading. On the way up to the counter, saw Obama's The Audacity of Hope in paperback. Not exactly beach reading, and I really hadn't had all that much interest in reading it, as such books written by American politicians are pretty much invariably disappointing. But I picked it up more or less on a whim. JQ started reading it out loud when we got back in the car, and within about three pages she was getting seriously choked up. We stopped for gas and switched up, her driving, me reading. Within a few pages I was getting choked up. No kidding.

I'm not done with it yet, but just let me say: damn. Go pick up this book. Seriously. This guy is even smarter and, well, wiser than you probably think. He's got ideas, and they're good ones. He obviously genuinely and deeply believes in a unifying politics. He thinks and feels deeply about our history and our relation to it. This is a truly extraordinary person.

I'm skeptical of claims like this, and of people who make them, but: I think this is the candidate I've been waiting for my whole life. This is a man who could be a truly great American president, and the only great president since FDR.

O.k., call me a crackpot if you like. I'm not usually given to volatile hyperbole in these matters. But this guy is something genuinely unusual.


Blogger The Mystic said...

I dunno, man. I hate to be a buzzkill, but you may be overdoing it a tad.

Obama sounds great and all, but after reading the prologue to his book, I really haven't reached an epic level of being impressed..nor have I even come close to choking up.

I don't THINK I'm a jackass, or that I possess any qualities that would prevent me from choking up if it were genuinely moving, so..

To put it shortly, just don't go nuts, k? The guy could be good, but the book, if the prologue is any sense of how it's going to go, is nothing amazing. In fact, the title "the audacity of hope", is pretty cheesy and lame.

I'm inclined to think that your choked-uped-ness is more a function of your beliefs and hopes that you're seeing reflected back at you from Obama than Obama actually emitting these beliefs and hopes. Just be careful. I'd be more pointed in my critique if I thought that it were bad to be excited about Obama, but I don't think it's bad, so I won't be. But do your own tests on yourself.

If McCain wrote this book, would you feel the same way? Maybe you would, I dunno. Maybe I'm entirely wrong - I do have a contrarian tendency about myself, but I just thought I'd throw in my two cents here.

11:15 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I re-read that after I posted too hastily, and I have concluded that that sounded too negative.

I think that, when I was reading what he had to say, it was nice to hear lofty idealism, but it was almost...too touchy-feely, ya know? I feel like I was more attracted to the genuinely warm nature of Ron Paul because it was backed up by his not-taking-any-shit-whatsoever attitude. The man would consistently refute moronic arguments with extreme precision and aptitude, whereas I feel with Obama we get a lot of nice talk about how we should all hold hands and sing kumbaya, but there's little fight back against morons. He'd rather say things to avoid dividing with the idiots and gently guide them away from their mistakes than risk isolating idiots for pointing out their idiocy.

Now, all this said, I did only read the prologue, 'cause that was what was available to me. The only reason I took that as being enough to merit a response to your post was that you noted that within three pages, JQ was choked up.

So, really, I think Obama is a very nice person, and I honestly think he's the best option for president we have right now. However, I don't see him being very tough on issues, honestly. I think that he could do great things for the country by helping to unify people, but I also feel like I'm tired of 8 years of pure, unadulterated idiocy, and I'm ready for someone to stand up and not take that shit anymore. Obama just doesn't seem like the guy who'll do it.

Of course, maybe America needs a slower turn-around than a practical all-out fight back against idiocy. Maybe we need a gentle person like Obama. I don't really know, but that's what I was thinking when I posted. My main worry and complaint about Obama's rhetoric and his prologue to his book, even the lame title, is a somewhat unnerving fixation on kumbaya singing and not much of a display of the capacity to stand up for what should be done.

But that may be because I'm 24 and a little too militant. Who the hell knows. Just various food for thought - perhaps junk food.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Yeah, I know how this sounds.

Though allow me an ad hominem here:
lemme get this straight...the guy praising Ron Paul is telling me not to go nuts???

Maybe it's a difference in age, or maybe it's a genuine difference in attitude, but we've got significantly different views about this. The title is far from cheesy so far as I can tell. I think that the idea that hope can be audacious is a damn important one, and probably one worth talking about. For example: can hope that is audacious also be reasonable/rational?

I do agree that we don't yet know how tough Obama can be. There are, in fact, many things we don't know about him, just as there are many things we don't know about the other candidates. Though for that matter, there are many things we don't know about even ourselves...

I don't think this is about Obama being a "nice person." What's it about? Well, here's an attempt to cut to the chase in a clumsy way:

I've been following politics since I was a kid. In all that time, I don't remember a single truly inspiring candidate. (Gore was revealed to be extremely inspiring in defeat...but that was a little late...so let me set that aside.) I'm fine with competent policy geeks like Clinton and Gore. They're just fine with me. But there's more to all this than just making the trains run on time and on budget (not that that isn't important). There are genuinely inspirational ideas at the core of the idea of America. Almost every election we see the same thing: a Democratic candidate who doesn't quite get that, and a Republican candidate who emphasizes grotesque caricatures of the ideas for partisan purposes, turning something beautiful into something ugly.

Balancing the budget is extremely important, but it isn't the type of thing that helps to give our lives meaning, nor which calls us to a higher purpose. You and other's talk about Obama's "lofty" language and his "lofty idealism" as if these were necessarily bad things. Sometimes people who superficially resemble Obama are hollow, and so are their words (Reagan comes to mind here, though he's kind of a complicated case I think.) What's exciting and inspirational about Obama is that he's not hollow, nor, so far as I can tell, are his words. He's urging us to think about our ideals, and our better selves, and the idea of America that is genuinely worthy of our respect and admiration--the real fulfillment of our ideals that always seems just a little too far away to take seriously. What seems lofty (i.e. gauzy, ephemeral, unreal) to you seems like the realest thing to me. Not that the trains aren't real, and so forth, blah blah blah.

Anyway, when you start thinking of goals like this, you'd be naive not to recognize that there is absolutely no guarantee that we'll achieve them. And that's why it's important to talk about hope and faith here rather than knowledge. The important question is: would it be rational of us to hope for such things, rational to *hope* that we might contribute to advancing these goals and ideals?

A caveat: this all comes around by coincidence at a time when I've been thinking a lot about Peirce's views about the logic of scientific inquiry. Oddly enough, one important component of that is a Kantian second critique strategy concerning the ethics of belief. So, oddly enough, I've become convinced over the course of the last two years or so that hope may very well be a crucial component of a workable metaphysical and scientific realism, strange as that might sound.

Your general point is taken: one's feet need to stay in the vicinity of the ground in such matters. But there are several specific points I can't accept.

10:49 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I missed the specific points. I mean, it wasn't like I formulated my response after the time that it probably deserved in thought, so if there are points in that sloppy mess that you disagree with, it could very well be because I just threw up on the page and hit "submit".

However, what ideals in particular are you talking about that are so inspirational to you? Maybe I just missed it all.

When I say Obama's language is "lofty", I don't mean he's talking about things that aren't real. Rather, I meant more to say something like this:

Obama: "Wouldn't it be nice if we all got along?"
Dylan: "OF COURSE it would."
Obama: "Wouldn't it be nice if we could all get to that ideal America that is genuinely worthy of our respect and admiration?"
Dylan: "OF COURSE it would."

My response to Obama's prologue was a mildly annoyed "Duh". I didn't really find it inspirational because it seemed to just be talking about how average joe's just tryin' to get by, how we all just want a better world for our kids, and how we should all just join hands and sing, blah, blah, blah.

So I don't know what points of mine you disagreed with. Hell, I didn't know I had much of a point other than a "meh" as a book review for Obama's prologue.

As for your question about hope being audacious and reasonable/rational, this is why I thought the title was cheesy. It seems like it's trying to make an important issue out of what's actually just common sense. I don't think there's any answer other than "depends" to the question you posed because of the extremely broad range it entails. I mean, is hope that is flat-out insane also reasonable/rational? Probably not. Is hope for a feasible outcome that's nonetheless improbable also reasonable/rational? Perhaps - although, it depends on the value of hope to the individual. If hope is what drives a person to do good things, then hell yeah it's a rational response - even if it is insane. If hope is what gets someone through the day, then sure, it is a rational response because it will result in your capacity to do more good later on.

However, if hope doesn't really carry much weight in a person's life, then who cares?

Really, it doesn't seem as complex as you are making it out to be. Rarely is that sort of a statement correct, but I'm going for it and putting it out there. I could be wrong.

For me, I don't really have a use for hope. I don't see its value since sitting around hoping for an outcome doesn't really help anything, for me. I'm not driven by it, and I don't think it's necessary in order to live a good life. I've found that if I do good in the hope that it will produce a certain outcome, I'm resting my emotions on unstable ground and I'm likely to suffer because of it. Instead, I put my emotions on the present. I do the right thing now, and that is what fulfills me. If that leads to a utopian America in the future, that's awesome, but it impacts my actions not. Even if I knew that all good work would be ultimately futile in producing outcome x, one might tell me that the situation is hopeless - but that doesn't impact me. I do the good thing and rest knowing I did what I could. Hope ain't an issue.

Maybe it's our difference in the view of this concept of hope that leads to disagreement. Or, maybe it's my inability to post something coherent. Both seem possible.

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read approximately the same fraction of TAtH as Mystic, I'd like to venture the opposite opinion.

Consider your dialogue: Obama presents a vision of cooperation across various national divisions ("Wouldn't it be nice if we all got along?") Dylan responds that, of course, this would be nice. It's just common sense.

It strikes me that what is "common sense" in this is the evaluation of the vision. Yes, it would be nice if we all got along. But Obama's rhetoric assumes that we all think this would be nice.

But it is precisely the unspoken assumption that such a vision is impracticable that his rhetoric seems crafted to counter. Political hopelessness is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we give up hoping that x - i.e., we no longer think x a possible goal - we will not realize x by the mere fact that we are not attempting x.

Obama's point is not the general one that it's nice to hope that one day we will live in a Utopia. That kind of hope, after all, is not audacious at all. The hope he is proposing is something more like a renewed self-confidence: the spirit which suffuses Americans (n.b. the patriotic tenor of O.'s hope language) is sufficient for us to achieve goals which we generally tell ourselves we are not up to achieving.

In other words, I think that in Obama-language, "the audacity of hope" is a synonym for "yes, we can". Obama seems to consider his own inheritance, political history, campaign makeup, etc. to be some evidence that this hope in ourselves as a nation is not unfounded. He is trying to break the easy connection between "cynicism" and "realism." Hope, for Obama, is what is realistic.

Well...so I've surmised from my superficial reading of that one chapter of TAoH and of O's speeches, etc.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, I'm with ya on this one, Spencer.

I think there's an error in your position here M that's of a common type. Allow me to cut to the chase with a wee dialog:

A: Isn't it important that we do x?

B: No. Forget about it. That's just dopey idealism.


A: Isn't it important that we do x?

C: Well, duh. That's so obvious it's not even worth saying.

I've found that with many ideas one is simultaneously fighting off (a) the objection that it's too crazy to be true and (b) that it's too obvious to be said. Obama's fighting both battles now.

Contra your formulation, M, he's not just saying that it'd be nice if we'd all get along. He's saying that vicious divisiveness is poisoning our politics. It's not just that it'd be NICE if we got along, it's that vicious divisiveness is killing the body politic.

This claim is apparently not obvious given that it is apparently controversial--I've said it on this blog many times and many commenters have argued against it--it's no big deal, or it was worse in the past, or whatever.

And as for hope:
Hoping for x does not mean "sitting around and hoping for it." Hoping isn't wishing. In any of our significant endeavors we hope that we'll succeed. In fact, without hope of success, it's unlikely that anyone would do anything. One thing that virtually guarantees failure is hopelessness. Tyrants know this, actually: they realize that it's important that their victims/subjects are utterly convinced that resistance is futile.

Obama doesn't seem to be counseling some kind of dopey Reaganesque "Morning in America" feel-goodery. And he's certainly not offering hollow words. Among the many interesting things he's saying are:
Many of us have become cynical and hopeless about our politics. It seems irredeemably shitty and mean and corrupt and cheap and meaningless. But it isn't. we're better than this. Remember our ideals. Remember what you think is possible. Remember what you have glimpsed as great in this country. It doesn't have to be like this.

Now, of course, we absolutely do not KNOW that things can be fixed. In fact--in my opinion anyway--it is unlikely that the system can be changed significantly. It's likely that American politics 20 years from now will be approximately as tawdry and stupid and corrupt as it is today. (Probably a little less just by regression to the mean--Bush is quite an outlier.) But in a case like this it's important to focus on hope (i.e. the *absence of hopelessness*), not knowledge. There aren't sufficient grounds to *believe* that we can fix things, but there's PLENTY good reason to hope that we can--and that doesn't mean sitting on our couches and daydreaming; rather it means: not getting discouraged and giving up just because success isn't assured.

6:25 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...


Well, I didn't say that the common sense response was "Wouldn't that be nice if it weren't so impracticable". I wasn't trying to imply that I think that the thought of us all getting along one day is impossible. I just think that it's obvious that that would be nice and that all rational people would like to see that happen. So, when Obama's rhetoric strikes up that chord, I really find it neither impressive nor novel - more redundant than anything.

I think you're right that he's saying something like "yes, we can", but that's what I mean - I think it's common sense to know that yes, we CAN - whether or not we WILL is the question (not that posing that would be new and inspiring, either).

As to WS:

I wasn't saying the first dialogue. That's somewhat like what Spencer said the common sense reaction was - that what Obama wants just can't be achieved. That really wasn't what I was trying to say at all.

I am, however, in agreement with the latter dialogue. And again, when you say he's not just saying that it'd be nice if we all got along, but rather that vicious divisiveness is poisoning our politics, I think this is common sense, so obvious that it's not worth saying.

You do, however, point to the valid response that there have been those on this blog that disagree with you, demonstrating, to the contrary, that perhaps it should be said.

However, I'm inclined to sadly believe that those people who think otherwise (that the divisiveness is a-ok) aren't up for common sense or rationality, so I really don't know what good saying it will do. I think that my opinion is backed by the blog's history more or less, too.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

"And again, when you say he's not just saying that it'd be nice if we all got along, but rather that vicious divisiveness is poisoning our politics, I think this is common sense, so obvious that it's not worth saying."

Well, M, you've clarified your position to the point at which it's clearly false. Which is good! "x is common sense, therefore x is not worth saying" is just plain unsound. First, it's invalid: all sorts of common-sensical things are worth saying. But also it just isn't true that vicious divisiveness is poisoning our politics. Not only is it not a matter of common sense, it is, in fact, controversial.

And: the very fact that Obama is getting the kind of reaction he's getting is evidence that what he's saying is not so obvious that it need not be said.

10:47 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

You know, I went upstairs to bed, and I was like "Of COURSE it's common sense.. I mean, like the fact that arguing retarded minor differences to the point of divisiveness is poisoning our politi..."

And then I realized that this thread has gone roughly like this:


Mystic: "Woah, woah, woah there. I think Obama is fucking cool, but you really ought to use one less exclamation point there, buddy. Here's my awesome list of reasons for the removal of one of those exclamation points. I now expect you to remove it post-haste."

Spencer: "Nuh uh. Here's why nuh uh."

WS: "Yeah, Mystic, I think you're wrong, too. Here's why. Conclusion: Exclamation point stays."

Mystic: "NO, I think YOU'RE BOTH wrong! And here's my awesome list of refutations to your refutations! REMOVE THY EXCLAMATION POINTZORZ!!!11!1one"

So, since it's OBVIOUSLY not common sense enough for ME to avoid arguing retarded points just for the sake of argument, I hereby recant.


10:47 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, actually, my position was more "X is common sense, SO OBVIOUS that it's not worth saying" - so not only is it common sense, but obvious to a degree that it's not worth saying. Saying obvious things, though, I suppose, can be useful, since people do forget the obvious on occasion.

Like..you know..


P.S. Ron Paul FTW.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

See, IMHO the most noble thing one can do, logically speaking, is recognize and admit one's own error.

You, M, are my current hero.

tho, actually, I was just about to say something in your defense. But I think it should be a whole post.

10:45 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, that forthcoming post in my defense should be interesting. Glad I can help by saying the wrong thing and then going "oh, it's wrong". Haha - if that's what it takes to be your hero, man can I fill that role. "WRONGMAN - Capable of admitting his incorrectness faster than a speeding bullet!"

I do think, however, that I'm right insofar as it is certainly plausible that something can be so obvious that it need not be said. The part where I'm wrong appears to be the idea that ANY time something is obvious, then saying it is without value.

I suppose the distinction that needs to be made is that, as with the current situation, it appears that a lot of people are indeed forgetting the obvious, and when that happens, stating the obvious can definitely have value.

Like if you're driving down the road and there's a red light and SOMEONE'S girlfriend is not showing even the slightest hint of slowing down so you have to yell "RED LIGHT!!!1!!!" and then DESPITE SAVING BOTH OF YOUR ASSES she gets mad at you for "yelling at her".

Yes, like that.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, I like the red light analogy.

But, seriously. My colleague The Formidable Armenius and frequently talk about one of our colleagues who is able to (as Armenius puts it) "turn on a dime"--that is, in the middle of discussion, in the middle of making a case for p, hear a consideration against p that strikes him as important and, as a result, immediately alter his opinion and start discussing the importance of that consideration.

As Peirce points out, most of the errors most people make result not from straightforwardly cognitive/logical errors, but from a lack of honesty. They get committed to positions and view all the evidence in light of what they already think.

There is, IMHO, absolutely NO greater logical/intellectual virtue than the ability to recognize and admit when you could be or are wrong.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh and:
Of course I DO agree that not every obvious thing needs to be said. One doesn't walk into a room and start saying things like "I am a human," "I am now speaking," "that's the floor," and so forth.

1:26 PM  

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