The Obama Campaign and the Possibility of Fear without Loathing

It is always a nice thing to see Socrates made contemporary. Or at least have something to say about about contemporary things, so I’m just so pleased to see Robert Meagher write this piece about fear and hope. The range – and so the possibilities – of human emotion is one of those perennial philosophical issues. And too much evidence points to the constant presence of fear, too little presence of hope. I find a small thread of both hope and fear in the same place these days: race and all those companion emotions.

Yes, I’m talking about this crazy election season. In particular, about the whole Reverend Wright "issue" for the Barack Obama campaign. On the one hand, I see this from the perspective of John the Person. That person says, basically, that I don’t care much at all. I mean, for me, seriously, it really doesn’t matter if someone’s religious consultant is kooky a lot or kooky a little. I’m concerned about other stuff, and I just think this sort of thing is a personal issue, not a political one. Obviously I’m in the minority on this one. Or, maybe given the polls this week, I’m in the majority. It doesn’t seem to matter much, after all. Imagine that: the talking heads have it wrong?

On the other hand, I see this as John the Theory Person. That makes this all the more interesting. All the more interesting because, for all the rhetoric of hope and the like, the Obama campaign has routinely brought us back to our own national fear: thinking about ourselves as historical creatures. "Creatures," that is, in the sense of creation, in the sense of ourselves as created by our history, while at the same time finding ourselves full of creativity. The capacity to think about another kind of future at the very moment we reckon with who and what we’ve been.

What Obama has always brought to the campaign season, simply out of visibility, is the historical experience of race. That meant hope for so long. The way we could imagine a different kind of future. Now, while a lot of my friends and colleagues have wanted to heap cynical criticism on that hope (shame on y’all), the one thing no on can deny is this: a year ago, I’m sure those very same friends and colleagues would have laughed at the idea of a black president. I thought it a pipe dream myself, to be honest, yet it would seem that was cynical and premature.

The hope part is actually harder than it looks. It plays on the best of who and what we are, which is hard to tease out. No, a few good speeches don’t equal that best part of us. Were that the case, then the civil rights movement would have happened just like that; King, Jr. could give a speech! But Obama made that happen and, strangely, mass media helped it along. Yes, mass media is needed in this whole hope thing, for better or worse. We are who we are. You gotta start there.

Hope comes without pain, in this case, because it imagines a future from the present. Smart, charismatic guy wants to be president! There is no present without the past, however, so there comes a moment in thinking through any future that we look at the painful past. (Hope presupposes trauma and loss, of course…you have to hope against something.) The Rev. Wright "moment" (audibly sighing as I write that) brought that pain back to the center of hope. Some of the quotations and clips concerned 11 September, but, interestingly, that didn’t seem to be such a big thing. The real problem lay in an implied, or even just plain, lack of "love of country" and all the accompanying anger, frustration, and outrage.

I see an interesting discussion of patriotism there, where we’ve come to equate loving your country with saying loving words. (That’s a bad way to have a relationship, by the way.) But mostly I see the emergence of fear, very real fear. The fear, that is, amongst white people that cherry-picking the past for a narrative of slavery-to-freedom has run aground and now we have to reckon with a pain that won’t go away and just persists. Not just the pain in the history book. You know, those sketches and words about slavery, Jim Crow, and the like. That stuff hurts, but is often not very scary.

When the "controversy" about Wright came out and everyone was talking about it, I had two thoughts. The first, and my primary thought, was that we shouldn’t be judged by the company we keep. I wrote about that already. Obama, let’s be honest, was being judged (again) by a twice as high standard. (How many emails have I had forwarded, these open-letters, by lefties skewering Obama for not being their fantasy of a black candidate, especially around Israel? Never got one about Hillary.)

My second thought, and it is a more reflective one, was that pairing Wright’s expression of pain and frustration with Obama’s stories about another kind of future is not only "right," but necessary. It is understandably human to prefer the pleasures of hope and imagination to the pain of the past. But the two go together, of necessity. In that way, Wright and Obama belong together in our thinking about our social space, our political imagination, and so our thinking about what it means to live together.

That means deflating hope a little bit. But it also means the possibility of fear without loathing. Hope and fear, together, productively. Let us not love hope too much. Let us also not fear, well, this little thing called fear. Pain hurts. We ought to fear it, at least a little. That’s just being honest. But adults – as Socrates reminded us and his friends at the end of Phaedo, when criticizing them (us?) for weeping at his death bed – overcome fear and anxiety with a seeking of true things. The true thing about our past is that it is painful. But, when taken seriously, it makes the pleasure of hope mean so much more. For the true thing about the future is that it can always be thought otherwise than now, otherwise than way back when.

John Drabinski teaches philosophy at Hampshire College

Author: John Drabinski

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