there's an episode of "the simpsons" that i really admire (well, there are several, but there's one that relates to what i'm feeling now), where lisa finds the skeleton of what many in her american every-town believe to be an angel. lisa, bright, logical and scientific, doubts the skeleton's authenticity, along with the existence of angels. she has her sense of righteousness shaken, however, when she finds out that her mother is one of the people who believes that the angel might be real. the pivotal line in the conversation is when marge says to her "if you can't make a leap of faith now and then, well, i feel sorry for you".
i was remind of that line this morning, when i spoke to some people i know about the results of the american election. despite my initial fears that the campaign was going to descend into levels of mudslinging that had never been seen before, i did get caught up in watching the whole affair. yes, there were some pretty hideous examples of the worst that america has to offer. and last night, watching obama speak to a crowd of people who look nothing like the crowds normally seen at political rallies, i was both moved and excited. it was hard not to be. for the first time, i was not able to immediately slip into jaded character and mock what i was seeing and hearing.
one (fellow canadian) person told me that, if obama were running in canada, he wouldn't have the sort of outpouring of enthusiasm we've been watching for the last 24 hours (and, indeed, the last 24 months), because we'd all be finding faults. canadians, the line of reason goes, don't buy into idealism or visionaries. we're too practical. we assume that if someone has vision, that this must mean that they lack the skills to put that vision into any form of action. (in point of fact, the person who said this to me had been a hilary clinton supporter in the primary process for that exact reason.)
another (canadian) person i know was decidedly morose about the election result, his only comment being that obama was inheriting a big mess. to be fair, this person had told me earlier that he was a mccain supporter. why? he felt that obama's idealism was an indicator that he was unrealistic and that mccain had the experience to deal with the problems facing the country.
saying that one trusts john mccain and the republican party on the basis of experience is like choosing to go back to an ex who'd given you three types of venereal disease because it's easier than meeting new people. but that, sadly, is the mindset that afflicts a lot of people, more so, i would venture, in canada than in the united states (particularly at this moment in time).
i'd like to say that i'm shocked at this cynical attitude. after all, at the very least, the united states now has a leader who represents much of the best the country has to offer- idealistic, statesmanlike, compassionate- after eight years of being led by someone who represented them at their very worst- ignorant, xenophobic, patronising, violent. that in itself is a victory. and, of course, there is the matter of race. it's easy to forget how recently this result would have been impossible to conceive. in 1974, within my lifetime and the lifetime of most people reading this post, there was violence over the desegregation of public schools in boston- a bastion of american liberalism. for the country to have a black president in 2008 is remarkable. and let's not lose sight of the fact that this victory was the result of the largest voter turnout since 1908.
but the fact is that i'm infected with the cynicism bug myself and i understand the urge to denigrate what's been achieved. after all, we are numb to the bombast of politicians, operating as they do within a hugely corrupt, money-driven system. (lest we get too wrapped up in the romance of obama, look at how much money was collected and spent by his campaign.) the largest voter turnout since 1908 amounted to about 64% of the registered electorate, a proportion that should be embarrassing in a functioning democracy. and we all know what happens to the lofty ideals of leader-figures once they actually has to take over the business of government. (americans take note: google pierre trudeau if you want a glimpse of what your future may look like.) a friend recently ridiculed me for what he perceived as a naive belief in the democratic system at all. while he might be one of the few to voice it in exactly that way, i don't think that his opinion is unusual. i think that it reflects the esteem in which the system is usually held.
besides, it's a foregone conclusion that obama will fail to live up to the almost messianic expectations that have been set for him. no one could live up to them. something will always go wrong and nay-sayers from all over the political spectrum will be able to nod sagaciously and say "you see?" with raised eyebrows. therein lies the comfort of being a cynic. if you don't believe in anything, you can't ever be wrong.
the changes that he will be able to make (and i'm giving him the benefit of the doubt there by assuming that he'll stick to his word and try to make the changes he's promised) will be marginal. their effect may not be visible for a long time and there will be resistance to them, which will limit their effectiveness over both the short and long term. author susan faludi, in her book "backlash" likens the progress of feminism to a slightly inclined coil; the euphoria of breakthroughs is normally followed by a period of "clawback" where many of those gains are lost, yet, over time, things gradually improve. it's a compelling metaphor and not just for feminism.
the simpsons episode i mentioned earlier ends with lisa being vindicated. the skeleton, predictably, is proven to be the most flagitious sort of fake and the people of springfield are made to look ridiculous. therein lies the danger of the leap of faith- take them too eagerly or too often and you will likely end up looking like a complete fool. but the down side of never allowing yourself to believe, is the sort of malaise i've mentioned. you need the mad, jubilant excitement of short term gains in order to ensure even modest progress over the long-term. without that, you get a flat line.
so the good news for this nation of cynics (mine) is that we'll almost certainly be vindicated. there will be disappointments and things will get worse. but it's kind of a hollow victory. like marge, i feel sorry for us.