President Barack Obama is an American zealot, fervent in his belief that the institutions are sound, more or less incorruptible, and will eventually win the day. His belief compels people to put their faith in him and in the institution. I understand this belief. I am a first generation American immigrant. I came here with parents who believed in America. They had faith that they would find a change in which they could place their belief.
And I still remember how we felt in 2008 when Obama was first elected. We believed that Obama was the flint to the American stone. That change was possible. He had made himself the face of that change. He even believed that he was.
The progressive political vision is tempting. If a candidate could believe so hard that a can-do attitude and a fervent belief in the system could fix that very system, we could believe too.
Even the cycle of American progress is a tempting myth. The fundamental belief in continuity of institutional progress in the face of adversity is extremely tempting. But this belief is fraught, and ultimately a half-truth. Any concessions or public works the government has offered come after a groundswell forces that change. The institution itself isn’t good. It is an unthinking entity that is more than the sum of its parts, and when we start to believe it is a force for good, the most vulnerable people suffer.
Obama was the first president to visit a federal prison. But the rate of black men incarcerated is as high as it's ever been and disproportionate by every marker. Black men are killed by the police at alarming rates. In his speech on Tuesday (Wednesday morning in India), Obama touted the value of accepting immigrants in a country built by immigrants. But during his presidency, Obama has removed and returned approximately 2.5 million immigrants.
We want to trust Obama because he embodies the virtues we have set for our leaders. He is a loving husband and father. He is a consumer of culture and knowledge. But these public truths still do not excuse him from drone strikes on children or overseeing the largest expansion of the American surveillance apparatus. And now, a man whose motives we’re less sure about has been elected in his stead.
As much as Obama’s speech was an exercise in faith, it was undoubtedly a political speech. Politics, ultimately, means selling the idea that something has changed for the worse so I, we, or this will make it better. Obama managed to walk the line between pointing at things and saying they needed to be fixed and telling us that we could trust that they would be fixed. He believed it, but it doesn’t mean we should anymore.
In his speech, Obama vowed to participate in making the country better as a citizen.
But he is not and will never be a regular citizen. Most people don’t live with the zeal with which the Obamas live. Most people will never walk the halls of power. Most people are more concerned with feeding their families and educating their children than being a part of the “wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth”. What does this statement actually mean to a person who is entering his third year without a job? What does it mean to an incarcerated person who is facing a 20-year sentence for a non-violent crime?
Obama was the conduit of this wholesome hope in the institution of America and in the good of the people guiding us. He believes that American government is fundamentally a reflection of America itself. There is no one America. There is no one American vote or one American voice. There is no one American will. And there are more than two as well. There are more than two sides to an issue, and maybe neither side is represented in government.
This is the fundamental disconnect that has widened. The promises of politics exist in the open while the work of governing lives in the shadows. The saying is clean but the doing is dirty, and mostly unseen. But despite everything, Obama still believes in his promises and his words. Perhaps he must, to survive. We all wanted to believe and revel in this hope. I wanted to one last time. But this time, the words rang hollow.
The belief that everything will work out if we believe hard enough in corrupt institutions is dangerous. Now is the time for protest movements. Now is the time to put our hope for change in ourselves. Movements cannot be started from the top. They start from something more than a comfortable faith that everything can be fixed if we put our faith in the institutions that exist.
Everything cannot be fixed immediately, but it’s the fight itself that should give us vigour.
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2017 12:10:19 IST