There’s still hope for politics

January 20, 2009 at 11:26 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Throughout our lives, we learn that whenever we think or talk or write about politics, it’s a mistake to succumb to optimism. We learn not to set our hopes too high; not to trust too easily; not to rush into the embrace of some silver-tongued chancer just because (s)he claims to share our values. We learn all about false dawns, the self-serving instincts of politicians and their tendency to tell us only the most convenient truths.

We learn these things through bitter experience. Our histories are filled with opportunities lost, hopes unfulfilled and promises broken. Each time a leader fails to meet the high standards they’d set, good people who’d shown enough faith to cast a vote become a little more tired, more cynical, and more inclined to withdraw or abstain from those causes they once held dear.

But whilst there are days which cause us to wonder what on earth led us into such delusions of hope, so too are there times when you could wonder whether we’re not hopeful enough.

After Barack Obama’s inaugural speech as President of the United States, there was a benediction by Joseph Lowery. An icon of the civil rights struggle, Reverend Lowery led the march from Selma to Montgomery demanding the right for black people to vote, and has remained a voice for equality ever since. Of all the moments – both symbolic and substantive – from this day, I’m not sure any can top the image of this 87-year-old man – who risked his life in the peaceful persuit of freedom – standing before a monument built by slaves and offering a prayer for America’s first black President.

We know, of course, that the progress towards social justice in the past 40 years has been too slow, partial and incomplete. We know that Obama’s potential to hasten the pace of change is as limited as his potential to disappoint is limitless. And we know that despite his best efforts, there will still be much left undone when he leaves office.

But whilst we can accept all of that as true, we should also remember that everything which has been achieved was done in spite of strong opposition along the way. What if George Wallace had succeeded in stamping down the insurrection in Selma? What if John F. Kennedy had lost that most narrow of elections? What if Lyndon Johnson had failed to find enough votes to pass the Civil Rights Act? Or the Voting Rights Act?

The past 24 hours have been the culmination of a history which is filled with small victories won in spite of great resistance – victories which were only achieved through the force and nagging persistence of activism. Had Kennedy lost to Nixon, had the Civil Rights Act failed or the murderous menace of the Klan managed to scare ordinary Americans out of supporting their black brothers and sisters, the United States would be waiting a lot longer to see this day arrive. Instead, through the hard work and high hopes of millions, Reverend Lowery and his comrades have finally completed their long march from Selma to Washington and witnessed that most self-evident of truths being finally, conclusively affirmed.

If only for a few fleeting days of celebration, perhaps that’s enough to give people hope that politics – for all its frustrations, failures and imperfections – can still be a worthwhile, noble pursuit.

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