Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama, Hunter Redux Plus Thoughts on Chomsky and Sports

A few months ago, when it became clear in the last week of the campaign that Obama was going to go over the top and win the bastard, I blogged about Hunter Thompson's suicide. It was pretty clear that the re-election of George W. Bush had depressed him to the point where he decided it was time to check out. Last night I watched a biopic on HST and this morning I watched the inaugural address and it got me thinking about faith and hope and symbolism and... sports.

Noam Chomsky is a sharp mofo and I like much of his analysis of power relationships and the way the media manufactures consent. But the man has no sense of fun when it comes to pro sports. He is quoted as saying (roughly) that pro sports just give the proles something to be distracted by while the real work of screwing them over occurs out of sight. And that may well be true, as far as it goes. But pro sports (rather than, say, pro algae farming) succeeds as entertainment because it connects with us emotionally. When we see our team go the distance and win the championship, it makes us feel like good things are possible.

I am an occasional hockey fan. A few years ago my local team was in the last place playoff spot (which was not unusual). Yet they beat their number-one-ranked opponents three games in a row in a playoff series, and looked set to win the best-of-seven contest. Around the same time, my band was in the middle of recording an album with a pro producer. We had endured about ten years of toiling in obscurity and poverty, and we were hard-pressed to believe that we could ever pull ourselves out of that place. Listening to the hockey games on the radio filled me with hope that good things could happen if people worked hard. And I worked HARD on that album. With a sense of hope in my heart that I can still hear in my vocals and my guitar performances.

In the end, my hockey team lost the next four games of that series and got bumped out of the playoffs. The album was finally birthed after a lot of disheartening delays and after I had left that band. But the point is not the ultimate result of a hockey series or a recording session. The point is the emotional feeling of possibility. When you lose the sense that good things can happen, you reach for your pistol like Hunter S. Thompson did after the 2004 election. I myself remember wondering how a just deity could allow a decent man like Kerry to lose to such a catastrophe as Bush. "Things happen for a reason." Cassie told me, "Have faith. Something better than you can even imagine now is around the corner." I thought she was a gullible hippie and considered kicking over her shrine. Now, with Obama sworn in, I realize that it would not have been possible if Kerry had won in 2004. And the truth is, I could never have foreseen this amazing moment. Cass was right. I suppose hope is optimism when things are going your way, and faith is optimism when your house gets stepped on by Godzilla. After he eats your child. And your testicles.

But right now, Obama is like that long-odds sports team that wins the championship. Except that he is also upending many generations of racial impossibility and making the youth vote feel like they can actually affect their political landscape. I wonder what Chomsky makes of this victory. Probably not a lot. He probably sees that Obama owes favours to the same special interests as his predecessors, and that the machinery of government makes real change very difficult. He may even suggest that the president is largely a symbolic sop for the masses while the real dealings occur behind closed, exclusive doors.

But that's precisely it. The US presidency is a weird office. It is a a symbolic post like a king. And it is a real seat of executive power. It is a brand - especially during the campaign. Obama will probably disappoint many with the tough executive decisions and compromises he will have to make once he takes office. But the very fact that the Obama brand inspired people so deeply, the fact that people put their hopes into this brand, and the fact that the USA in a free election chose this brand is wildly significant. He won the toughest championship in the history of the world. So think about what we can achieve in our lives. Some of us have been getting by on faith for a long time. And some of us have not made it through. As of this inaugaration, we can now have hope.

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