Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Brand of Hope

While Obama’s use of the word “change” was co-opted by everyone from Hillary to John McCain, he managed to maintain ownership of “hope” – it has remained an intrinsic part of the Obama brand. But what, really, does that word mean in the current context? I figured I’d start my search by exploring the brands of two people who, to my view at least, exemplify the dead opposite of that lofty sentiment. So I held my nose and visited the websites of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. And there I was, right back in high school.

Coulter is a self-described “polemicist,” meaning that she basically puts herself in opposition to just about everyone and everything. Why? Because she thinks she’s entitled and of course because she thinks she’s better than everybody else. She is the quintessential Mean Girl. Like every good mean girl, Coulter has parlayed bitchiness into an art form. She values those qualities that she did not earn – good looks, brains and privilege – and woe betide those poor schmucks so stupid that they failed to be born into the right family with the right connections. She might be wicked smart but she seems to lack any vestige of emotional intelligence, which we now know is one of the hallmarks of a fully developed personality. Ultimately Coulter is a hater: she hated John McCain (she famously offered to campaign for Hillary if McCain got the Republican nomination) but she hates Hillary more and she hates “B. Hussein Obama,” as she calls him, most of all. In my effort to define hope, I think that it might be a start to say that hatred exists somewhere on the spectrum of whatever is opposite.

Limbaugh is easier to recognize: our Rush is a bully. He might have been one of the fat kids in school but he learned how to overcome that natural disadvantage by weaponizing his tongue and not hesitating to use it on whoever was more vulnerable, which, in high school, is basically everybody. Verbal bullies like Limbaugh recognize that subtlety is their enemy, as are listening, thoughtful consideration of others’ positions, and ever, ever admitting one could be wrong. Limbaugh’s bullying style never evolved from adolescence where mockery and ridicule rule. Rush is the kid who would make fun of someone in class who struggled with something beyond his control, such as not have the right clothes to wear, and succeed in provoking laughter, albeit uneasy, from his cowed classmates who were secretly grateful that his wounding wit wasn’t aimed at them. The recent video of Limbaugh, who looked for all the world like a chubby fifteen-year-old, mimicking Michael J. Fox’s tremors makes my point. So, I have another element to my definition of hope: that it is somehow opposed to immaturity.

It occurs to me that malevolence and immaturity involve no emotional vulnerability apart, of course from whatever spiritual perils one assigns to perpetual habitation of the Dark Side. Hope requires strength and toughness. To hope means that one has made a commitment to the future, to responsibility for something coming to pass, and in doing so is willing to act without guarantee and risk disappointment. Hatred and bullying ultimately are the hallmarks of cowards – I still don’t know exactly what hope is but I do know that it has something to do with courage. The label of hope has stuck to Obama. While he still needs to earn it, for now, that’s good enough for me.