Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
© 2006 Barack Obama
375 pages

Knowing my interest in political speeches, a friend of mine asked me in 2005 if I'd ever heard of Barack Obama, who spoke at the 2004 DNC. I hadn't, of course, but American Rhetoric had a copy of said speech and gave it a listen. I don't recall my political views at the time: I know I was shifting from a fundamentalist Pentecostal and rabid Republican to questioning the former and not caring about the other. Whatever they were, I enjoyed listening to the speech, and I began watching him. In 2006, I was happy when he announced his decision to run for the office of President: I expected him to be a long-shot candidate, and planned on voting for him. I was surprised by his popularity, and bewildered by the fact that people were singing songs about him on YouTube. Wow. I grew tired of politics last summer, and was uncomfortable with some of his decisions, but I continued to watch his campaign -- and when it was announced that he was the winner, I was elated. I stayed up long after my usual bedtime watching speeches and shivering in anticipation the way I used to on Christmas morning. Despite my political cynicism, Obama has a hold on me. He makes me question my jaded assumptions -- he tempts me to believing in "America".

That's what The Audacity of Hope is principally about, although I expressed the above thoughts to myself weeks ago when writing in my journal, attempting to give voice to the thoughts swirling around in my brain. Its very title appeals to the idealist I once was -- and still am, judging by my susceptibility to the president's message. The book is less about idealism and more about common sense, for the most part. What dominates this book is not his urging the reader to believe in America -- although he does -- but his attempt to reintroduce common sense and empathy to politics, something that has been missing since ideology began driving political discussion in the late seventies or early eighties. Obama begins the book with a chapter on how things got to the point that they are today, going over political changes from the fifties to the present day. He brings up common sense and empathy, and applies them in following chapters to discussions of values, the Constitution, economic matters, religion, race, political campaigning, foreign affairs, and family matters.

Although the book is classified as a biography, I think this is erroneous. With the exception of "Family", the chapters are dominated by his discussion of what is -- not the story of his life. He does use personal anecdotes to introduce chapters and as occasional illustration, but they aren't the bulk of the book. The epilogue gives the book its title, as Obama reflects on a sermon he once heard using the phrase 'Audacity of Hope':

"The audacity of hope. That was the best of the American spirit, I thought -- having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict; the gall to believe that despite personal setbacks, the loss of a job or an illness in the family or a childhood mired in poverty, we had some control -- and therefore responsibility -- over our own fate. It was that audacity, I thought, that joined us as one people. It was that pervasive spirit of hope that tied my own family's story to the larger American story, and my own story to those of the voters I sought to represent."

When I see that phase "despite all the evidence to the contrary", I'm given pause. It's certainly idealistic, and therein lies my uncertainty. I believe in idealism -- it motivates me. At the same time, I don't want to be deceived by it. This is an honest book, I think: it may get the biographical label because the author is so present in the book, plainly agonizing over difficult decisions that aren't so easy to make when the standard is reason and empathy. I can appreciate that -- I dislike books written with that sense of moral satisfaction, books like Bush Country and Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. I think people who read this book -- who sit down with its author and think about these things as he's thinking about them -- will get a lot out of it. You'd have to approach this book with hostility in mind to come away from it poorly. It is at its heart an honest discussion and I recommend it. At the very least, it will allow the reader to get into the mind of the US President.
 


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