The future’s ours and you don’t even rate a footnote…
I’m not a “movement” guy, for a number of reasons. I’m cynical, for one. I’m a crank, for another. Most importantly, though, is that I’m a critic. I’ve an observer’s eyes, an analyst’s mind and a writer’s hand, but my brain is wired in such a way that it uses those powers at a distance, almost never on the front lines. I want to understand, and I want to help others understand, but I tend to have little interest in turning that understanding into action. I write manifests, not manifestos, so to speak.
So how do I explain my emotional investment in the improbable, incredible presidential campaign of Barack Obama? If you’ve been reading the blog, you’ll have charted my transition from quiet observer to full-blown “Hope-ium” addict over the course of the year. Never before have I been so inspired by a political figure from my own lifetime. For the first time I can recall, I was willing to put aside my doubts, my quibbles and my misgivings and admit that I didn’t just support a candidate – I believed in one. And he wasn’t even running in my own country!
There are lots of reasons why I, and so many other young people, believed in Barack Obama. But if I had to single out one to highlight, it would be the powerful way in which he represented and communicated the concept of “the bridge.” See, if progress is the journey between our present state and the future in which we want to live, it’s not enough to simply describe the two worlds. Focusing only on the present lack vision; dwelling on a better future sounds idealistic and out of touch.
A great leader, one looking to start a movement, connects the two. They bring idealism into a dark present, and calm utopian daydreams with tempered realism. Most importantly, they build bridges: connecting turns of phrase with figures of speech that blur the line between the two worlds. They talk about concrete details and actionable items not as boiler-plate, but as a logical starting point on the journey. They draw a map that leads from anger to hope, from sadness to joy, from yesterday to tomorrow.
This mixtape contains a number of songs that play off of the Obama phenomenon in some way. But there was never any question to me that “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” was the only way this mix could start, because there was no one song this year that so perfectly summed up what the Obama campaign meant to me (sorry, will.i.am).
There’s a sneer that drives the song along, from the first fuzzed-up jangle of the chords through to Michael Stipe’s final cold-throated scream that brings the track to its end. There’s a lot of anger in the mix here, which feels appropriate: if nothing else, the events of the past eight years should damn well earn the anger of progressives and liberals across the world whose reality has been taken from them. But anger alone doesn’t get you anywhere (or win elections for that matter – see 2004). Anger needs a bridge to hope.
Here, it’s in the singalong-worthy chorus. It’s in the glorious Mike Mills backup vocals. Most importantly, though, it’s in the raspy vocal chords of Mr. Stipe that the future takes shape. Every turn of anger is transformed into a statement of progress, of optimism: don’t turn your talking points on me / history will set me free. This is not a sunshine and rainbows tomorrow; when Stipe sings about forgiving but not forgetting, he’s talking about a future that chooses not to be ignorant of the mistakes that have been made along the way. A future founded not on lofty rhetoric alone, but one crafted in the fierce urgency of now. A future built on bridges.
Both this song and the Obama campaign signal a turning point for those of us who have spent much of our young political lives disappointed. We’ve tried anger, and we’ve reached its dead ends. Our marches in the streets, our angry songs…the short term catharsis they brought only led right back to where we started. I believed in Barack Obama because he spoke to me about the need to channel that anger, that disappointment, into something worth fighting for. Because on November 4, America proved Michael Stipe right: living well truly is the best revenge of all.