Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 18, 2009

The Hoper Bowl: Optimism, Race & Power In the Age of Obama

I try not to get caught up in the hype and exaggerate, but in a case like this, that’s pretty hard. So I’ve been thinking about it, and as the U.S. heads into the two weeks between MLK’s 80th birthday and the 43rd Super Bowl on Feb. 1st, I can’t think of fourteen more news-packed, compelling, multi-dimensional and transitional days in the past 150 years of our nation (i.e. since the Civil War).

The weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001 come close, of course. As does Hurricane Katrina, the thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis, and the weeks immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some might nominate other transitional two week periods, such as the mess of the Bush/Gore election, North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive, or the aftermaths of various political assassinations.

But what all those other “moments of truth” have in common is that there was no real way to put a positive, hopeful spin on them. They were messes to be dealt with. So the political, social and economic decisions that were made (and attitudes that were changed) in their wake were all reactive to a crisis, rather than proactive. This inauguration, and the first 100 days of  the Obama presidency, are nothing less than a communal search for some post-adolescent, more adult identity that we are called to as a nation. It is an obvious and energy-charged opportunity to invent, or re-tool, significant portions of our vision for the future and our priorities as we move forward into it. Democrat or Republican, we can all recognize there’s a significant difference between change because we’re forced to change, and change because we choose to change.

Those past moments of disaster or near-disaster — the “whoa” or “whew” moments, if you will– were fundamentally different than the “Wow!” we should be experiencing for the rest of January, if not for the next four to eight years.

On the other hand, I can admit that part of this Wow is not a completely organic development, but also a heavily-proselytized, media-fueled pep rally. But mostly it’s real, and necessary, and encouraging, because there’s still plenty of “whoa” or “yikes” to go around. We need much reassuring on the economy, the wars, energy instability, the environment, joblessness, inflation, and ongoing “culture wars” like the gay marriage issue, not to mention the usual Dickensian orphan twins, Poverty and Ignorance. And a president is nothing if not a father figure, setting the spiritual tone of the journey we make as a nation every four years.

Election or no election, consider the huge signs of socio-political convergence right in front of us, signs that have been floating around at least since the Olympics last summer. For many historians, economists, business interests and even sports and cultural icons, the Beijing Olympics were hailed (or vilified) as the starting gun, fired to start “The Chinese Century”. And I don’t doubt it, when I consider how much U.S. business and government debt is held now by Chinese interests (they’re the primary muscle behind Citibank, which means they hold my house mortgage… hope they don’t call in all our loans…).

At every turn, politics, sports, cultural and commercial interests are so intertwined now that it’s hard to separate them. It’s all so complex it makes the head spin, which is why so few people will read The Economist magazine, or even the newspaper, or make much of an extra effort to stay informed about who might be pulling the strings when it comes to the food on their table or the car in their garage.

So if we’re to believe the experts, or the numbers, China is soon to be the lone looming superpower. (I have mixed feelings here: as a nation, China’s like a house of cards, full of potential but founded on shaky human-rights ground, and not likely to do much to avoid the environmental iceberg we’re all headed for. They’re the tail that wags the dog.). Therefore our first non-white, only half-American president-elect is not just a symbolic figure, not a front for the usual idealistic liberal political values, but a genuine revolutionary figure in a changing worldwide landscape.

Like a good liberal intellectual, I was listening to NPR on Sunday and heard some good interviews on the Tavis Smiley show. (Though I was on my way home from church, which puts a dent in my rep as an elitist, an intellectual, and/or a liberal, ….if you believe the stereotypes, not that I do.) Among others, Smiley talked to African-American actor Laurence Fishburne, the incoming replacement for CSI’s outgoing supervisor/father-figure William Petersen. And when the childless Smiley admitted with his characteristically gentle frankness that he questioned whether bringing a child into an often ugly world is a good choice, Fishburne (who has two college age kids and a new 18-month old) took the calm, mature, wise, and faith-based tack of talking about the beauty and possibility of the world, and of this historical moment, …that the Mess is just humans being human, and the progress of the species should not be judged primarily by our missteps and evil actions.

I knew there was a reason I liked old Morpheus, besides that gunfighter coat and those cool wraparound sunglasses. Because he knows the challenge of “taking the blue pill” is worth it, and that the role of struggle and sacrifice in promoting growth, new life and community is just plain necessary… as if it’s built into existence.

That was the essential spirit of Dr. King’s message, as well. Toward the end of his life, he was  not just preaching to the “choir” of civil rights advocates, but was also beginning to realize that his critique had to be bolder. He began to target the Vietnam War machine, and the treatment of the poor and working class in our midst, regardless of color. He was beginning to look at systemic issues, macroeconomic issues, and began seeing racism as only one of the bigger, sicker symptoms of those tougher, class-based problems.

Civil rights-wise, we’ve come a long way since then, and this month (and February, too) will be a celebration of that progress, as much as a celebration of Dr. King himself. Yet there is also a danger in being too self-congratulatory, and missing this chance on some of the work yet to be done. What are the lynchpins for making that progress permanent? How do we help those who were left behind, who may now have their rights protected, but still have too few opportunities to advance?

Righting the ship without fixing the huge holes in it, or forgetting that mutiny is perhaps just one bad decision or terrorist act away, is only going to get us a little bit closer to that dreamed-of promised land. For America is also a fickle mistress, who can turn on her heroes fairly quickly if she feels duped or cheated. We love underdogs like “Barry” Obama, from the middle of nowhere. But we also hate to lose, and can be quite unforgiving. Therefore, Obama intuitively knows he must keep his eye on the ball, or the whole shebang could be lost.

Speaking of  the ball… that is, the football, not the Inaugural Ball… the most obvious connective tissue between the political, cultural, sports and business arenas this month is one man, and it’s not Obama himself. It’s Bruce Springsteen, who as I write this is playing a pre-inaugural concert on the Mall in Washington, and in two weeks will headline the halftime show at the Superbowl. 

The Boss is the anointed “voice of Everyman”. (Who anointed him? I dunno. It just sorta happened… not that he’s the only voice.) And even though he’s actually a millionaire, his social conscience and sense of history put Bruce on fairly firm footing as a trustworthy guardian and interpreter of many of our national values. Whether you agree with Springsteen’s politics or not, he’s just easier to figure out than people like Bob Dylan, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Moore, Sean Hannity or, for that matter, Obama himself.

Plus, the Superbowl is nothing if not the top testing ground to measure our “pop culture” creativity, and the economic viability of the free market. All the water cooler buzz about which was the funniest or most costly commercial, all the piggybacking travel and media activity, all the supermarket specials for the local Super Bowl parties. It’s like our own annual Beijing Olympic moment, and this year more than most, because of how many people are feeling the pressure to recover and put on a brave face internationally. Super Sunday has become the one secular “holiday” that’s very much about consumerism and celebrating competition — on the playing field and in the marketplace.

And consumerism is still seen as somewhat synonymous with patriotism, for better or for worse (mostly worse, if ownership of “stuff” is allowed to define our values and identity). This is a trend that may actually date back to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the “pull together” attitude of America during WWII.

Yet now even the big corporations and advertisers are taking up the slightly different call and tone of this new era, the call for shared responsibility, sacrifice, and the courage to disassemble a few sacred cows both within and beyond our borders.

Take, for example, the new “Let’s build a smarter planet” advertising campaign for IBM. It’s certainly idealistic, but not in the touchy-feely/post-hippie “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” spirit of a prior generation. Instead, IBM is taking a position, setting the tone for as many people as possible to consider sharing the responsibility, and also sharing the wealth that we have been granted as a nation. They’re trying to broaden what is seen as an “capital”. They’re even breaking with the usual isolationist attitude, saying we can actually learn from somepace like Stockholm, Sweden, for example (which is mentioned directly in one of the ads, about the problem of “traffic”.)

Yes, we still first and foremost want to educate our students to “compete” in the world economy, and cash is still king. Old habits die hard, plus we really can’t just curl up in a ball and give up, or go back to wearing animal skins. Yet IBM’s rhetorical intention, their version of “hope”, seems to be a more broad-based empowerment. It nudges us toward an efficiency, a corporate and national humility, a basic internationalism, and a vague but inclusive “do-gooder” mentality  –not as a tax shelter, but because the times and the planet require it.

Finally, while ad campaigns like this may still have a whiff of trendiness, opportunism or paternalism about them, it’s still better than the self-centered “us vs. them” undercurrent we’ve seen in the business community since at least the Reagan era, if not earlier. Only now, having given the kids the run of the candy store for too long, and having let them run it into the ground, are we finally willing to re-regulate, negotiate, and to play by the rules again –once we’ve figured out what the rules are in this tricky, sometimes deadly new multi-national game. If it’s not too late, that is.

So I’ll be watching these celebrations and sporting contests of strength with great interest over the next two weeks, to see if there are signs of genuine healing, or a practical vision that begins emerging to replace the more vague “hope” that has caught on like the newest designer drug. Not that Obama is not proposing specific programs and policies to move toward these hoped-for goals, because clearly he is. Nevertheless, what he’s “selling” is hope.

Yet we can’t live on hope alone. And we can’t wait for complete clarity or agreement before taking serious action. Compromise, and spreading out the “losses” to soften the blow, are the order of the day. We’ve just gotta pick a lane, get in it, and see where this newfound energy can take us.


  1. Thank you for linking(“mountaintop”), I’ll keep a rove on.

  2. Ripping awesome! Excellent observation of the historical uniqueness of current events. No wonder I’m giddy. I’m proactively giddy.

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