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Hope in the Era of Obama: A Lesson From Egypt

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This past Thursday afternoon, as the television screen boasted stunning images of a people claiming -- nay, seizing -- agency in their political destiny, an equally stunning headline overtook the lower portion of the screen:

White House says situation in Egypt is "fluid."

One can only assume that the same press release also offered:

White House calls Pope "Catholic," says bears defecate "outdoors."

This vapid sentiment -- sorely bereft of substantive commentary surrounding what was unfolding that day in Egypt -- is wholly characteristic of an administration that has straddled the fence with alarming consistency over the past two years. The centrism of the Obama administration is no longer only distressing, depressing, and disheartening for those of us on "the Left," but also dangerous. Continuously taking relatively "safe" positions on the revolution in Egypt threatens to further nullify the credibility in progressive circles of a politician elected on a campaign of decisive "change" in US governmental policy, and a human voice to compete with the robotic chorus of corporate America. The "change" Obama campaigned on has largely yet to materialize in the eyes of many domestic, as well as international observers, as the clock ticks on what could amount to the most disappointing American Presidency in history.

We can all easily recall the tsunami of popular enthusiasm that gave birth to Obama's election. This writer was in India at the time, and I smile when I recall people on the street "congratulating" me - based solely on my pseudo-American English accent - for electing Obama that November (obviously, oblivious to my Canadian citizenship and inability to participate in US elections). I arose at an unholy hour one morning the following January in order to watch the President elect's official swearing-in. At the time, I recognized plainly that something special was happening: something I knew my future children would question me about. What was it like to be there? I was not "there," but even on the other side of the world, the energy radiating from Washington was palpable.

In light of the rhetoric of "hope" and "change" emanating from the newly elected administration in Washington, I am certain that I was not alone in my attempt at cautious optimism. However, staying stoic and sober that winter was challenging. Eight years of Bush II had vaporized any hope of decisive, progressive "change" in US foreign policy, and, initially, the promise of Obama was a welcome relief for political progressives the world over.

We are now two years into the presidential term of Barack Obama. The President's successful (thus far, at least) effort to cease his tobacco intake remains among the few campaign promises that have materialized into any sort of tangible reality. Tax cuts for the ultra-rich continue to line the pockets of those who need it least; almost comedic, were it not so tragic. A severely compromised, violated health care bill barely limped out of Congress, its wounds confining millions of Americans to an unhealthy existence. Guantanamo continues its reign unaltered as perhaps the largest stain on a rapidly decaying American conscience, where inmates remain suspended for years at a time in a tortuous state of legal purgatory. And with chilling frequency, the most naturally-gifted public speaker of our times often seems an impartial drone; not only repeatedly succumbing to powerful corporate interests, but continuously offering neutered responses to issues that demand moral intervention. I refuse to accept that Barack Obama's moral compass is as indeterminate as his mechanical presidential rhetoric often suggests.

No matter what transpires in Egypt in the days to come, the President will respond in kind with the characteristic, well-picked rhetorical flourishes, and elegant oration that still endears him to millions of Americans. And no doubt, at the same time the State Department will be hard at work in crafting a new "Egypt policy," and doing everything within its power to secure "American interests;" the codeword for that shadow community of corporate wealth which has incessantly served as democracy's greatest castrator.

Our challenge, as political consumers in the era of Obama, is to recognize the potential the Egyptian revolution represents in shaping our own political destiny here at home. Our response to the scenes in Cairo's Liberation Square should not be one of incredulity due to our perception of them as somehow "foreign" -- or rather, antithetical to the dull comfort of our consumerist, spectatorial "democracy." Instead, we should receive the revolution in Egypt with deep reverence: let us seize this moment to recognize the ability, once awoken, of the human community to build, and not merely consume, democracy. The central promise of grassroots political organization should not be lost amid the disappointment of the current US administration, and the compromised promise of the era of Obama. The brave souls of Liberation Square are demonstrating for a worldwide audience that, in spite of Obama, hope soldiers on. We should be humbled, and grateful for their lesson.

We ignore it at our peril.

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