In many of the post-election reports and commentaries I've been reading, the initial celebratory euphoria is gradually being doused with expertly worded buts and ifs and maybes and don't forgets and so on and on. I am just as inclined as the most seen-it-all-before cynic to mistrust politics and politicians and to despair about the state of the planet in general. But not right now. Right now I only want to praise, to laud, to honour and to celebrate the two sides of one coin:
An individual: president-elect Barack Obama.
A very large crowd: the people who supported and elected him.
In his acceptance speech, Obama said:
But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to – it belongs to you.
I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.
It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers.......
Clever political speechifying? Yes, of course. But above all, it is true. The Yes-We-Can slogan was actually experienced and acted upon by millions of people, energised by hope, inspired by a man who represents the possibility of change and who is totally unlike the current resident of the White House.
'Charisma' is a word which provokes instant suspicion among thinkers/observers, especially those of us who have been around the block a few times. We've seen too many feet of clay on the idols we ourselves raised up on pedestals when we were naive, or on other popular heroes we never believed in at all. So if someone mentions a leader's charisma our eyebrows are likely to shoot upwards, our lips to curl into the skeptic's sneer and we will say something like: "Well, Hitler had charisma. So did Attila the Hun and Charles Manson etc. etc." We will probably also bring up 'mass hysteria', recalling the terrible extremes to which a whipped-up crowd can go and, therefore, how you can never trust the emotions of a crowd in the grip of charismatic individuals, be they politicians, prophets, soldiers, football players or rock stars.
Well, yes and no. Whatever circuitry in the human brain is responsible for hero-worship and for mass movements, it surely does not always produce negative effects. Was it the same brain circuitry which inspired the followers of Ghandi to non-violence as whipped up the followers of Hitler (and other criminals) to unspeakable violence? And was it 'mass hysteria' when I and millions of others around the world took to the streets to march against the Iraq war? Or when we marched against nuclear weapons? We may not have succeeded in our immediate aims, but these were still victories for people-power. Major changes occur slowly and we may not live to see the results, but I believe that something extraordinary happens to human beings when they come together in large numbers united by good will, concern for each other and a powerful desire to end injustice and corruption. And yes, if a leader can reflect, embody that spirit and inspire people to believe that they themselves have the power to change things, then such a leader is needed. He, or she, is like an orchestra conductor whose skill is to get the best out of each individual player and out of their combined voices, at the service of the music.
Imagine for a moment the kind of radical changes which could happen in the world as a result of concerted people-power. Make a wish-list. Yes, it will look completely unrealistic, naive. Realists will tell you it can never happen.
Yes it can.