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Keeping Hope Out of The Closet

Brent Harold

It was a march on Washington of a whole different sort, wasn't it?

The overhead shot of the Mall on O-day: people to the horizon. A sea of humanity, indeed.

A nation afloat on a high tide of hope, even as the undertow of financial collapse gnaws at the underpinnings of many lives.

I don't remember neighborhood inauguration parties before, champagne at noon. Did we do this for Clinton's first one? He was a hopeful, charismatic president for a while. No, it wasn't like this.

Such hope has not been let out of the closet since the 1960s. It reminds me of that decade, which dared to imagine a new horizon in so many areas of life.

There's a similar feel. But is there a difference? Hope in the 60s was born of a grassroots struggle over civil rights. Presidents were not a source of hope; they were what hope had to overcome.

Back then there was more a feeling that we the people (at least we the young) could make it the way it should be. Put enough positive energy into it and you could levitate the Pentagon. Yes, we could, or thought we could. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, remember, and Power to the People was the slogan. And then hope went into hiding for decades.


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The old habit of cynicism dies hard. It makes me nervous to see us placing all our hopes in the leader. Fix the economy, solve Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, reform health care, raise up the downtrodden, restore the lame. "Yes we can" - a nice slogan, but with all the hero worship, isn't the "we" getting lost in there?

I know what we're supposed to say to cynicism: This is different. With Obama, "he" is "we." In placing our hopes in him, we are placing them in ourselves. Even while we hero worship, we feel that we are all part of this tide of history. I think that's how it goes. I think it's called leadership.

But what form will "we" take as we return to everyday life? How can we keep hope alive? It's got to be something more substantive than forwarding upbeat e-mails. No more crumbs from the table for we the people, that's for sure. But what can we actually do? Well, at least make up a to-do list and keep tabs on progress.

Another thing we can do: Stay clear about the ideas in which hope resides. Ideas which set a new tone. One of my favorites is the one Obama got at in the inauguration speech, when he said that we should get over quibbling about whether we should have big government or small government. The point about government should be "whether it works." Government properly wielded is our indispensable weapon. It flows from us, and its whole reason for existing is to help us. It is us; it is we helping ourselves. Ask not what you can do for your government, insist it deliver the goods to us. They are our goods.

We can ask ourselves, as the Obama future unfolds: Is this idea being implemented? Is this what's happening? And what will we do about it, if our hopes are dashed? "I won't vote for you next time" sounds kind of lame. Sign an e-mail petition? Return to Washington, camp on the president's doorstep, 60s style, till we get action?

We need to get clearer about just what we do to make that "we" in "yes we can" more than wishful thinking.

For now , there's this powerful sense of witnessing. It feels like a good start. Can Obama really ignore the hopes of many? For the moment, how cool to feel part of a tide of history. Damn if we didn't elect us a black president, one who truly seems worthy of our hopes, the hope of the world. How cool to be an American. When was the last time you said that?

Brent Harold of Wellfleet, a former English professor, is the author of "Wellfleet and the World." E-mail him at

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