Street dreams

My boyhood, and the Arab political culture I have been chronicling for well over three decades, are anchored in the Arab world. And the tragedy of Arab political culture has been the unending expectation of the crowd — the street, we call it — in the redeemer who will put an end to the decline, who will restore faded splendor and greatness. When I came into my own, in the late 1950s and ’60s, those hopes were invested in the Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser. He faltered, and broke the hearts of generations of Arabs. But the faith in the Awaited One lives on, and it would forever circle the Arab world looking for the next redeemer.

America is a different land, for me exceptional in all the ways that matter. In recent days, those vast Obama crowds, though, have recalled for me the politics of charisma that wrecked Arab and Muslim societies. A leader does not have to say much, or be much. The crowd is left to its most powerful possession — its imagination.

… The morning after the election, the disappointment will begin to settle upon the Obama crowd. Defeat — by now unthinkable to the devotees — will bring heartbreak. Victory will steadily deliver the sobering verdict that our troubles won’t be solved by a leader’s magic. — Fouad Ajami, Obama and the politics of crowds

expectations200,000 in Berlin. 100,000 in St. Louis. The numbers are fittingly historic in this campaign to elect a black American the next President of the United States.

Bigger than the crowds are the historic hopes and expectations being draped over the shoulders of this man who promises change, transformation, a new and better America.

For those who have grown weary of the old America, Barack Obama’s charismatic message has given rise to a new optimism. Hand him the reins of power and he will set America on a new course of liberty, equality, fraternity… and prosperity. These, at least, are the vivid dreams that have energized the Democratic street.

I can’t remember a time when America was so ready for a change. After Nixon’s resignation, perhaps, or following the malaise of the Carter years and his Iran hostage debacle. Those were much darker days than we are now experiencing, even with this global financial crisis.

But the country is unhappy, and I can’t remember a time when any American politician has so captured the imagination of, so connected with the anger on — the street. As I write this, the early voting turnout in North Carolina has been so massive that election officials had extend the deadline to give everyone a chance to cast their ballots. Nov. 4 may break all previous voter participation records.

Two very powerful forces seem to have joined in this election: an angry electorate tired of Washington’s shenanigans, and a calm, self-assured politician who speaks eloquently about hope and change.

The hopes and expectations of the American street are higher than a kite. And the question no one can answer is: will Obama turn out to be America’s savior-redeemer, or just another smooth-talking politician who can pick your pocket while shaking your hand?

I suspect Sen. Obama is naïve; he will find it harder to transform Washington than he thinks. If he flounders, he will discover just how fast those fawning crowds can turn vicious. The street can be fickle, even vengeful, when it feels betrayed.

The crowds lauded Jesus as their King, Redeemer and Savior. They placed their garments on the road before him as he made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The street imagined him King, and visualized a New Jerusalem freed from Rome’s iron grip. The street expected a return to Jewish greatness, with Jesus leading the way.

Days later they called for Jesus’ death and nailed him to a cross.

Every student of the Bible knows the fickle fury of the street. One wonders if Barack Obama understands the backlash he has invited by building expectations so very high. If the street turned against Jesus Christ, how can an inexperienced, two-term Senator expect to stay atop this wobbly pedestal he has built for himself?

Whoever wins this election will need our prayers. If it turns out to be Sen. Obama, he better hope the Democratic street has a very short memory.

Image credit: Community 4:12

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  1. Charlie, that whole article by Fouad Ajami was really good (as I’m sure you know).

    I’m worried about this election; the anticipation and the expectations that have been laid out … not just in the Presidential election, but in the congressional races as well. There’s a sense of anger and revenge that I find unsettling.

  2. You’d think experience would show that the man in the oval office can’t snap his fingers and fix everything. If he could, Bush would have fixed the economy so Republicans would get the credit and he would leave a golden legacy. I’m thinking these next four years are going to be very interesting. I don’t agree with most of what he stands for, but I do think Obama is fascinating. I thought he would win the first time I heard him speak, when I saw him on Oprah before he’d even announced he was running.

  3. I’ve thought about that, too. However, I hope the electorate reaches a point where they realize how difficult the job of being President is, and they pull together to help face the crises ahead, rather than criticize.

    I’m encouraged about the number of exhortations there are to pray for Obama, across the conservative Christian blogs.