Sunday, January 25, 2009

Changing of the Guard (rejected title: Inbloguration)

Expectations are a bitch sometimes, often-times...all the time? 

Case in point? I started writing this post about a half-hour after Obama's inauguration. It wasn't really 'this post' then, although some of the key concepts are likely to have made it into the final edit. Expectations weren't really the trouble to begin with, unless I can sell you on the idea that I only go to class because it's expected of me. Once the immediacy is gone, though, the going gets tougher. Not only do you lose momentum as enthusiasm wanes, but – like an overdue assignment – the quality of work must be raised to offset the lateness. This is above and beyond any expectations real or perceived that I, or any writer/blogger must contend with. I already have a touchy relationship with “expectations”, as I'm sure to have mentioned in some previous diatribe. They weren't “down here” [ankle height]; they weren't “here” [waist height]; they were “all the way up here!” [full arms' reach straight up], as Vice-Principal Thompson was keen to impress upon us Gloucesterites at every possible juncture. To her credit, she became self-aware as regards her little “expectations” blurb as time went on, but never quite to a level I could find endearing. 

Besides this little ritual of hers being a hokey shtick (note to self: pun material?), I found that it didn't even convey a particularly constructive message. There are certain things that one must expect of a learning institution, it's faculty, staff, and student body, of course! But expressing oneself in terms of expectations is, quite frankly, unhelpful, unfriendly, and unpleasant. A school is an institution whose goal is to foster the intellectual growth of human beings, at the very core. To express the ideals of such an institution as “expectations” is to tell the students that their job is to perform to the administration's satisfaction. Not to their own satisfaction, not to the best of their potential, but to a level that's somewhere “up here”, in the vice-principal's own words; her standards, her satisfaction. Nothing in her little mantra spoke to me of the nurturing aspect of the teacher, and of the school community. Nothing about her tone suggested that the expectations were collective, that we expected as much of the school as it did of us. What it said to me was “I want all the beef in my slaughterhouse to be Grade A”. 

Furthermore, when expectations are met, there is no particular pleasure in that. Sure, exceeding expectations is certainly cause for celebration, but where standards are high to begin with, great work may go without fanfare. Not that I think aiming low is preferable to aiming high, simply because there is more cause to celebrate, but rather than working from an elevated baseline, it seems that

Bad -> Ok -> Better -> Even Better -> Still Better -> Exceptional -> Outstanding

is a better spectrum than

Insufficient -> Insufficient -> Insufficient -> Still Insufficient -> Ok -> Outstanding.

That's just my opinion, though. 

Now, watching Obama's inaugural speech (anyone seen Rex Murphy's scathing review?) was all well and dandy. I was pleased that he did not mince words when he said that the times to come will not be easy. I was pleased that he clearly defined the ideological separation between his administration and Bush's. I was pleased that he acknowledged “unbelievers” in addition to peoples of all faiths as part of the fabric of the US. Rex Murphy, for one, expected more, and that's just from the speech. From words on a page that, while important, aren't going to flow out of the speakers and into the streets, condensing new jobs from the crisp January air. Obama, for all his oratorical skills, for all his charisma, for all his promise and achievement, is a man. A human being. No matter what he symbolises as leader of the free world, we have to allow that he cannot outrun trains, nor fly, nor shoot lasers from his eyes. If we allow our expectations to consume us, to shape our every reaction to an Obama presidency, there is every likelihood that we will betray the very hope and optimism that fuelled them in the first place. That is why I am so happy to hear Obama tell Americans that they need to pitch in if anything is going to change, and that they shouldn't expect things to improve overnight. Expectations will create disillusion and doubt, and these are not what the situation demands. Democracy is about holding your leaders to account, not holding them up to impossible standards. There is one thing, as Shepherd Book says in Serenity, one thing that will get us through this; belief. Not necessarily in a God, but in something positive. Poverty and injustice are as old as Civilisation itself, and there is no good reason to think that they are going to be diminished significantly because the president of the most powerful country in the world is a charismatic speaker from the less-right-wing party. However, taking to heart the idea that they can be reduced, and even eradicated if we want them to be is powerful and important. Believing alone cannot change the world...but the collective efforts of humanity? That's another story entirely. 

I fully expected that “expectations are bad and positiveness is good” would make a good blog post in itself. I think it's a very satisfactory answer to most of the different takes on Obama's presidency. To the people who want everything to be magically better? Forget it! Get up off your asses and “be the change” your own damn selves. To the people who figure Obama can't possibly accomplish what people expect of him? Yup. So? To the people who are busy pointing out that we don't really know what Obama's policies are really going to look like? That falls under “holding the government to account”, so those are legit questions. But if there's change you want to see, stop complaining about how it might not be on Obama's agenda and get lobbying! Of course, this presents a rather interesting take on an Obama presidency, and it's one that I like: the cynics have observed that everyone is projecting their hopes and dreams onto Obama and call it a problem. Maybe it's not a problem. Maybe it will be enough to spark real, grass-roots political action for social change. Sure, it's not going to be fast, and it's not going to be easy, but Obama himself said that it would not be. Maybe Obama's policies won't be anything too special. I think that would be just fine if his legacy is as the President who made Americans believe in themselves. 

...but is that Obama, or is that what I want him to be? The plot thickens!

It had occurred to me whilst watching the inaugural ceremonies that in Canada we probably get more spectators for the changing of the guard at Parliament Hill than we get for the changing of the government. As my American house-mates have been incessant in telling me, this is yet another example of how Canada isn't really a country, because we haven't got a strong sense of pride or national identity. This was going to be rather unrelated, but then it clicked. We don't celebrate our government because we expect so little of it! For a country of such epic political partisanship, though, change seems glacial. A new government comes into power and tears up the old policies they loved to hate in opposition...and brings them back with a new name six months hence. Taboo has taken care of the rest; it's still considered impolite to utter the word “tier” within fewer than, oh say, five or six words of “health care”, heaven forbid the number “two” have escaped your lips in the preceding hour. It is my understanding that abortion law does not exist in Canada because the debate is so touchy that we stopped at “it's not illegal” for fear of tearing the country apart or something. And then there's our Constitution, that might as well be etched in stone with no extra spaces for all the amending we're going to do in the next millennium. Obama thinks American cynics have a problem with “too many big plans”? No one expects anything to change here. In part, that is because change is rather impossible in both present and future political contexts. But it is also because we are so paralysed in our constant fear of offending anyone that we refuse to hold positive beliefs about our country, and about change. 

So there you have it: The US needs to trade expectations for positive beliefs, and Canada has neither. 

I think we'll deal with the situation as we are wont to do; “share” in America's dawning era of hope, just as we “share” in their culture and their security – enjoy theirs while contributing only token amounts to our own.

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