Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Three Cheers for the Hopey Changey Thing

Hello; on the day we say hello to another four years of Barack Obama, goodbye to Mitt Romney, and everyone in every other country everywhere breathes a sigh of relief. Thinking about this made me remember something from my childhood. I can't remember the year but I think it may have been 1979 or 80. I clearly remember my father saying 'There'll never be a black president of the United States. Never. Not in My Lifetime. They wouldn't allow it.'

Remembering this made me think about something I have been finding very frustrating recently. I know lots of people who think of themselves as left-wing, liberal, progressive. Some of them are younger than me. Some of them are older, so they have been able to see the world changing, and should remember that it does. Nonetheless, it seems a lot of people who sincerely want the world to be a better place find it hard, like my father did, to actually imagine that happening. They love pointing out what is wrong with the world we live in - the corruption, injustice, sexism and stupidity - but seem sunk in the belief that this is how it is, and how it always will be.

I struggle with this pessimism for several reasons. First, it's just historically inaccurate. Being a right-on sort of teenager, I have been around politics in some shape or form for 25 years now. I still have my Free Nelson Mandela badge. If I dig deep enough into the layered belongings at my parents' house, I can probably find an 'FSLN' T-shirt. (Half of you don't even know what that is, do you?) The thing is, people have short memories. But if I check many of the things I thought were so bad in 1987 - 25 years ago - what is amazing is not how many remain, but how many have improved. Let's take a short list:

1987 - US: Ronald Reagan (white/republican)
2012 - US: Barack Obama (black/democrat)

1987 - Central America: 3 x nasty civil wars
2012 - Central America: civil wars, nil.

1987 - South America: Fascist dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Brazil an economic disaster just escaping military rule. All attempts to challenge autocratic regimes result in violent repression, usually backed by US.
2012 - South America: Most of region has democracy. Brazil booms, becoming both an economic and cultural force. Brazil and Argentina have female presidents. Most countries governed by centre-left.

1987 - Southern Africa: Apartheid regime at its most violent backs client armies in neighbouring states. Regime of sanctions in place: citizens banned from most international events. Mozambique sunk deep in poverty and civil war.
2012 - Southern Africa: South Africa is a multiracial democracy more likely to be covered in the Sports News than main news. Mozambique has just located massive gas reserves.

1987 - Middle East: Mad dictatorship-arama.
2012- Middle East: Arab Spring has brought at least 3 countries to democracy, struggle continues in others.

1987 - Asia: Massive, widespread poverty. India GDP* per person a miserable $387, China even worse at $287.
2012 - Asia: India GDP per person approx $4000 per annum, China $6000. That's - in real terms - probably half a billion people who no longer struggle to feed and clothe themselves.

I could carry on in this vein. I could point out Northern Ireland, gay rights or the fact that we have Muslim MPs. I could point out that when I went to India in 1990 it took a week to send a letter there, and you had to go to the post office to book an international call. Now I have to put up with the bastards sending me photos of their lunch.

The thing I'm interested in, is given that this is the case - why are so many people attached to gloom and doom? Is it because we are British? I don't think so, since the very old British people I've met are generally quite cheerful. Is it because we see things around us getting worse? I'm not disputing that locally, they are: services are getting worse in general while people's living standards are being eroded. Is it because our leaders are so miserably bad? I'm not disputing that, either.

What I fail to understand is the reluctance of so many people to countenance the fact that this is not inevitable. If India, Brazil, South Africa - even the US - can transform themselves, why can't we? Do people think that this happened by someone waving a magic wand, or do they think it took a lot of hard work and struggle?

The reason I write this is that I am fed up of being told off, by various parties, for expressing optimism of any kind. I am fed up of people spending half an hour ranting about how bad everything is and then sitting back, washing their hands, and saying there's no point fighting it. And if you don't believe these are real conversations I've had recently, you're wrong. I'm not ashamed to be British. I don't believe we're gonna kill the planet. And I honestly don't think we'll be eating out of dustbins like in some kind of post-apocalyptic disaster movie. At least, not unless we stay sat on our arses, twiddling our thumbs.

It's sometimes easier to get change than you think it is. All you have to do in the first place is imagine it's possible, in the way that my father couldn't. Go on, think about what you want! Force that picture into your head, really look at it. Imagine, exactly, what it'd be like. Barack Obama must've imagined himself being president, one day, for the very first time. If he hadn't, you'd be sitting there now with your head in your heads, welcoming President Mittens. Nice thought, hey?


*GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is the amount a country earns, from all its activities, per year. Gross domestic product per person is that amount divided by the number of people in the population. Obviously it is an average and disguises inequalities, but it is nonetheless an indicator of the overall level of wealth in that nation.


  1. Thank you for the list of things that have improved, because I hadn't thought about it that way, and it is all true. And awesome. Also amen to Mittens' failure. We had him as a governor in Massachusetts, and he was floppy and soggy and excessively religious.

    1. Absolutely brilliant turn of phrase, really made me laugh. Thanks.

  2. Lovely stuff. I have/had a similar perspective. My favourite years for world politics were probably 1988 - 1993: The Berlin Wall came down, The USSR ceased to exist, Mandela was freed and Apartheid ceased. It was all excellent stuff.

    Then came Putin, and Winnie Mandela and various Gulf Wars, the rise of militant Hinduism in India, the Sri Lankan genocide (in effect) of the LTTE and it's support. The 11th of September attacks on on the US. The Bali bombing.

    So all my optimism was moderated by a realisation that humans will continue to be f**kwits, no matter what opportunities are given to them. And, yes, I am a bit less optimistic than I used to be: our NHS is being sold off, the Tories are finagling all sorts of shenanigans yet again...

    On the plus side: Northern Ireland is no longer terrorist-land.

    Even more plus: I have recently discovered the bunch of young, enthusiastic, liberal-leftie types, who put together stuff like Science ShowOff and Museums ShowOff and ScienceGrrl and more (thank you Twitter!), and the US has rejected Mittens.

    So I hope, again, for more Arab Springtimes, for better eduction, for a continuing NHS and more. But I'm just warier, I suppose, than I was when I was in my early 20s and the world suddenly seemed to have become a so much better place.

    Thanks for flying the flag for optimism and enthusiasm: sometimes we do forget how good we have it!

    1. thanks. I feel that there's a perception sometimes that the good guys always lose. I just don't think that's the case.

      I do agree that people will continue to be dickheads as long as there are people, but I have to say that overall, I feel more optimistic about the state of the world than I did in my 20's. I was a terrible eco-doom-and-gloom monger back then and I don't feel like that any more. Perhaps because I've seen so much change in 20 years that I now think we will change to deal with it.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Are you serious?