‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
Now is as good a time as any to invoke nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson’s well known verse. You don’t need a degree in English to admire the elegant metaphor in which the ceaselessly singing bird stands in for this thing called hope. Hope is what Barack Obama ran on in 2008 and then again, albeit more mutedly, in 2012. Hope is what our Prime Minister pitched in 2015. Most people want, need, expect a leader to generate hope. There might be a little less confidence in Justin Trudeau than when he was first elected over a year ago, but not that much, at least according to the polls. Most Canadians still prefer him over any other option, not that there really is anyone else out there at the moment. Nanos polling indicates just this week that Canadians support Trudeau as their leader twice as much as they do the Leader of the Opposition. As utterly corny as it sounds, Trudeau’s message of “sunny ways” perches a lot more easily in the soul than the crushing oppositional language of negativity. Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election for many reasons, one of which was her inability to paint a picture of a welcoming future. If all you’re ever doing is tearing down your (admittedly obnoxious) opponent then you’re not leaving much else for the imagination, or spirit, to cling to.
As vulgar, offensive, racist, bigoted and misogynistic as DJT is, he ran on a (false) theme of affirmation. Making America Great is as specious a message as Walmart’s invocation to “Save Money. Live Better,” but it is at least as corny as “sunny ways,” and it fed a populace hungry for a fragment of optimism. I get that. It’s the juice of political leadership—and of change. Before the election I attended to mainstream media with the appetite of a sugar addict, fully expecting a resounding, satisfying defeat of one of the most offensive political candidates in living memory. Immediately after, I could no longer bear a minute of media commentary. Like many others, I have been trying to find some hope in the wake of that political catastrophe. Note that the popular American television comedy Blackish, a show I like a lot, focused an entire episode last week on this very topic. I guess there’s hope to be found in a major network production that dares to acknowledge the daunting challenge of looking ahead with an orange-faced bully in the highest pulpit. Humour goes a long way. Of course, when at your lowest there’s always Eric Idle singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If you haven’t seen it check it out on YouTube. He sings as he hangs along with his fellow crucifixion victims on a large wooden cross. There’s always a measure of comfort in searing irony.
As many have noted, 2016 was not a great year for this planet. From our local-provincial perspective, it was tough in many ways, as well. Books are taxed, libraries are in peril, unemployment rates are high, the oil sector is floundering, and we had more snow in December than we normally have in all of winter. But when you work at a university you operate—or I do—with an obstinate sense of optimism. After all, we are in the business of educating people, of building a better society, of moving the world forward as best we can. And so being optimistic gets in your DNA. It goes with the seasonal round of renewal—new semesters, new courses, new students, new challenges. It’s pretty easy in the academy to separate those who have surrendered to cynicism or the sheer habit of naysaying from those who are always looking for ways to get us somewhere better. Working collaboratively sure helps.
As Dickinson observed, hope persists, despite, as the poem continues,
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—“
Yes, you can call it corny and trite, but we are all pretty much in the same boat in 2017, always hoping for the best, despite the evidence.