Informed Enthusiasm

by Peter Blair | 10/20/08 1:44am

As I ran around the bonfire this past weekend, basking in the glorious glow of upperclassman taunts, insults and heckles, I couldn't help but reflect on the youthful enthusiasm I experience from others everyday at Dartmouth. What other age group could shout "worst class ever" over and over again, without losing any of their initial enthusiasm, and then go dance for three hours dressed as Olivia Newton John? People our age are easily enthused, energized, inspired. We're also idealistic and committed to great causes. These can be wonderful qualities, but they can also be dangerous when they're focused on the wrong things.

In his column on Friday, Chris Talamo '11 ("To Be or Not to Be," October 17) argued that a lack of informed voters is a threat to our democracy. I think another danger of this campaign is the tendency, especially among the excited young, to see the political figures as secular messiahs.

Several Obama supporters have cast him as a messiah-like figure. Oprah calls him "The One." Louis Farrakhan flat out calls Senator Obama "The Messiah." Michelle Obama seems to think that Obama can heal our broken souls: "That is why I am here, because Barack Obama is the only person in this race who understands that. That before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation." Even Senator Obama recognizes the confusion about this issue, and sought to set the record straight this past Friday, saying "'I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-el, to save the Planet Earth." Good to know.

This excessive enthusiasm for the Obama campaign isn't just limited to speeches; there are five documented cases of people fainting at Obama rallies. Even Dartmouth isn't exempt from this trend. On January 8th of this year somebody fainted at an Obama rally in West Gym. Apparently, one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of Obama.

Obama and his supporters are directly appealing to the youth vote when they speak with messianic overtones. I once asked a group of friends at home why they were voting for Obama. They told me that they knew Obama would change America -- not just the government, but also the culture. They believed that he could fix all our problems. In short, though they wouldn't phrase it this way, they believed that he is our savior. It is much easier for a 18-year-old -- enthusiastic, naive and untouched by experience -- to believe that kind of thing than it is for a older person.

I don't mean to exempt the Republicans from this charge -- they, too, are guilty of embracing the kind of teenage enthusiasm that disallows critical analysis. The praise for Governor Palin never reached quite the same level as the praise for Obama (she, for one, didn't deliver her convention speech from a mock Greek temple), but there is no doubt that many Republicans, especially young Republicans, were overly excited by her arrival on the national stage.

The great 20th century English thinker Malcolm Muggeridge once criticized the British monarchy because he thought that "any earthly image is an extremely unsound focus for such hysterical feeling." I think both young Republicans and young Democrats should take heed of Muggeridge's words. Senator Obama said in his acceptance speech, paraphrasing a verse of the Bible, "Let us keep that promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess." The main difference, of course, is that the Bible exhorts you to place your hope in God, while Obama exhorts you to place your hope in him. But, as Malcolm Muggeridge would point out, earthly objects, because they fade, die, fail and break, are extremely unsound focuses for such a high level of hope.

I think that we Dartmouth students should consider putting aside our youthful enthusiasm when we enter the voting booth. We should be calm and clearheaded when we choose who we will vote for. We should evaluate political candidates with our heads, not our hearts, fairly weighing the candidates' strengths and weakness, and avoiding getting swept up in political rhetoric. Young Americans like to see their heroes as demigods, but I think we all should strive to avoid that dangerous temptation this fall.