Fintan O’Toole: People need hope, not ‘hopeitude’
Opportunistic politicians are promoting a discourse based on unrealistic optimism
New times require new words. US satirist Stephen Colbert invented “truthiness” – a political discourse in which what matters is what you feel to be true, regardless of any evidence. In a similar spirit, I offer “hopeitude” and define it as a political discourse in which overwhelming optimism is expressed on no grounds whatsoever. Hopeitude is the language both of Brexit and of Donald Trump.
Real hope has an intimate and serious relationship to despair. Hope and despair are not pure opposites. The great developments of modern civilisation – democracy, universal healthcare, access to education for the masses, recognition of equality between genders, the revolt against prejudice based on race, religion and sexual orientation – have all been driven by both emotions. You have to despair of poverty, ignorance, prejudice, injustice, indignity and patriarchy before you can rise up against them. Out of despair comes the hope that something better must be built. And this hope is concrete: it provides the sense of direction from which realistic maps of the future can be made.
Hopeitude is the political gambler’s bluff. You don’t have two cents worth of real hope in your hand, so you put a big pile of hopeitude chips on the table. It’s a perfect parallel to the diet of empty calories that late capitalism has devised for the poor – instead of feeding the body politic, it bloats it with corny emotional syrup and cheap rhetorical trans fats.
Consider Andrea Leadsom’s ludicrous speech last Thursday, setting out why she should be the next prime minister of the UK, delivered with the weird rictus of a beauty pageant contestant: “You see, I am an optimist. I truly believe we can be the greatest nation on Earth . . . I believe we have a great future ahead of us . . . We are a remarkable people and we have so much more to give.”
Part of Leadsom’s rhetoric is a more demure English echo of Trump’s carnival barker bombast in which everything is going to be “huge”, “beautiful” and “great”. Presumably Leadsom’s UK and Trump’s USA will go to war to decide the title of greatest nation on Earth. Though, come to think of it, a reality TV contest would be much more apt. (The British have already had their qualifying round: “I’m an Empire, Get Me Out of Here.”)
For much of this rhetoric is pure X Factor. Hopeitude resonates in large measure because it chimes with the new religion of the talent show. If you dream hard enough, your wish will come true. If you really, really want it, it will happen. Leadsom actually said this: “I want to lead a nation where anyone who aims high can achieve their dreams.” This is the politics of reality TV: wanting a job or an education is like wanting to be a star. Believe it and it will happen. In hopeitude, the real-world struggle to achieve dignity is replaced with the fantasy of achieving your dreams.
What’s happening here is a Ghost Dance for the 21st century white working class. In the late 19th century, when their world had been destroyed, the Plains Indians of the American midwest looked to the prophecies of the shaman Wovoka. He said that if they did the Ghost Dance, the buffalo would come back, the dead Indians would return and a great natural disaster would make all the white people disappear. Hopeitude is the Ghost Dance at the fag end of a sleazy rave, with privileged politicians selling coke and ecstasy and the promise that if you keep dancing the steel plants will come back to the great plains and the dead hopes of social democracy and the New Deal will return to Earth. The sugar rush of ersatz optimism will wear off soon enough, but it will be followed by an even deeper despair. The questions will get nastier: why is everything not great and beautiful? Why have the immigrants not gone home? Why are we not prospering, as Trump has it, “bigly”? Why have the buffalo not returned?