Yesterday Barack Obama gave one of his trademark Inspirational Speeches to a packed auditorium at the University of Queensland. As you might expect, it was heavy on big-picture stuff: climate change, the spread of democracy, LGBT rights and gender equality all got a run.
One of the speech's biggest themes, though, was what really snagged in my head. This comes from about half an hour in:
"Let me say to the young people here, combating climate change cannot be the work of governments alone. Citizens, especially the next generation: you have to keep raising your voices, because you deserve to live your lives in a world that is cleaner and that is healthier and that is sustainable, but that is not going to happen unless you are heard.
"It is in the nature of things, it is in the nature of the world that those of us who start getting grey hair are a little set in our ways; that interests are entrenched. Not because people are bad people, just that's how we've been doing things, and we make investments, and companies start depending on certain energy sources, and change is uncomfortable and difficult. And that's why it's so important for the next generation to be able to step in and say 'it doesn't have to be this way'. We have the power to imagine a new future in a way that some of the older folks don't always have."
Every now and then we get a reminder of the power of a good speech; Julia Gillard's misogyny effort last year, Scott Ludlam's welcome to WA in March, and Cate Blanchett and Noel Pearson's golden orations at Gough Whitlam's memorial a couple of weeks ago. The best speeches aren't the ones that say a lot of things you agree with already, so that you can share them on Facebook with the insightful caption "this". They're the ones that make you think, and help crystallise thoughts and sentiments you weren't sure how to express, while at the same time giving an outlet to powerful, visceral emotions that might otherwise stay bottled up. They simultaneously make your heart and your head expand.
Obama is by no means perfect, but something about this speech puts it in that category, at least for me. Not because it's extremely refreshing to hear a politician of his stature sing from my political songbook (although it is), but because it's so rare now to hear someone talk about the future -- and the people who'll live in it -- with optimism.
I doubt I'm the only one who has to resist the urge to throw up my hands and say "fuck it" when confronted by the unrelenting tsunami of bullshit that Australian public life seems to embody. To recap all the multitudinous examples of Australian governments, media outlets, corporations and various iterations of authority going about their business with a special mixture of viciousness and mediocrity would take up more space than I'm inclined to fill, and you're probably familiar with most of them already.
What I've been thinking about since that speech isn't those regular acts of incompetent bastardry, but how we react to them. Whenever I find out about the latest ministerial fuckup or racist headline, my first instinct is to write up a Hot Take that pulls apart exactly why it's terrible, using my never-been-done-before blend of snarky wit and blind rage. Most people don't have jobs like mine, but plenty of people react to that kind of news in the same way; Facebook lets you do that because #socialmedia is the #future.
There are a few reasons why we react to industrial-scale fuckery like this. Most obviously it's easy, and it's fun. Pointing out that George Brandis looks like a boiled egg while outlining why his metadata legislation is hideous is one of the great joys of my life, and I don't intend to stop doing it any time soon.
More importantly, though, it's my way of feeling like I'm doing something. Unable to actually stop Boiled Egg and his ilk from passing dreadful laws, or being able to jettison them from the immensely powerful positions they occupy, I content myself with calling them names like Boiled Egg. That's fine; nasty people who do nasty things need to be called out, and the more people who do that the better.
But it's not enough to conscientiously point out all the ways in which we're getting fucked; at some point your anger has to catalyse into action. If the people in charge are rotten at their jobs, and it makes you mad, then you have to start thinking seriously about replacing them with people who'd be better. If there are systems in place which deliver such people into power on a regular basis, you have to start thinking about how those systems might best be dismantled, and what might replace them.
Anger can be extremely useful. Anger gets me out of bed in the morning, some days. Laughing at Tony Abbott running away from a press conference, or Greg Hunt using Wikipedia, or Joe Hockey saying that poor people don't drive cars - it feels good, and by gosh is it easy (seriously, those guys are practically paying my rent).
But if anger doesn't spark off a corresponding resolve to change something -- not just resist or oppose destructive forces and habits, but to create positive ones -- it just sits there. Eventually it calcifies into apathy and cynicism, and then you're stuffed, because apathy and cynicism don't build anything. They don't put probes on comets or cure diseases or get girls in rural Pakistan to school. Cynicism and apathy are admissions of defeat; giving in to them is a cue for shonks and pretenders to run wild, and they know it.
For the Tony Abbotts and Rupert Murdochs of this world, nothing is as useful as someone saying "fuck it, I'm done". That mindset eventually gets you quietly accepting that powerful people can act despicably and get away with it, and all you can do is carp from the sidelines. Power belongs to people like them, and impotent moral superiority belongs to people like you.
Nuts to that. I'm tired of being tired, of dreading the next few years and what might come after them. I'm tired of the closest thing to hope being the small sense of victory that comes when something dreadful gets derailed or postponed, or schaudenfreude when someone terrible screws up. I'm tired of defining my values in opposition to some smug prick's agenda, as though that's all they're good for.
It's extremely easy to forget, especially in times like these, that people of great intelligence and vision can -- and sometimes do -- occupy positions of immense power and influence, and use them to do a great deal of good. We forget that there are better ways of doing things than how we operate now, and that we have the abilities and resources to figure out what they might be. We forget that we have good ideas of our own, and that given the right opportunity those ideas can go very far.
That's why that speech by Obama yesterday will stick with me, I think. We should be aiming higher than trying to bloody Tony Abbott's nose, because we're capable of much more than that. We need that reminder, from time to time; that being political isn't just about giving the bastards a poke in the eye. It's about getting rid of them, and building something better in their place.