Opinion: The commodification of hope

Tyler Kieslich

Tyler Kieslich

Tyler Kieslich is a sophomore news major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].

Barack Obama’s presence in Kent, Ohio, Wednesday turned the scatterbrained attention span of the national media machine to this sleepy college town for a few fleeting moments, but all that remained an hour later was the trash.

Discarded plastic bottles, wadded-up rain smocks, waterlogged lawn chairs and unopened boxes of prepackaged peanut butter sandwiches lined the Esplanade, where thousands had earlier stood for long, rainy hours so that they might hear the man speak. I don’t know anyone who was at Woodstock, but I can’t imagine the aftermath of that festival to have been much different.

The speech itself was at times calculated, funny, moving and aggressive; to have heard of Obama’s prowess as a speaker from pundits and teachers is incomparable to experiencing it in person. His status as the preeminent figure in American politics seems obvious now, considering his command of the crowd and the cringe-inducing and often-awkward pandering of both his main political opponent as well as the other speakers at the rally, who were assigned to provide diversion to a crowd that only greeted them with disappointed sighs.

Obama’s message could melt the heart of even the iciest cynic. He laid out a vision for a compassionate and undivided America while Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” played somewhere in the background. But something left me feeling alienated.

Most of the choreography and maneuvering of the event was designed to make it as press-friendly as possible. No outside posters were allowed. Those who had waited longest in line were shuffled off to a seating area behind the podium and were given campaign posters by volunteers so they could wave them around for the cameras.

The M.A.C. Center already looks and feels like a high school gym, so the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the crowd that literally barked in excitement and the earlier speakers’ mollycoddling (someone literally claimed that “we” had changed the world in the last four years) only added to the essential pep-rally-ness of the event.

At one point Obama was trying to make a point about how he wanted to be the president for all Americans, not just for those who voted for him. It’s a nice sentiment and a solid political statement, especially considering the recent “47 percent” comments made by Mitt Romney. But Obama only got out “47 percent of the American public didn’t vote for me” before someone from the crowd cut in with a “don’t worry, we’ve got your back.” The crowd erupted in laughter, but it didn’t seem like it was because they recognized the irony.

Outside the gym, a long line of T-shirt peddlers and button sellers waited for the crowd to disperse. I’m not sure if these men were opportunistic capitalists looking to take advantage of a prime business opportunity or employees of the Obama campaign trying to score some extra funding, and I’m not sure which would be worse.

There is something essentially ironic about selling $20 T-shirts with slogans like “Hope” and “Forward” at a free “grassroots” event in which the main speaker expressed his desire to create a “safety net” from the harsher aspects of capitalism. Those ideas mean something more than a T-shirt. Obama’s message does, too, and it’s sad to see it get muddled in the spectacle.