Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Obama and the power of ideas: part 1

I once stumbled on a famous quote by the French writer Victor Hugo: 'there is one thing more powerful than all the armies of the world combined, that is an idea who's time has come.'

Since that day, I have been fascinated with the power of ideas. I remember how in first year of university I flirted with the 'idea' of writing a philosophical essay about ideas and their relationship to history, change, enlightenment and morality. Of course, my endeavor went nowhere, mostly due to my very limited understanding of the material and concepts I was flirting with at the time.

Five years later, I believe I am better equipped to commit to writing my inclinations, hunches and intuitions regarding the relationship of ideas to historical change, both in its positive and negative manifestation.

I believe that an idea is qualitatively different from an opinion, argument, statement, thought or belief. In the social world, which includes civil-political and socio-economic struggle, an idea is the spark that puts in motion the inevitable forward march of history - a march that can result in both good and evil, constructive or destructive, emancipating or oppressive change. A historic 'idea' is that seminal moment when the collectivity of thoughts, experiences, intuitions and desires present in the minds of human beings are neatly bundled up and put together in a sophisticated and persuasive manner by the idea's founder.

Of course, the idea will not flourish until it reaches 'critical mass' among its adherent which causes it to snowball and grow. This is perhaps why ideas are useful for historians in their quest to uncover when and how history moves from one point to another - from primitive to feudal to capitalist for example.

Ideas can also come suddenly crashing down when those who purport to represent them stop truly believing in them or cease to understand what they are actually defending. The story of America under George W. Bush represents this phenomenon.

When America - a country founded on the ideas of freedom and liberty - begins to behave like the authoritarian and 'idea fearing' regimes that it so vehemently opposes, it will naturally be more harshly judged by the world.

President Obama has essentially promised his countrymen, and the world at large, to rekindle the flame of freedom and liberty, both at home and abroad - this is an idea that America pioneered, and a big reason for its ability to lead in the world over the past 60 years. If pursued with vigour, Obama can still save this flame from extinguishing in the minds of many in the world.

How this can be done will be discussed in part 2 of this post.

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