What does “change” mean, with everyone in the U.S. discussing it? It could mean anything, including nothing. I don’t think it means nothing.

I’d say Americans are acting as if they are in a movie about an election for president in which the black guy might win. If they vote for him, and he does win, that will make almost everyone feel good. When they come out of the theatre into the street, nothing there will have changed, except for who is now president. But they’ll still feel good. That’s what movies do for you. So it’s a real change — in feeling, not the world. It’s how Leafs fans would feel if the team ever won the Cup (or a game). Nothing would change in their lives, but life would be sweeter nonetheless.

Most people acknowledge that this is the kind of change involved — a mood swing based on a symbolic politics. Frank Rich in The New York Times, said, “After so many years of fear and loathing, we had almost forgotten what it’s like to feel good about our country.” Lawrence Martin wrote in The Globe, it’s about “a renaissance of the American spirit.” A seller of reusable shopping bags in New Hampshire said, “this seems like something that can excite people, maybe give a little renewed faith.”

Does this mean Americans would rather have changed feelings than a changed world? Not necessarily. They may have just lost track of the difference: between real and symbolic change, real and symbolic politics, real-world change vs. feel-good change. Both are real, but one is real feeling and one is real world. The confusion is widespread; Canadians are not immune.

Last month, CBC Radio’s Jian Ghomeshi interviewed David Cronenberg about his film, Eastern Promises. He said, “Does the question of when violence is justified …” and David Cronenberg, smelling a rat, broke in: “Do you mean in film or in reality?” “I’m asking both, I guess,” said Jian, adding, “it’s the same question, isn’t it.” “No, no, they’re two very different questions,” said the director, “only a psychotic doesn’t know the difference.” Still Jian pressed on: “Well, how is it not the same question if we’re identifying with the characters in the film?” “We may identify,” smoked the director, but “you walk out of the movie alive.” Note that it’s the interviewer, not the filmmaker, who can’t get the distinction straight, struggle though he does.

In the U.S., it’s Barack Obama who got the change thing gushing. But he sounds vague on it. “We will win America,” he says. “Then we will change the world.” He speaks in the cadences of Martin Luther King (“My back is a little sore/But my spirit is strong”). But Dr. King altered specific pieces of the world. He integrated buses and lunch counters. It’s hard to find specific changes in Obama policy: He wants more military spending, “unilateral” attacks on “America’s enemies,” blank cheque support for Israel, individual choice in health care — and I’m not sure his followers care. Mostly, it seems that the major change would be him as president. The End.

You don’t really have to promise people change, it’s about the only constant in their lives. But deliberate, conscious change through politics is rarer. That’s largely because the powerful have a stake in keeping things as they are or making them more so (which doesn’t count as change). So you usually need to battle them to make “real” political change. John Edwards is the only contender in the U.S. who talks about that, and he’s routinely discounted as too “angry” to be electable.

Nevertheless, political change occurs. Sometimes dramatically, through revolutionary upheavals. Sometimes electorally, as in the 1930s and perhaps 1960s. Today that kind of change often seems like an impossible dream, with symbolic satisfactions the only sort available. So what would count as a genuine change in this situation? Perhaps to come to feel, that change in the world, can be made.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.