PIÑATA DIPLOMACY: Obama’s declining support

From the time I arrived on campus in August 2008 to the U.S. presidential election that November, I didn’t meet a single John McCain supporter. I don’t think this was because I had a disproportionately Obamaniacal group of friends. Nor was it because we viewed him as somehow the lesser of two evils – the tone of his supporters during the campaign was hardly reflective of that kind of aw-shucks-he’s-the-best-we-have mentality that you get with someone like Michael Ignatieff. Rather, it was an intense feeling of deliverance. I was surprised on election night to see Canadians in my residence – admittedly under the influence of certain substances – sobbing sweet tears of joy, demanding embraces from anonymous passers-by.

Yet it has become standard practice in classes and in conversation to speak negatively of Barack Obama, usually without mentioning any specific grievances. Why the change?

First of all, we are highly disingenuous creatures. I don’t mean human beings – I mean undergraduates, and specifically McGill undergraduates.

There’s enormous pressure on university students to speak with an authoritative tone, especially for those of us engaged in the manufacture and dissemination of opinions on campus, as if to give the impression that after years of deliberation, and the perusal of all the necessary literature, this is the definitive conclusion.

We live in a culture – and I don’t just mean here at McGill – in which it’s considered immoral not to have an opinion on something. “Apathetic” is just about the worst epithet you can throw at someone these days. Remaining silent is considered “being complicit.” So we’re forced to attempt endless explanations of things we really don’t know about or, in all honesty, care very much about. I’ve meandered away from Barack Obama and his expired popularity among McGill students, but there is a definite connection – when pressed for an opinion about something you are not really familiar with, there’s always an easy way out: adopt the opinion of those around you.

Which leads me to the second reason why Obama is no longer popular at McGill. Not only are we generally disingenuous creatures, but by and large we’re extremely impressionable ones as well. Similarly to how we’re insecure about the depth of our knowledge or the conclusiveness of our conclusions, but pretend outwardly that we aren’t, we pretend immature things like friends or fashionable trends do not sway us. We like to pretend that our 18th birthdays marked our liberation from those baser desires to conform and be accepted by our peers. The truth is very much the opposite.

If you hang out with a certain group of friends whose tastes in music, fashion, lifestyle, whose general sensibility you very much admire, and you sense them starting to sour on Obama (whose policies and actions in office you might, in an unguarded moment, admit to not knowing very much about), what are you going to do when the president’s name comes up in a conversation? You’ll grunt. Maybe you’ll manage to spit out a couple words like “inevitable disappointment.” But, in truth, the inevitability is as fake as the disappointment, because you have no idea what you’re talking about.

The close reader should be thinking that my roughly sketched syllogism requires a prime mover, someone to first sour on Obama without having adopted that opinion from someone whose sneakers they admire. Fine. Obviously it is possible for a reasonable and intelligent person to not be as excited by Obama as they were two years ago. But this doesn’t account for the massive change in opinion about him at McGill.

So what does? I can think of two possibilities. Either there’s a conspiracy afoot, perhaps involving the water supply, or McGill students vastly underestimate the extent to which they permit themselves to be herded this way and that by even the gentlest nudge.

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