Yesterday’s election wasn’t a particularly big deal for me. I’ll admit that my heart sunk when I saw that Maine voters rejected equality for gay couples, but beyond that, I wasn’t too invested in any of the races. It doesn’t particularly bother me that the multi-millionaire investment banker claiming to be a man of the people lost in New Jersey, and it doesn’t particularly excite me that the painfully moderate Democratic beat the unknown conservative lunatic (endorsed by some well-known conservative lunatics) in New York.
Many people more eloquent than I have charted the gradual disillusionment of progressives with Obama. At this time last year, we were celebrating, embracing, and crying: students at Princeton even started a parade, banging on pots and pans at 2:00 a.m. to commemorate what we thought was a historical and transformative moment. Now, we are talking about a Republican resurgence, blaming it either on an insidious conservative conspiracy or the failure of liberals to be sufficiently ideologically pure. Still, probably everything said by the right or left is, at this point, a product of unjustified hysteria or euphoria. Unless you are a gay person in Maine, the immediate significance of the election is probably being overstated.
What the elections means to me is something a bit deeper. While I used to be a cynic about Obama—assuming that “hope” and “change” were rhetorical devices that reflected no real commitments—now I am less sure. I think that Barack Obama probably does want real, substantive change—more significant than he can ever admit to—but he just, for whatever reason, can’t. Maybe it’s that America is intrinsically conservative, or perhaps the lobbyists have too much power, or it could be that our institutions are set up to be resistant to change. Whatever the reason, though, what that makes me wonder is, what kind of a President could really bring us real change? Can any leader in this country achieve equal rights for gays, serious health care reform, and a genuine redress of economic inequality? Who would that person be? What would they do differently?
I’m tempted to think that the last year is one more indication that there is, in fact, no such person. There’s just all of us, and while we definitely ultimately hold the power, I’m not sure we have any idea what to do with it.
Being disillusioned with America, of course, makes it extra nice to be in Britain. And the more ridiculously British the activity, the better. Tonight, it was hashing. The activity require a bit of explanation, if only because my flat-mates thought “going hashing” meant “using drugs.” This is only partially true, as the hashing to which I am referring involves both drinking and running. Basically, hashing is a quasi-sport invented by bored Englishmen in colonial Asia, in which one person—the “hare”—runs ahead and lays a trail using flour, while others follow. The activity is made more interesting by myriad false trails and most hares’ penchant for taking the group through swamps and thickets. Hashing shares a few characteristics with cults, including secret names, a repertoire of song, its own lingo, and a strained relationship with the police.
The Oxford hash, naturally, embodies the hashing motto of “drinkers with a running problem.” Ben Elias—of marching band fame—was in town, so he and I took a bus into Kidlington, north of Oxford. The meeting site was a police station parking lot, and although British police, by merit of having no guys and wearing silly hats, are not particularly intimidating, it still seemed like an odd place for a group of alcoholics and miscreants to meet. A hasher waiting there told us to actually go into the building, which we did, despite suspecting some sort of trap. We eventually found our way to the back which, unsurprisingly, was a fully stocked pub. I’ve gone hashing a few times, but I still have yet to even come up with a hypothesis of who hashers “are.” This group was really varied in terms of age, and as soon as I heard peoples’ accents, I realized that these people were socioeconomically far from the Britons to which I am exposed at the university. The neighborhood through which we ran was decidedly working class. We finished with some fireworks, chips, and, of course, a few good cans of lager (drank to classic hasher drinking songs, slightly varied from the versions I’ve learned in Princeton), a fine celebration for Oxford’s five-hundred and fifty-first hash.
The experience reminded me that, while I think I am learning about “Britain” by interacting with students at Oxford, I am learning about only one segment of the country; I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think they knew America by merit of having spoken to a few Princetonians. I will certainly be back, if for no other reason than that it’s healthy to get off campus. Nothing profound, but it rounded out my day: as always, our species both terrifies me and fascinates me.