Keep Hopi Alive
By Garance Franke-Ruta
On a day when the Hillary Clinton campaign has been circulating comments charging Barack Obama with "the most shameless piece of potential plagiarism that I have ever seen" for his newly released economic plan's similarity to her own, a debate on the origins of certain memorable phrases in Obama's Super Tuesday election night speech has broken out online.
It's a debate that's not so much raging as quietly being carried on over an electronic glass of wine at the virtual equivalent of a Century Club luncheon that is New Yorker senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg's blog. Nevertheless: Adam Gopnik, author of "Paris to the Moon," and Hertzberg, author of the New Yorker's "Comment" column, have been playing a neat round of intellectual badminton over the origins of the phrase "We are the ones we've been waiting for."
Gopnik, a skeptic, writes: "If you Google Obama's wonderful line 'We are the ones we've been waiting for,' it's credited right and left, and going back to the nineties, as a bit of Hopi Indian wisdom.... frankly, I doubt that it can be a true Hopi aphorism, unless in some very different form, since I suspect the grammar works only in English. (You couldn't say it in French, for instance, so far as I can figure.) I wonder who really did invent it, and where B.O. ... found it?"
What follows is an amusing exchange on how to properly render the phrase in French. The Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias gets in on the action, too, though via a different route, as part of his latest round of criticizing the National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg, who described the Obama phrase as "some Native American spiritualism warmed up for New Age audiences."
While the phrase is widely credited to the Hopi elders, there's also a much clearer and more likely route into Obama's speech than the inspirational greeting cards that tend to quote it. (The Obama campaign, queried by e-mail, had no reply.) Author Alice Walker's 2006 book takes the phrase as its title: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Light in a Time of Darkness.
Walker, of course, is a favorite of Obama-endorser Oprah Winfrey, whose breakout film role came in the 1985 adaptation of Walker's "The Color Purple," and who, in 2007, produced a stage adaptation of the book in Chicago. It's also a phrase popularized by trainers at progressive organizing camps, such as Camp Wellstone, where it has been, in particular, a rallying cry for women.
Progressive religious leaders have also touted the phrase: It titled a speech given by evangelical leader Jim Wallis at Stanford in 2004: "Building Global Justice: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For."
Indeed, what was most striking about the phrases in Obama's Super Tuesday speech, suddenly under discussion again, was not their origin, but the way they seemed selected to ring out to Democratic female voters steeped in the mantras of self-reliance. "What will the women of the future remember about this era of feminists and women's activists?" asked Peggy Flanagan, a trainer for Wellstone Action, in a 2006 interview. "I hope they'll remember that we are the ones we've been waiting for." She's hardly the only Democratic woman to have argued as much over the years.
The phrase is just the latest in a growing list of stock phrases from progressive history given new life in Obama's speeches. Just as Obama has popularized "Fired Up! Ready to Go!" -- the call and response chant of the South Carolina NAACP -- and "Yes We Can!" -- the English translation of the United Farm Worker's "SÃ Se Puede" -- on Super Tuesday he brought out the mantra credited to the Hopis and also the idea that "we are the change that we seek," a sentiment given prominence in women's literary and feminist circles in a much-circulated 2004 Jane Fonda speech. Said Fonda, in "The New Feminism: Reuniting the Head, the Heart & the Body": "Women have never yet had a chance in all of history to make a revolution. But if we're going to lead, we have to become the change that we seek."
A fitting tag line for a man seeking the votes of women in the contests that followed.
Web Politics Editor
February 13, 2008; 7:15 PM ET
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