A post by Paul Horwitz over at Prawfs on the iinaugural spectacle prompts me to confront my own reaction which is, for the most part, one of bemusement. It all strikes me as too much by half.
Of course, the election of an African-American president is a significant event. I was not one of those who doubted that the U.S. would elect a black president. Contemporary racial bias seems to express itself in presumptions about people that we don’t know. In a nation that has — for reasons that are lost on me — made Oprah its most admired person, the election of an African-American is not all that surprising.
But that doesn’t make it any less momentous. As others have noted, Obama could not have been served lunch at many restaurants in North Carolina during the year he was born. Last fall, a majority of the state’s electorate voted for him for President.
So that makes this inauguration special. In contemplating my own reaction, I also have to make allowance for the fact that I did not vote for Obama and do not welcome much of what I believe his administration will do. I understand, as well, that this type of transition is a time for us to engage each other with good will.
Paul suggests that the triumphalism of the inauguration might be justified as a celebration of the event and what it tells us about our democracy and racial progress. It is better, on this view, to see it as being about the event than about the man and his ideology.
While we can qualify our individual enthusiasm in this way (I am all about that), I don’t think the social meaning of the event can be circumscribed in this way. The avalanche of Obama Inaugural geegaws and jingles; the starry eyes and breathy invocations of Hope, Change, and New Day and whatever cannot help but be about the man and his ideology.
But who cares? Aren’t I just refusing to be gracious in defeat? Isn’t it okay to be optimistic about new leadership?
To some extent, I am and it is. But just as you can’t separate politics from the celebration, you can’t completely remove ideology from your reaction to it.
As a Burkean conservative, my expectations for politics are modest. One of my concerns about the Obama movement is that it places (in its rhetoric, if not in its specifics) excessive hope in politics and the state and, worse, does so by investing its personification with some post-ideological and extrapartisan wisdom.
I suppose that we will all come down to earth in a few days. But I think there should be some healthy skepticism about what is on offer. Political honeymoons are times when things get done. They are also times when mistakes are made. I would prefer a more subdued reception.