An Inaugural Scrooge

Posted on Categories Political Processes & Rhetoric

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.

Cross posted at PrawfsBlawg and Shark and Shepherd.

6 thoughts on “An Inaugural Scrooge”

  1. I saw the concert differently. This could be a personal choice more than anything intrinsic in the events, but I don’t think so. To me it was an American celebration, a ritual of remembrance, and a cathartic experience. I saw the inauguration as a side note to the concert, although it was the impetus for it. I think the concert honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as much as it did anything else. In that vein, I think it is difficult to do that with a blind eye to the fact that an African-American man has been elected as president.

    The title of the concert, “We Are One,” invokes Lincoln and Dr. King as much as Barack Obama. The narrations traced the history of our collective identity through speeches of Presidents, from Lincoln to Roosevelt and Kennedy to Regan. They highlighted the long and continuing American struggle to attain a reality that reflects the ideal, dating back to our founding, of E Pluribus Unum; a struggle that many, including Lincoln and Dr. King, gave their lives for.

    This same spirit was reflected in the musical performances. The Rising was written as an emotional reaction to the events of Sept. 11 and reflects in its inspiration America rising out of those events as one. Additionally, Bruce Springsteen has been argued to be, by my former Professor Craig Werner in “A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America,” a torch bearer of the African-American gospel tradition. A white singer, carrying the torch of African-American Gospel, singing with a gospel choir on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a song about America rising out of tragedy, the day before MLK day, and two days before the first Black President is inaugurated, seems to me more about our collective American narrative than about partisan politics.

    The most moving performance for me was “A Change is Gonna Come” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of my favorite pieces of music. Its emotion reflects the pain of the past and a sustaining hope that the future can be different. The setting, where Dr. King proclaimed his dream in the shadow of Lincoln Memorial, gave the performance greater poignancy.

    “This Land Is Your Land,” another song laden with history, also served to further the underlying thesis of the event by emphasizing that America belongs to all of us. Additionally, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was written about Dr. King, making it extremely appropriate. In fact, every song, including “Shower the People”, “Pink Houses”, “One Love”, “America (My Country Tis of Thee)”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, “We Shall Be Free”, and “Higher Ground” fit with a Dr. King/collective identity theme much more than a purely inaugural, political, or partisan concept of the event.

    Now, I am obviously deemphasizing the political aspects of the concert. However, to view it primarily as some ungracious victory celebration is to miss a critical aspect and to ignore the undeniable historical significance of this inaugural. There are a few still living today who are the grandchildren of slaves. There are many, many more with us that were subjected to dehumanizing segregation and fought for civil rights. The past is not as distant as we tend to think and this MLK day has more significance than any before it. The concert emphasized this. Some things can be healing, emotional, and uplifting when cynicism is left aside, and I think this is one of them.

  2. Jason

    That’s a perfectly reasonable take. It certainly was that, but it was more. You can’t really distill the politics from an event honoring the triumph of a politician. That keeps, in my view, any inaugural celebration from being primarily about unity.

    Beyond that fact and adjusting (I hope) for my own partisanship, I find – and have always found – a good deal of the fervor for Obama offputting. Something in me doesn’t think that it is healthy to ever get that excited about a politician.

  3. I agree with Prof. Esenberg that I don’t think it’s healthy to ever get that excited about a politician. I hope to never again hear a politician’s name being chanted in the worship-like manner as Obama’s has. All that does is underscore what seems to be the mindset of a large chunk of America — that the government can fix all our problems. Meanwhile, to “celebrate” the inauguration, the government spends four times what is typical on the inauguration, during a recession. I’ll believe “change” when I see it.

  4. I think that the “fervor”, while not present in recent years, fits comfortably in the American tradition and would likely be considered tame in comparison to many points in our political history. The recent lack of this political “fervor” may be the result of a sense of detachment from politics or of a period of relative calm and prosperity that preceded the recent distress – there was nothing to get excited about. I don’t find it unhealthy in and of itself nor do I think that each person who exhibits optimism or a sense of possibility does so for the same reasons. It seems both proper and uniquely American that citizens should be emotionally and intellectually invested in the political process.

    “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage” – Dwight Eisenhower

  5. Eisenhower was a bright guy, and note his qualification – a “part-time” profession. The problem is that for many people it’s become a full-time obession. I don’t believe its healthy to have people so wholly invested in the political process, let alone particular politicians; meaningful political participation, in my opinion, requires a large degree of skepticism. In any event, I think the result of such a severe degree of investment can be a sort of hyper-politicization that performs a disservice to our society and can curtail meaningful debate. Judge Bork provides some good examples of this in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

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