Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thoughts on Obama's inauguration

As I listened to the prayers of Robinson and Warren, I mentally translated them into Humanist terms to try and remove my own internal bias against religious language (it tends to embitter my palate whenever I hear it). Having done that, I must say that I thought they were both good prayers.  That is, I still didn't like that they were requests for supernatural aid, but I would consider it a good thing if what these men asked for was granted.  Robinson's seemed a bit more pessimistic - by which I mean realistic and somber, but focusing on the demands required to meet our troubles - while Warren's seemed a bit more upbeat - by which I mean that he kind of glossed over some stuff, but also asked for some good things to overcome the negative things he acknowledged.  This may have been because Warren is a bit more hopped up on God-smack than Robinson.  I think that they are both messages which can do our country some good, but I still long to hear a Humanist prayer that places responsibility for these requests squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of all Americans.

And then there was Obama's speech.  I enjoyed it:  it was a message of hope and change, but also constructive admonition and forward-thinking pragmatism.  He was inclusive, optimistic, and realistic.  If you haven't seen it for yourself, I strongly recommend giving it a listen (or a read):
OK, down to brass tacks:  there were a few "flubs," to use the technical term, but it was by and large a well-written and well-delivered speech.  My complaints largely stem from my training as a logician, so take them for what they're worth.  His opening, thanking Bush for his "service to our nation," stuck in my craw - but whatever, he got his digs in later.  Also, his comment about remaining "faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents" lacks a critical component:  the good parts of their ideals and writings are what we should be looking to, not simply those things themselves (for they are flawed).  Again, a relatively minor quibble over a too-inclusive remark - although, on reflection, perhaps it is better to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.  He also glosses entirely over the treatment of the Native Americans in a brief overview of our nation's history, which irks me in an unexpected way - I'm actually not sure what to think of this omission (it is among many), and reasons for both sides are still rattling around in my head.  Aside from that, his comments waxed a bit purple at times, but such is to be expected at momentous occasions, I suppose.

For the most part, though, his speech was down-to-Earth and true to the best in all of us.  At multiple points, he took time to elaborate on what he could have glossed over to leave room for applause, and these elaborations carry with them what I hope shall become the distinguishing mark of President Obama's coming years.  By points:
  • After his opening remarks, Obama dives right into the problems facing our nation, specifically the economy.  He does not oversimplify by placing the blame on a single factor, as many are wont to do, but acknowledges that our problems are a result not only of people but of our culture.  He also warns against letting despair get the best of us.
  • In rebuking the petulance of divisive politics, he also recognizes our youth as a nation, and calls for us to grow up.  He also mentions that this will be hard work, not always glamorous, but still necessary.
  • Here's where Obama's rhetoric starts striking a chord with me:  in six words, "endured the lash of the whip," he at once acknowledges that slavery is a terrible stain on our nation's history, and does honor to those who were subjected to it for their role in making what is good in that same nation.  This is one of those little elaborations I was talking about earlier that kind of made it for me.
  • Obama also speaks out against the Bush administration, though not overtly, with language designed to be forward-looking rather than backward:  "Our time of standing pat... has surely passed," "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," "We will restore science to its rightful place," "A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous," "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," "Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please," and so on.  Seriously, I hope we prosecute this guy, complaints of witch-hunts be damned.  This ought to be handled in the USA, to show that our laws are laws and not just pretty words - but even if we don't do anything about it, it looks like the UN will.
  • On Countdown this evening, Gwen Ifill said, "[It is] clear in that speech yesterday, clear in everything he said, [that] expectations should be low about what he can get done."  I don't know where she gets this from, when Obama actually said, "Now there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.  Their memories are short.  For they have forgotten what this country has already done..."  He goes on to outline in very general fashion how many of the problems facing our nation can, in principle, be tackled - he acknowledges that the work will be hard, but calls for us to do the hard work.  Not a revolutionary idea in itself, but a far cry from Ifill's low expectations.
  • In preaching unity, the President was also admirably inclusive.  The cliche salute of our diversity was immediately followed up by, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers."  He stated a hope "that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve."  And talk about reaching across party lines:  "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."  How's them preconditions?

And then there's this asshole:
I'm speaking, of course, of the winner of Mr. Olbermann's dubious prize, who for some reason thinks that a misstep in ritual, a garbled phrase in a ceremony of all things, somehow detracts from the legitimacy of the event which that ritual merely symbolizes.  The stupid, it burns!

All in all, though, a grand day, and reason enough for a Tuesday Night Party (several, by my count).  President Obama's words have bought him a pair of awfully big shoes - I don't want to get too carried away with myself here, but still, I think some hope is justified.  Time will tell whether he follows through on this or not, so we'll see how it goes.  And, I must mention, it is immensely satisfying to finally speak of Ex-President Bush.  Just take a deep breath and think about that.

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