It was insanity. Complete chaos. It took a half hour just to get out of the Metro—in Chinatown, no less, about a mile away from the area to which my tickets supposedly entitled me entry. I didn’t even get to lay my eyes on the man himself, Mr. Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. (For a full description of the ordeal with the crowd, see my last post.)
But that wasn’t what inauguration was really about. Just like standing in line yesterday for the tickets I barely got to use, it was about being there, being a part of the seething millions who greeted this day together. And even though I didn’t see the man himself (except for his distant image on a jumbotron), I did, in a sense, see the real Obama: all of those people who came to show their support for the change that finally came.
The way I see it, we are Obama. His election is about us, coming together as American people and rejecting the politics of fear and division. Thinking independently enough that we could elect someone from outside any political dynasty, with the middle name of Hussein, with limited national experience and an attitude that, in the end, we’re all in this together.
As I listened to Obama’s speech from the mall (I did eventually make it), I felt chills of anticipation thinking about the new era he called on us to work for. I also felt an enormous weight lift off my shoulders: the Bush years are gone. The subtext to much of Obama’s speech was allusion to the wreckage in which that man left our country. Our ideals have been all but shattered. Our name has become synonymous with oppression in much of the world. Our flag is tattered, mud-stained. The Bush Administration dropped a deuce on our most treasured document, the Constitution. Bush and Co.’s crimes are too immense to prosecute, though their worst—like making torture an acceptable, quasi-legal practice—surely must be dealt with. What we really need is a truth commission, broad inquiries into the corruption of our government, and the courage to look back at the wreckage and carnage that we we have wrought upon ourselves and others.
There will be a day for that, and Obama reminded us with some of his words today that that wreckage exists. But more than anything, his address was a call for the bravery we need to believe that we can get ourselves out of the pit into which our nation has thrown itself. Here are a handful of my favorite moments. (Full transcript plus video via BBC.)
- “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
A shining example of how Obama is fundamentally changing the dialogue in the United States. It’s a statement that’s such common sense—but utterly outside the normal framework of American discussion. Statements like this shift people’s frames of reference—including mine—in new ways that just feel right. And it makes you think, Wait, you mean we were pouring all our energy into a big-government-vs.-small-government argument that was kind of irrelevant? Well, let’s get moving!
- “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
You can’t overstate the importance of this comment—and the bravery it took for Obama to bring it up, after the attempts to malign him for being a “Muslim” during the campaign. It’s still shocking to me to never have heard comments of this nature during seven years when we were supposedly combating terrorism. These words put into action are more important than any war we could ever wage in disarming the extremists and making everyone safer.
- “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath. ”
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but we’re not in a post-racial society. There are many social obstacles in this country to non-whites. (I won’t quote all the stats here, but one that I saw in The Washington Post on Monday really stands out in my mind: 1 in 15 African American adults are behind bars.) Still, on the mall today, it really felt like we could be on the doorstep of Dr. King’s dream. White and black people all stood before their president as equals in law and spirit. At least for today, there was no mistrust, no largesse or patronizing, no resentment, no bitterness, no anger. What a relief. The weight of racism is immense on this country’s heart, and in one way or another it has harmed all of us. It’s not solved by having an African American president, but the equation is surely changed.
- “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”
There are incredibly deep and broad disagreements in our society about faith, morals, politics and a million other issues. For Obama to have Rick Warren lead the nation in prayer, and then praise the equal roles of non-Christians and non-believers in our society sends a clear message: You may see yourself as right, and everyone else as wrong, but we are all living in this country together. We don’t have a choice; when you speak of the U.S.A. or the flag, you aren’t speaking about anything else but the sum of its parts, bound together by a few principles.
This is a step toward de-fetishizing the flag and turning it into a meaningful symbol of the reality we actually live. It’s also what will allow Obama to reconcile the diverse reactions to his presidency–masterfully outlined in This American Life’s January 19 episode. We have enough fault lines in this country to fall into civil war again. We can do that, and we’re not out of the woods yet. Or, as Obama proposes, we can choose to talk to each other. None of us are going anywhere, anyway.
- “As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.
All I can say to that is Amen.
(BTW, title of this post comes from the Springsteen song The Boss performed on Sunday in front of the Lincoln Memorial.)