Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration afterthoughts

Damn it felt good to watch on the TV yesterday. Nobody needs any of what follows; we all had our own reactions. But I won't resist stringing some thoughts together. Because so many have focused on the racial implications of yesterday, I'm choosing to follow other lines of thought.

"... it will be the first wartime transition in 40 years." No, no, no ... this notion turned up in much coverage (the example is from the New York Times). The idea is false. Yes, U.S. troops are overseas, decidedly in harm's way. Two U.S. soldiers were wounded yesterday in Baghdad in attacks that killed 7 Iraqis and wounded 22. But at some level, U.S. troops have been in war zones continuously since the last time we unambiguously think of the nation being "at war" in 1975. Yet during none of that time has the nation at home felt truly "at war," it's daily life disrupted for much of anyone except the soldiers' families. We're fooling ourselves when we call our present state "wartime" -- wartime is national mobilization like World War II or national terror and death, like Gaza. This is not "wartime." Saying that it is feeds delusions and clouds judgment.

The novel development would be a transition in "peacetime." Perhaps if the people lead, President Obama will follow ...

He's a "grown-up." Yes, yes, yes. On top of all the identities Obama brings together, this apparent quality is what inspires hope in me. The sociologist Robert Bellah puts it this way:

What is most remarkable about him as a person is that he is a grown-up. Growing up is a task for everyone in every society and most of us don't do a very good job of it. Even highly gifted people, in the arts and sciences as well as politics, are often not very grown up, or have obvious personal flaws, even when we admire them. I'm not saying that Obama is perfect -- no one is. But he shows the quality of maturity that the great classical philosophies, Confucian or Stoic for example, tried to inculcate in their followers. Extraordinary intelligence helps but we know many brilliant people who are not very grown up. Extraordinary ethical sensitivity is closer to the core of what it means to be grown up. My amazement and near disbelief in Obama's victory is that I never again expected an American president to be so grown up. In my lifetime some have come close to the mark, but for me the clearest previous example is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom I, as a very young person, heard and admired.

I might quarrel with that last part. I suspect that Dwight Eisenhower was a grown-up. Holding together a fractious coalition in a real wartime almost certainly required genuine maturity of character. But Eisenhower was a mediocre President, so this is not so remembered.

This inauguration was the Millennial generation's "time." On this topic, Carla Marinucci wrote a pleasant piece in the San Francisco Chronicle that serves well to get this meaning of the day across to older generations:

Just as Woodstock was for their parents, Obama's moment assuming the presidency represents a generational touchstone event -- one that will define Millennials' lives, their age and their experience and become the event they will tell their kids and grandkids about.

And if history is a guide, a lot of folks who aren't there today will claim they were. Woodstock attracted a relatively small 400,000, and somehow it seems millions remember being on hand.

Cute and probably accurate, but this really is a wonderful generational hand-off occurring before our eyes. I usually think my Boomer generation is not quite the selfish, self-centered boors that my younger friends sometimes accuse us of being. But I do know that just because there are so many of us, in many spheres we've been in the way, blocking the mature ascendancy of those who came later. It's their time now, and that's great.

Jedediah Purdy has offered a long, thoughtful, smart essay on about how Obama has managed to present a vision of community to an ironic, skeptical and individualistic generation. This young author maintains:

Individualism and community, freedom and integrity, innovation and tradition, are tired oppositions for us. You can't rally us to one or the other, but you can interest us in integrating them -- which is what we were already trying to do in our own lives, by the way. We can be frivolous and self-involved, but friendship is one of our arts. We are instinctively ironic, but when we find something worth believing in, whether a movement or a person, we cherish it. Raised amid ads and images, we enjoy style, but lionize competence and ability. We like fun, but we treasure productivity. With wide-open choice from early in life, many of us are more religious than our parents (I'm not) or choose more traditional lives in other ways (I have). This is an easy generation to underestimate, but its promise is formidable, and near its core is the wish to be good.

This essay is my kind of read the whole thing stuff.

Some inauguration tidbits need an oldster's explanation. Or so I think. What was committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein nattering about when she suggested that the "ballot is more powerful that the bullet"? The conservative pundit Michael Goldfarb was nonplussed, accusing the usually bellicose Senator of advocating pacifism.

Dianne Feinstein opened the ceremony by talking about how the ballot is more powerful than the bullet, how non-violence has made this day possible. It's a bizarre revision of American history that focuses on Martin Luther King rather than William Tecumseh Sherman or George Washington. It was the violence inflicted against British, Confederate, and German troops that made possible the inauguration of an African-American.

The more usual reference for the phrase would be Malcolm X, probably not part of Goldfarb's pantheon of national heroes. Malcolm's 1964 speech titled "The Ballot or the Bullet" is not only a lucid explanation of his Black nationalism -- self-improvement, self-determination and self-reliance -- but also a call for the Voting Rights Act. It's a complex masterpiece, not something I'll try to summarize. Go read the whole thing -- he even predicts the fate of the U.S. in our far flung contemporary wars.

In fact, I don't know that Feinstein was nattering about Obama as a more palatable alternative to Malcolm, though this seems not impossible, given her political orientation. But Phil Bronstein, writing in the Chronicle about viewing the inauguration in San Francisco's Civic Center plaza, reminded me that Feinstein might have had different political violence in mind:

Watching Dianne Feinstein's face filling the CBS broadcast frame, with the backdrop of San Francisco City Hall behind the screen, there was a surreal juxtaposition of past and present, event and personalities. Senator Feinstein began her career in that building as a supervisor and was first propelled onto the national stage, also from there, in the blood and violence of the 1978 killings here when a younger, shaken and much less self-assured woman faced banks of cameras from everywhere.

Perhaps mindful of her own historical trajectory, Dianne noted in her address opening the inaugural as its chairwoman, that we live "in a world where political strife is often beset by violence...". She hailed the triumph of "the ballot over the bullet" and paid tribute to "those who worked and died to make (the country's promise) a reality." In DC, people were thinking Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. Somewhere in Senator Feinstein's thoughts must have been Harvey Milk and George Moscone.

I'm no Feinstein fan, but I think he caught something there. The event in Washington yesterday was, for many of us, a kind of break in the accustomed pattern of the possible that threw us into our deep interior musings, perhaps even forcing some re-evaluation of what we "know" is real and of what can be imagined. This moment belonged not only to the Millennials, but to all of us who choose to participate actively in the collective life of this terrible and beautiful country.


namastenancy said...

I certainly agree that the boomer generation has its flaws. But at age 64, I can look back on a number of causes which were lead by baby boomers - civil rights, feminism, anti-war movement.

naomi dagen bloom said...

wonderful post, jan. thanks for your thoughtfulness about your generation and its relationship to this historic event.

had seen "milk," the film the week before and had similar thoughts as i watched diane feinstein. also how much has changed in attitudes toward the glbt world--and how little.

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