Inaugural Symbolism & Real Power

All the fawning that’s fit to publish…

It’s been a rather surreal two days, focused around the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of these United States. The people around me all seemed to be grounded rather normally, but every time I’ve braved the elements and exposed myself to the mainstream media, it’s as if somebody (me? them?) has entered another world.

I’ve stayed far away from TV for the most part, but I was walking through the living room last night while Joyce had MSNBC playing, and I heard popular historian Ken Burns tell Keith Olberman that, if MLK’s “I have a dream” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address speeches were 10’s, he would rate Obama’s inaugural address an 11. Aside from vanquishing whatever professional respect I might have had for this made-for-TV intellectual, it was just plain embarrassing. Obama – at his best – is vacuous compared to those two men, and from all other accounts, the inaugural speech was not even vintage Obama.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe’s web site today offered the following tease for an inauguration-related “human interest” story:

Residents were frozen in place yesterday, spellbound by the unifying spectacle on their televisions.

The unifying spectacle? I appreciate that a lot of people are excited about what happened yesterday, but a victory party on the part of those who feel they have won – as much of a spectacle as it may be – hardly constitutes a unifying moment. Unification would seem to require the establishment of some sort of common ground among adversaries, not a simple reversal of political fortune. Those of us, for instance, who see the current abortion holocaust as the gravest moral evil this nation has ever perpetrated (and there is no small number of us) are horrified at the prospect of this man becoming President, because of the positions he has taken, and has pledged to maintain, on matters of the most profoundly serious social morality. I hardly feel like part of the party today, and I’m surely not alone in that.

Beyond the social politics and other policy storm winds of Obama, there is another element to the hoopla I find deeply disturbing. At one point today, I clicked through a few links and was browsing a forum discussing the Event, and a commenter opined that the Event was of almost unprecedented historical importance, because a Black man had been elected President of the U.S.A. He then instructed those who disagree with him to “stop being such haters.” Now, I am getting so completely fed up with the relentless insults coming from the radical left wing and their allies, in the form of accusing anyone who disagrees with them of “hating,” that I almost lost my cool at that moment. But that aggravation aside, I think there is an even more perverse intellectual error going on in this person’s thinking, and it is representative of what I see all around me today.

To a certain extent, I can understand the excitement around the symbolism of a Black man being elected President – especially among those considerably older than me. Having been born in 1960, I don’t really remember the Civil Rights movement of the mid-sixties. I was vaguely aware of the “Black Power” movement that came a bit later, but I came of age in the era of Equal Opportunity laws and Affirmative Action; a time when the Black man clearly became the worst enemy of his own people. Those with longer memories, who remember the systematic mistreatment and the struggle for basic justice and respect (and especially those who experienced it), will understandably place more importance on the symbolism of Obama’s ascent to the Presidency, but I think there is a serious danger in allowing symbolism to overshadow reality, such as we’re witnessing in the media’s interpretation of the “spectacle.”

After all, "a Black man" was not elected President, Barack Obama was. If Colin Powell had been elected President, I would be a much happier camper today. If Alan Keyes had been elected President, I would be happier still. Symbols do not get elected to public office, men and women do, and who those men and women are is of far greater import than what they are. I’m glad the United States has come to the point where a Black man can get himself elected President, but it fills me with a certain shame that the Black man we chose is one who embraces such misanthropic, unjust, and outright evil policies. Not because he is Black, but because – whether out of political expediency or a genuine but perverted moral conviction – he is committed to a radical support of a policy that involves the extermination of “undesirable” human beings. I couldn’t care less what color he is, and I’m disappointed that so many people do care – and care intensely.

But regardless of the motivations behind Obama’s support – and I have no doubt that it is quite complex – there remains this tendency to focus on the symbolic at the expense of the real. Politics is prone to this, of course, and Obama himself was shown to be a master of substituting symbolic language for substantive argument or suggestion during the campaign. Television in particular thrives on it, being as it is so poorly suited for intelligent discourse. As much as I wish people would reject Barack Obama’s politics, and as much as I admire Alan Keyes (albeit with reservations), I genuinely hope that the “spellbound” folks celebrating this inauguration would have been far less enthusiastic if it were Keyes being sworn in, because budgets and policies succeed the inauguration, and these things are crafted by men and women, not symbols. I hope they’re naively celebrating a misguided policy direction, and not a dangerously mindless accretion of the power of public sovereignty and devotion to a symbolic vessel. That, indeed, would be nothing but the most primitive form of idolatry, as Moses very clearly told his people many, many years ago. We do not need to go there.