Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Thoughts

Random impressions, having watched the events on television in the Casado Center on the Friends University campus, in the company of about 70 students and faculty, on a day that started out cold and cloudy, but which, by mid-morning, had turned bright and beautiful:

The prayers were very fine, powerful and moving. Rick Warren exemplified the expansive yet personal power and truth of evangelical Protestant Christianity very well. He quoted scripture, he exulted in praise and emotion, he talked history and theology, he pleaded for forgiveness, he mentioned Jesus by name, he mentioned President Obama (and his wife, and both his daughters) by name, and he commended their well-being and integrity and wisdom to God, and closed with the Lord's Prayer. And as for Joseph Lowery...well, who can dissent from that? A wondrous tour of the thinking and faith of those who have lived to see at least one element of Martin Luther King's dream--a dream they helped march for and fight for--fulfilled, Lowery quoted from old Negro spirituals and civil rights anthems, paraphrased Bible passages, then very nearly started to rap, welcoming the day when "black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right." I swear, nobody prays any longer like old-school Southern black preachers do.

I can't believe Obama muffed the ceremonial oath. [Update: ok, everybody, you're right, he didn't muff it, Roberts did; his only mistake was being too quick on the draw.] I'm not bothered by it though; my first thought was that evidently, he's been too busy with other stuff to practice it much. I wonder if others will mock him for that, though: "we've got a loser who can't even repeat the words given him correctly!" I suspect that if they make a big deal out of it, it'll come back to haunt them; except for the dyed-in-the-wool haters, I suspect the flub-up was pretty endearing to millions.

The music was fine. I can't judge the poem, though I have to say I really liked the opening lines, where quotidian noises and actions of our days formed the rhythm of the piece. "A teacher says, 'Take out your pencils. Begin.'"

The speech? It was fine; some nice lines, but nothing historic, I think, which is a shame. He'll never have an audience--perhaps no president will ever have an audience--as primed for powerful and moving and transformative rhetoric as this morning's was. Obama and his people are the victim, I suppose, of the high standards which many of us have (with his assistance, to be sure) unconsciously come to expect from his rhetoric. His track record is really very good, if you think about it. He's given two speeches that have done the essential work that political speechmaking needs to do in a mass democratic society like our own (namely, articulate, inculcate, and expand upon the existing but always inchoate slices of public opinion out there, enabling people to be able to honestly say to themselves, "yes, that's what I meant to say," and get behind a cause or a candidate accordingly), while at the same time doing so with eloquent beauty and historical power: his 2004 address at the Democratic national convention, and his Philadelphia address on race and the Wright controversy last year, "A More Perfect Union." Any politician, I think, would be proud to have those on his record. If this speech didn't touch their level...well, so what? It was still a good speech, and that's what we needed. And that's not to say there weren't some good lines. I liked, as you might expect, his reference to Paul, and the line "the time has come to set aside childish things" a lot; I liked his formulation "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist" even more. And how could someone like me fail to appreciate his frequent references to service, sacrifice, duties, the common good, responsibility, and citizenship? No, it was not a great speech, it isn't going to be carved in stone anywhere, but it got the job done.

Speaking of which, presumably Obama has already gotten to work, which is what I need to do. Celebration over, back to our jobs.

12 comments:

Rob said...

Look again, Russell. Chief Justice Roberts issued the wrong oath, and Pres. Obama waited for him to correct himself.

I call it a very human moment, showcasing that these guys are, at the center, just like us. May they never forget it.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Nice catch, Rob! I hadn't noticed that; I was actually thinking about how Obama jumped in and started repeating Roberts before he'd finished his first line. I wasn't sure who was at fault with the other mix-up.

And yes, it was a very human moment.

Rob said...

(regarding your update, you didn't muff it either.)

President Obama began repeating "I, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr." at the same time Justice Roberts continued with "do solemnly swear"

Obama stopped and repeated, "I, [BHOJ], do solemnly swear"

Roberts returned, "that I will execute the office of the President to the United States faithfully."

Obama paused, and Roberts corrected it to "that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States"

And Obama replied "that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States faithfully,"

...and the rest was correct.

As I said... a human moment.

Hector said...

To be honest, Russell, I'm starting to identify a little with the gays who felt offended by the Rick Warren pick. For the opposite reason....I felt offended (as a somewhat theologically conservative Anglican) with the Robinson pick. From all I've heard of him he is, at best, a mediocre and arrogant bishop, and at worst has no right to be a bishop at all (i.e. many would argue that his consecration was null and invalid, as it was done in defiance of scripture, tradition, and the broader Anglican communion). He was chosen for purely political symbolism, as was Warren. and his choice was, even if unconsciously, a rebuke to conservative Anglicans.

Which poses an interesting question: more generally, how _do_ we handle the incredible diversity in religion in America, in a way that respects all of our rights? maybe it's impossible and we should just go the Laicité rooute...or maybe not?

Hector said...

Or to put it another way....I'd rather have neither Warren nor Robinson, than Warren AND Robinson.

John B. said...

As you say, there were nice moments in the speech. My favorite moment, I think, was when, after listing the familiar American virtues, he said, simply, declaratively, "These things are old. These things are true."

Eight syllables. Nuthin' fancy. But they are why I said over at my place that even to call this day "historic" seems inadequate.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Hector, you ask an important question, not one that I can attempt a response to right now. More generally, though, I'd like to give Team Obama the benefit of the doubt, from my own religious perspective. I'd like to think that Warren wasn't chosen purely for symbolism or political points; that awareness was there, no doubt, but I'd also like to believe that Obama was genuinely impressed by Warren's spirituality and leadership, and that whatever his disagreements he may have with him on various issues, he thought it was right to bring that kind of spirit and charisma into the inauguration, front and center.

As for Robinson, yes, perhaps he was chosen as a sop to leftists upset about the pick of Warren. So what? Note that he prayed at an inaugural concert, not the inauguration itself. As for Robinson, not being Anglican he isn't my issue, but I'm not much impressed by his story, and I certainly wasn't impressed by his prayer (I watched it on YouTube), as important as the Christian and egalitarian sentiments he expressed were. "Oh God of our many understandings," he starts out. Well, sure; excuse me while I go pray to this rock.

John, thanks for the comment. "These things are old" really caught me as well. The speech as a whole didn't display much appreciation of the possibility that our present predicament has roots in many of the ways our whole society has come to behave in recent decades, but his invocation of old-school virtues was very wise nonetheless.

Camassia said...

I guess I'm still enough of a Mennonite that this whole civic-religion thing seems weird to me, but I agree that Warren did a fine job. Lowery's jingle made me cringe, to be honest, but the "Say amen!" ending was fabulous.

On a frivolous note, listening to Warren I had to admit that yes, there really is such a thing as California English. For some reason I never wanted to believe that anyone but surfers and valley girls had a regional dialect, but the fact is that Warren was the only speaker in the lineup who talks exactly the way I do.

Russell Arben Fox said...

California English, huh? I'd never heard of that before; thanks for the link. Interesting. I wonder if, being from Washington State originally, I've absorbed some of that. Warren sounded to me like a lot of the preachers I've listened to, though obviously Mormons don't use much evangelical lingo.

Bob said...

From a UK perspective, Warren sounded almost like our perception of a Southern hellfire and damnation preacher. I hasten to add that this is not meant to be flippant but a reflection of the portrayals that are often made over here.
Nevertheless,excerpts of his invocation were good.
The benediction by Lowery would have caught the imagination of many in the UK,especially the jingle - sorry Camassia - as a moment that does say that the Civil Rights movement has made enormous steps in the right direction.
Both our countries have issues still but when I think back to JFK (yes, old enough to have watched that one too!)and that era we have all moved on.
Russell, I agree about the speech being historic but the global economic crisis being what is, it provided a good balance between an obvious political speech and grand oratory.

Bob said...

Ps I like the thought of California English but is there an example of somebody who speaks it?
Surely not Arnie!

Camassia said...

The difference between California English and Standard American English is very subtle, which is why I could debate with myself whether it even exists, so I would think it would be inaudible to a Brit. There are qualities to the vowels that Wikipedia described, as well as something about the rhythm that I can't quite put my finger on. As I said, the most conspicuously distinctive speech comes from surfers, so the Beach Boys or any random surfer movie will give you an example of the dialect (or at least, actors trying to imitate it). Also the Olympic ski jumper Johnny Moseley, who grew up in the town next to mine and sounds just like half the guys I went to high school with.