Inauguration day

I watched the inauguration of President Obama on the BBC yesterday.  It was a truly amazing moment, and I genuinely felt privileged to be able to watch it.  I don’t think anyone can question that it was a day when history was made, and it’s always a privilege to get to watch history in the making.  I also share in the profound sense of relief that an awful lot of people feel that President Bush now only has that title as an honorific.  It’s also a great thing to know that, despite the enormous amounts of money the christian right are able to pour into their ongoing campaign against tolerance, decency, and compassion, the political conscience of the American people isn’t for sale.  I think every American has the right to feel proud of themselves and their country today.

But it has to be said, as an outsider looking in, at times the chutzpah of America is truly breathtaking.  I’m thinking particularly of the lady who seemed to be running the inauguration ceremony, and her few words at the start of things.  She talked about how great it was that power was once again changing hands peacefully, when in ‘too much’ of the rest of the world it changes hands amidst violence.  Well, the US would know a thing or two about that, wouldn’t they, what with their habit of using violence to unseat governments hostile to America’s interests?  I’m thinking of the places where they’ve  done that by means of direct invasion – Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.  But I’m also thinking of other times when they’ve funded wars by other countries, or in-country revolutionaries.  Take Iran, for example, where the US first put the current theocracy in power, and then funded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to try and overthrow it.  Or what about Afghanistan (again), where they funded Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, before later changing their minds?

One of the most shocking examples, though, is Guatemala.  In the early 1950s, the Guatemalan government had a clear democratic mandate for its policy of buying foreign-owned land, then distributing it as smallholdings to farmers who would settle the land.  Keen history students will remember that this wasn’t a new idea.  The US government under Thomas Jefferson had done the same thing in 1803 with the Louisiana purchase, when it bought 828,000 square miles of the Midwest from its French owners, and made it available to settlers arriving from the east.  Strangely, what had been hailed as evidence of hard work and a pioneering spirit when it happened on US soil was condemned as communism of the worst kind when it was attempted in Guatemala.  As a result, the CIA funded and supported a vicious coup in 1954, which initiated a rolling wave of political violence from which the country has still not fully emerged.*

I was also irked by the suggestion that the US is the most stable and peace-loving country on the planet.  Well, you know what, as far as I can remember, the last time power changed hands as a result of violence in the UK was in 1688, when James II was deposed for being Catholic (amongst other things).**  1688.  That’s 101 years before the first US president, George Washington, was inaugurated (on April 30th 1789).  In other words, the USA has a proud history of 220 years in which power has changed hands peacefully, but the UK has a proud history of 321 years of such transfers.  Even if you look at the transfer of power from prime minister to prime minister (which would seem reasonable, given that prime minister is the closest equivalent to president that the UK has), the office has changed hands peacefully ever since it was first created.  Most historians date the ‘creation’ of the office to 4th April 1721, which would still give the UK a 68 year head start over the USA.

But of course, I can’t blame President Obama for any of this, and it would be extremely ungenerous to only talk about his inauguration in these terms.  Part of his speech was about how political realities have shifted, and the need for a new start in foreign affairs, so there are excellent grounds to hope that we are not going to witness more of the same.  But what about the speech itself?  It is, I think, fair to judge the president on the basis of what he said there, and these are my initial thoughts.

The first thing that struck me was how sober and businesslike it was, compared with the tone of his speeches during the campaign, and especially when he addressed his victory rally in Chicago.  Re-reading the text of the speech, there seem to be more rhetorical flourishes than came across, which leads me to assume that it was the manner of the delivery that counteracted those flourishes.  That’s interesting in itself, because it seems to suggest that he was making a conscious effort to look more like a man with a job, and less like a man with a dream.

That said, it was still a very moving speech.  Parts of it seemed very much to echo Martin Luther King’s style of speech-making:

We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself

Given that Martin Luther King is, in my book, the greatest political orator of recent times, that’s not a bad model to follow.  The symbolism and significance of words of this kind being spoken by the first black president shouldn’t be overlooked either, of course.  On that note, I think it would have been a nice touch if they’d held the inauguration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (where Dr King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech), but I guess there may have been all kinds of reasons why that wouldn’t have been possible.

On a more practical level, the speech seemed very light on detail.  This was the first time I’d ever watched a presidential inauguration all the way through (as opposed to seeing highlights on the news), so it may not be common for speeches like these to contain much concrete information.  I have to say, however, that the details I’ve gleaned from the speech don’t really fill me with confidence.

First of all, there’s what he said about the credit crunch.  He attributed the problems to ‘greed and irresponsibility on the part of some’.  Technically, of course, if he’s talking about the US population as a whole, then he’s entirely correct.  But, to my way of thinking, it wasn’t the case that a few investment bankers and hedge fund managers were greedy and irresponsible – the whole system was irresponsible, and unsustainable.  The form of words the president used seemed designed to paint Wall Street in the best possible light, given the circumstances, and that worries me, because it suggests that President Obama may not be the man to carry out the root and branch reform of the financial system that is, it seems to me, needed.

I was also a little bothered by his assertion that the lack of proper oversight and regulation was a consequence of ‘our collective failure to make hard choices’.  For a start, I’m not sure exactly who he was speaking on behalf of.  If he was speaking on behalf of Washington politicians, then I don’t see much of a problem, but throughout most of the speech, when he used words like ‘us,’ ‘our,’ ‘we,’ it was obvious that he was speaking on behalf of the American people as a whole.  If that is what he was also doing here, then what he says isn’t really on.

The lack of oversight didn’t result from a lapse of concentration on behalf of the population as a whole.  It resulted from the fact that the whole political establishment, all of it – Democrat and Republican – massively indebted to the campaign contributions of big business, opted not to put in place effective regulation.  It wasn’t a case so much of their failing to notice things they should have done as it was their deliberately looking the other way.  Of all of the mainstream presidential hopefuls in the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama had by far the least ties to big business – a lot of his support came from individual contributions – but, even so, his willingness to gloss over the extent of the problems with financial regulation worries me.

On a different topic, the speech was filled with references to environmental issues and sustainability.  During his campaign, Obama always insisted that green issues would be a major focus of his administration, and it’s reassuring to see that concern carried forward in the president’s inaugural address.  But I’m concerned that here, as well, he may lack the courage or vision to make the genuinely radical changes that I think are needed.  He said, quite rightly, that ‘we can no longer […] consume the world’s resources without regard to effect’, but he also emphatically set aside any consideration of the role of the market in stimulating reckless consumption of resources: ‘Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill.’

The simple fact of the matter is that prosperous countries, like the USA and the UK, are already using more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources, and are using them at a rate that is unsustainable, even if the rest of the world were to continue indefinitely in poverty.  Science and technology (which the president fulsomely praised in his speech, I was glad to see) can offer a solution to some of the most pressing problems – for example, the creation of a hydrogen (as opposed to hydrocarbon) economy – but the fundamental issue of unsustainability can’t be addressed without radically reforming the way the market operates.

Essentially, the market needs to be recalibrated to drive efficiency, not waste.  It’s perfectly possible to do this, and for everyone to still have the opportunity to make handsome profits, but, left to its own devices, the market won’t start to do this until raw materials are in critically short supply, triggering the sharp price rises that will stimulate efficiency, and by this point it will very possibly already be too late.  The same thing could be achieved now by government intervention (by increasing taxation on the use of non-renewable resources), but it seems as though President Obama may not the man to do this, either.  This is a particular shame, as his election coinciding with a Democrat majority in both the House and the Senate really does make this a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the change, and it’s a crying shame if this opportunity is going to be squandered.

On the subject of foreign affairs and homeland security there was a lot to cheer.  The new president reserved his sharpest criticism of the previous administration for their policies on the issue of human rights versus security: ‘As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.’  These are exactly the kind of words I would expect to hear from a president who is pledged to close down Guantanamo Bay, and to end the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ and US-sanctioned torture, and it was great to hear them.  I was also one hundred percent in support of President Obama’s implicit assertion that, if the USA is to lead effectively at all, it has to lead by example.

I realise that an assumption of leadership is a standard part of the way America views itself, and I probably shouldn’t read too much into it, but the extent to which the new president still believes it’s America’s unassailable right to lead worries me.  I particularly noticed when he said that America should ‘demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.’  Well, but that’s the trouble, you can’t ‘demand’ those things.  If you try and demand understanding and cooperation, you’ll be met by their opposites.  For cooperation to evolve, there needs to be a sense of equal partners working together, not one country assuming they have an automatic, god-given right to dictate what shall occur.  (To be fair to President Obama, there are other occasions in the speech where he spoke of ‘working with’ other peoples and governments, so the line about demanding cooperation may just have been an unfortunate turn of phrase.)

I was also concerned by the sense of messianic zeal that seemed to lie behind some of the new president’s words.  It was most apparent when he said things like ‘This is the source of our confidence – the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.’  Politicians who believe that they have a special mission to do ‘god’s work’ are always worrying.  President Bush believed in this idea to some extent (or at least said that he did), but the person in recent times who has been most guilty of it is Tony Blair.  It lead to a few good things, but it also lead directly to his willingness to try and remake the world by various military adventures, and, for the most part, they really haven’t ended well.

A couple of months ago, I got into a bit of a row by possibly overplaying the parallels between Barack Obama and Tony Blair, and I want to try and avoid making that same mistake here.  That said, it does strike me that there was one last way in which some of what President Obama said seemed to me to echo Tony Blair.  I’m thinking of the way he spoke about the need to redistribute wealth (not that he would have dreamt of putting it in anything like so socialist a way):

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

The slogan of ‘opportunity not for the few, but for the many’ was one of the defining mantras of New Labour.  It signalled the party’s shift away from old-fashioned democratic socialism (which saw the function of the state as correcting the injustice and unfairness of the unrestricted market), towards the idea that the function of government was to leave the market unrestricted, but to ensure that the benefits and opportunities produced by it were distributed evenly throughout society.  In the early years, especially, the idea gave Tony Blair a lot of political ‘traction’.  It sounded socialist enough to appeal to Old Labour voters, but also Thatcherite enough to allay the fears of former Conservatives.  Unfortunately, experience has shown us that, in Tony Blair’s mouth, words like these were at worst empty rhetoric, and at best aspirations that he was unable to fulfil.  Everybody knows that, far from ensuring equality of opportunity, Tony Blair presided over a significant widening of the gap between rich and poor, and also a significant reduction in social mobility.  Comparatively speaking, in 2007 the poor were poorer, and had less chance of getting rich, than they did in 1997.

Now, of course, Barack Obama is not Tony Blair.  Just because Blair was guilty of spouting empty rhetoric, or making promises he couldn’t keep, that doesn’t mean that President Obama will turn out to be guilty of the same.  I have no reason to doubt his sincerity – he seems remarkably genuine for a politician in high office – and I sincerely hope, for the good of the American people, that he is able to deliver, and in good time, too.

But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that my optimism and hope is combined with a fear that he will fall short, and that, instead of radical, epoch-defining change, he will achieve only limited, incremental improvements.  And I would also be lying if I didn’t own up to a worry – arising from the way he has been written and spoken about as the one great hope of an entire generation – that if he does fall short, there will be an overwhelming, and hugely damaging, tide of cynicism, similar to the one that we’re currently experiencing in the UK.  Can you remember the last time you heard anyone say something positive about any contemporary UK politician?


* – yes, I know the UK has done the same, and worse, over the course of our history, and I’d understand entirely if any Americans reading this felt inclined to dismiss everything I’ve said so far as sanctimonious hypocrisy.

** – I realise that there have been several attempts to violently overthrow power in the UK since 1688, just as the Confederates tried to do in the US during the American civil war.  But if the USA is allowed to ignore the violent context of Gettysburg and all the rest, then I reckon I’m allowed to ignore the violent context of Culloden and all the rest, don’t you?

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13 Responses to Inauguration day

  1. Alex says:

    Well, we’ve hardly been sweetness and light either. The UK had a very sizeable role in Operation Ajax, which was what kicked off the Islamic Revolution in Iran later on. The US Government has done an awful lot of what you’re talking about, just like the British one did (and no doubt continues to – there’s bound to be some things the government is up to it wouldn’t want to be made public) when it had more influence.
    Incidentally, I’d consider the worst thing the US did in South America (apart from that business with the Sandinistas and the Contras you mentioned, overthrowing Salvador Allende, propping up Batista, killing Che Guevara, variously occupying Nicaragua, Vera Cruz and Haiti between 1912 and 1934, etc etc etc) was funding (or at the very least turning a blind eye to, depending who you ask) Operation Condor. Widespread torture, murder, surveillance and forced disapperances of thousands of people, is pretty bad by all standards. Equally, the French did a lot of the same thing, in Algeria and Indochina and so on, so I don’t think it reflects on the countries involved, it’s just what governments do when they have that level of power and not enough oversight.
    I’m a riot at parties. You should hear me when you ask me about imperialist repression in South-East Asia.
    Also, I think you’re spot on about the UK having had a better track record of bloodless handovers. Although there was some talk of MI5 trying to get Harold Wilson out of office back in the 70s.
    Finally getting to the point in the fourth paragraph, you’re absolutely right. Obama is a politician. Maybe a better one than the other candidates, but the zeal with which he’s admired, both within the US and internationally, is a testament only to his charisma and his ability to portray an image. If he gets around to repealing DADT and DOMA, ending the wars safely, and closing Guantanamo, great. But you’re right, no-one should be expecting him to take a stroll across the Reflecting Pool. That’s not cynical, it’s realistic.

  2. Ron Peponis says:

    Well – I must say that is about as complete a synopsis of the speech as I am likely to read. The added UK references were spot on as well.

  3. cb says:

    Lots of food for thought there. I am sure I was caught up in the general positivity and excitement of the event and the day and the rhetoric. i do agree about having an unlying fear that the reality might not live up to the promise of hope but still, perhaps (no.. definitely) niavely, I think a wave of positivity is quite helpful in the short term. There will be times to ‘get down to work’ but in the meantime, hope is quite a pleasant feeling.

  4. Robert says:

    Funny I remember the same thing being said about Thatcher when she came to power a great day , history being made, I remember the same thing about Blair, and I remember Blair saying no more sleaze this government will be clean open and up to the job, it’s called spin.

    Now Obama I hope and pray if I believed in a God that Obama will be as good as he looks but we all know American Presidents are to some degree controlled by the global market by the people who hold the power the money men.

    But lets hope

  5. lsnduck says:

    Although I was at home at the time, I unfortunately failed to see any of the ceremony. From what you have described though, it is much as I would have expected: God bless America! God bless the Dollar! Gold bless God! Albeit with some points for us to be at the least hopeful about. Time to sit down and cross our fingers I think.

    There are some individual politicians I am positive about now and again. They aren’t all disingenuous, ignorant, selfish fools. Not quite.

  6. I would also lke to think it’s not all hot air with the new President. He does seem a more grounded bloke compare to his predecessor – but then I dare say you could say that of any new leader. i do think it’s funny though that he has had to re take the oath business because of fluffed lines.
    Anyway thanks for your take on the Inauguration, was intersting reading.
    Sis xxx

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Alex – i did sort-of acknowledge the point about the UK being a long way short of perfection, but i did it in a footnote, and without mentioning any details, which was rather chickening out of the issue. So thank you for making good for my omission. :o)

    I am impressed, astonished, and humbled by your knowledge of US interventions in southern/ central America. The Guatemala incident stuck in my mind, partly because of the interesting parallels with the Louisiana Purchase, but also because i fairly recently read a review of a book about the 2003 murder of a catholic Bishop who had published a report into political murders over the previous fifty-odd years in Guatemala. It’s depressing, isn’t it, that there are so many examples to choose from, whether we’re looking a British or American malfeasance?

    Ron Peponis – thank you. That’s one of the nicest comments i’ve ever had left on my blog. And also the one most likely to make me even more big-headed… ;o)

    Robert – i’ve always thought there are parallels between Blair and Obama, if only in the way they are spoken and written about by other people. I also think it’s a shame that none of our politicians on either side of the Atlantic seem to have fully woken up to the fact that the recent crises show that the money men actually don’t have all the power. They need governments to bail them out when things go wrong, which means that governments (and ultimately we) have the power. We badly need a firebrand revolutionary to come along and make this point, i think.

    lsnduck – i agree, now is a good time to hope for the best. For the record, i’m also not 100% cynical about politicians. Basically i think politicians are people, and like all people everywhere, that means they’re a simultaneous mixture of good and bad. I can’t help but feel that this constant cycle of praising politicians as super-human, and then villifying them as the scum of the earth, is unfair, and moreover leads to the fundamental inertia that seems to be affecting politics at the moment.

    seratonin sister – in one way, Obama has an easy ride for his first couple of years – whatever he does, he’s unlikely to be as rubbish as Bush. Even dyed in the wool conservative Republicans must privately be admitting that, even if they agreed with his policies, his managerial skills were pretty woeful.

    I’m actually really pleased the president has redone the oath. I was worried right-wing internet conspiracy nutjobs would use it as an excuse to argue endlessly that the fluff had been deliberate, and that it was a sign that the chief justice knew that Obama was inelligible to be president (they keep trying to question the fact that Obama was born in Hawaii, despite the fact he posted a picture of his birth certificate on his website) – and so on and so on. At least now that opportunity is closed to them.

  8. Robert says:

    I notice to day Obama has stated he believes that the low paid should be given higher wages to spend, Germany has stated it will rise the min wage and also give out voucher to knock down the price of new cars, France is looking to pay it’s lowest workers more because the poor need the money and will spend it, what has Brown done given the money to the money men.

  9. Mentioning God is much more of a mainstream thing to do in a speech in the US rather than here.

    I really hope he doesn’t turn out to be another Blair.

    Great analysis of the speech btw.

    And for something frivolous: I think he is DAMN HOT. What do you think?

  10. lsnduck says:

    I would say damn hot, but there is a certain cuteness about him. He has a lovely smile.

    If he and I weren’t both married men, who knows.

  11. Zoe says:

    Obama? Don’t know don’t care. Have other stuff on my mind, being ensnared on a psychiatric ward (here comes the deja vue) and having to try and get off with the man of my dreams on Sunday at the reunion of the Buddhist retreat. As I’ve just said to Seaneen I have a naive belief in the power of the human mind, so if we all focus skilfully enough, well, you never know. After all weren’t you the same Aethelread who was advising heterosexuals to have the courage to leave relationships that have passed their sell-by date? What’s more my man and I are entirely agreed on that point and we will always love each other dearly and be the best of friends. No broken hearts thanks!

    Instead you seem to have gone on a one-man mission to analyse the fuck out of everytjing. I would say I was disappointed in you except you might be daft enough to take me seriously, and really I’m only teasing and trying to keep it light.

    Anyway you are the best critic, reviewer, politician, economist, relationship counsellor and the worst hairdresser I know. And that is only a small sample of your talents.

    Plus, goddammit, you get a lot more comments than I do and can no longer truthfully call yourself unread!!

    Besides we all know it’s quality not quanitity that counts. Connect with the right people and you need never feel redundant, paranoid, miserable, lonely, or downright terrified ever again.

    It didn’t escape my notice either that a matter of a few weeks or maybe a month ago you promised to stop regaling us with your brilliant writing!! I was sceptical even at the time. Thought ‘how many times have I heard that shit!’

    Love you lots. Even though I have a funny way of showing it!!! Zoe

  12. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the extra comments.

    Robert – I certainly wouldn’t want to let Gordon Brown off the hook for his mismanagement of the economy, and especially the catastrophic failure of the ‘light touch’ regulatory system that the government approved. But it’s noticeable that the credit crunch has actually been dealt with in very similar ways around the world. France and Germany have both had to inject cash into their banking systems, and President Obama explicity endorsed former President Bush’s injections of trillions of dollars into the US financial system. As well as the injections of cash into the banking system, the UK government have taken steps aimed at helping ‘ordinary people’ (i hate that phrase, but i can’t think of a better one) too. The most obvious one was the 2.5% cut in VAT, which was intended to disproportionately benefit lower income households, who need the money most, and are also most likely to spend it, thus boosting the economy. It was a drop in the ocean, sure, but i can’t believe a voucher to cut the cost of a new car will be any different.

    DeeDee Ramona & lsnduck – i have to be honest, Obama doesn’t ‘do it’ for me. I mean, in the context of all the presidents of the US, he’s certainly the most attractive, but that’s not really saying a lot. You’re right, though, lsnduck, he does have a nice smile. But that just makes me think ‘Awww, sweet guy’ not ‘Phwoarr’… ;o)

  13. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Oh, that’s weird. Haven’t really got my head round the way moderating comments works yet. Anyway…

    Zoe – i saw your comment after i submitted my last one, but now it’s showing up before it. Anyway, i wasn’t being rude by not mentioning you in the last comment – i hope you didn’t take offence. :o) Really sorry to hear you’re ‘ensnared’ again, and hope you get yourself untangled in time to do what you need to do.

    you seem to have gone on a one-man mission to analyse the fuck out of everytjing.

    Yep, guilty as charged! :o)

    Plus, goddammit, you get a lot more comments than I do and can no longer truthfully call yourself unread

    I do get a lot of comments, and i am pathetically grateful for every single one. It still amazes me anyone can be bothered wading through all the words i throw up on here.

    a matter of a few weeks or maybe a month ago you promised to stop regaling us with your brilliant writing!! I was sceptical even at the time.

    I did say it was only temporary… You see, the truth is, i just couldn’t tear myself away. I mean, where else am i going to go for random insults about my hairdressing abilities… ;o)

    Take care of yourself,

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