Now it’s time to put the ‘we’ into ‘Yes we can’
The inauguration of Barack Obama as the Forty-Fourth President captured people’s yearning for historic momentum, and Obama’s lack of it.
The inauguration of Barack Obama as the Forty-Fourth President of the United States was an extraordinary event.
It is hard to recall, in our era of pygmy politicians and the shallow politics of personality, an elected Western leader winning such public enthusiasm. Even the awkward dancing and whooping that greeted the election of British prime minister Tony Blair in 1997 – when journalists mortifyingly described him as a ‘messiah come to save us from Toryism’ – pales into insignificance (1). Where the public displays of hope, love and barely concealed lust for Blair were largely (though not entirely) confined to hacks, pop stars and Labour activists pleased that their party still had a pulse, Obama’s inauguration was cheered by millions of everyday people, both black and white, both in America and around the world.
The spectacle of the inauguration confirmed what Obama has become: a vessel for people’s desire for a new way of doing politics, and for the return of historic momentum itself. Around the world – from the streets of DC to Kenya, from the town of Moneygall in Ireland, which describes itself as the birthplace of O’Bama’s ancestors, to the capitals of continental Europe – there is clearly a deep reservoir of frustration with the creepingly cynical politics of the mainstream. Tired of the politics of fear and the politics of no-we-can’t-because-it’s-probably-too-risky, uncomfortable with the smallness of politics, where European leaders concern themselves with the toxicity of chemicals and American politics is governed by the convinction that history has ended and all that remains is the need to manage threats and expectations, millions of people project their desire for grown-up politics, for meaning, for the rightful return of history itself on to Obama.
As a result, yesterday’s inauguration had both a genuinely historic feel, but also a somewhat forced, manufactured Historic Momentum. It was properly historic because it involved the inauguration of the first black president of the United States – an achievement not to be sniffed at in a country where, as Obama himself pointed out, a man such as he might have had difficulty voting 60 years ago. The sense of historic occasion is captured in the slushy yet truthful new saying: ‘Rosa sat, so that Martin could walk, so that Obama could run, so that our children could fly.’ (2) Yet there was also a desperate desire to make the inauguration Historic with a capital H, to use it as a symbolic, historical marker in our lives and societies at a time when the making of history is notable by its absence. Journalists in particular went into overdrive. ‘In more than 30 years of reporting, I have never seen the like… never experienced the joy and expectation of so many’, gushed one hack (3). Reporters told us there were hundreds of thousands of people in DC. No, there were two million! Three million! Maybe even four million, said one account, the same as the population of Ireland! (4)
Meanwhile, many schools, both in America and Europe, called a halt to lessons so that children could listen to or watch the inauguration. One teacher said it was about allowing children to ‘participate in history’ so that they will ‘remember where they were’ (5). Here, a real-world event, and admittedly an important one, is handed to children as a readymade Historical Moment, a teacher-devised rite of passage through which they might define their lives and discover some meaning. In DC itself, a great number of people said similar things when asked why they had braved the cold to witness the inauguration: ‘I want to say I was here’; ‘I want to be able to tell my grandchildren I was here’ (6). Many of those who couldn’t get to Washington went on to the World Wide Web instead, not only to watch the event but to ‘participate’ in it. There was a ‘frenzy of internet activity’ as people gathered on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to watch and comment on the inauguration in order that they might say: ‘I was virtually there.’ (7)
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So there was a dual historic element to the inauguration: there was the real history of it, but more powerfully still there was the projection of a yearning for history on to it, the semi-official and on-the-ground transformation of the inauguration into a clear, unambiguous, internationally recognisable dividing line between then and now, between the old cynical order and something new, between who we were yesterday and who we are today. Ironically, this intense Historification of the inauguration, driven by people’s desire for a sense of purposeful destiny, ended up exposing the absence of genuine history-making today. In the past, people tended to tell stories about what they did during major historic events (as captured in the age-old question ‘What did you do in the war, daddy?’), while the question of ‘where were you?’ was confined to one-off, freak occurrences that took us by surprise (‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot? When Diana died?’). Today, the rush to ‘participate’ in Obama’s inauguration simply to say ‘I was there’ captures the view of history as something that we observe, something that is done on our behalf by other people, something we can be at but not really part of.
Indeed, watching the inauguration yesterday – both the historic and Historic versions – one could be forgiven for forgetting that it was the American people themselves who made this event happen. Increasingly, Obama is discussed not as someone who was elected by the masses, mandated to govern the United States, but as someone who ‘arrived’, who ‘came’, who ‘emerged when we most needed him’. As Maya Angelou put it, ‘And out of [our] great need, I believe he came. Barack Obama came’ (8). There is a religious twist to this view of Obama ‘coming’, and it also strikingly reveals the absence of, or at least the weakness of, a sense of human agency in the Obama phenomenon. The inauguration confirmed both that millions of people want meaningful change but also that they feel incapable of bringing such change about – so they invest all of their hopes and aspirations on to one man instead; one man who, as a woman in DC said when interviewed by a journalist on what Obama should do next, is expected to ‘do everything’ (9). Fundamentally, and contradictorily, Obama represents both people’s urgent and positive desire for a new way of governing, and also their feeling of atomisation, their sense of being the objects rather than the subjects of history.
Some say that Obama’s speech was dull. Yet he showed himself adept at tapping into the reservoir of frustration upon which his political campaign is sailing. He recognised that there is a difficult-to-measure ‘sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable and that the next generation must lower its sights’. Here, he directly took up the general and free-floating politics of low expectations that so many are disgruntled with. He talked up the benefits of ‘curiosity’, recognising that much of his support springs from disdain for old-style political cynicism. He attacked ‘stale political arguments’. And he explicitly addressed an international audience, recognising that he has been the beneficiary of both an American and an international desire for change (10).
However, we’re already seeing the downsides to the Obama momentum, signals that this new administration might fail to live up to people’s expectations of History with a capital H. Yes, people have had enough of dull mainstream politics, yet for Obama that seems to mean we should get rid of partisanship and debate – the lifeblood of politics – entirely. ‘On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics’, he said, implicitly demonising the rough-and-tumble of political infighting and outfighting that accompanies every true historic leap forward. ‘We will return science to its rightful place’, he said, which was widely and rightly interpreted as a swipe at the Bush administration’s ‘ignorance of scientific facts’ (11). Yet it also suggests we will see the further elevation of expertise over debate, and cool judgements over fiery discourse. In their policy promises, also published yesterday, Obama/Biden said they will: ‘Restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on ideological predispositions.’ (12) In short, we can expect under Obama the intensification of managerial, ideology-free and principle-lite politics, only it will have the grand title of ‘respecting science’. This is not history so much as physics.
The inauguration was a supremely revealing snapshot of our age. It showed people’s thirst for change. And it captured the absence of a sense of agency that means we project this desire for change on to one man who has ‘come’. It showed Obama as the beneficiary of a yearning for historic momentum. And it showed Obama as a man who seems to lack the vision or political programme to transform old, small, cynical politics into something properly historic. Most strikingly, it confirmed that, so long as we the people remain passive observers of officially decreed History, politics will be dominated by expertise and the wisdom of the few, rather than by passion and the desires of the many. It might be time to put the ‘we’ into ‘Yes we can’.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) See What’s worse than a Blairite? A Blair-basher, by Brendan O’Neill
(2) Inaugural moments, Stamford Advocate, 20 January 2009
(3) ‘Snowmail: Life Has Changed’, Channel 4 News, 20 January 2009, reproduced here.
(4) Obama acts on Guantanamo trials, BBC News, 20 January 2009
(5) Participating in history, The Courier (Montgomery), 20 January 2009
(6) A voice among inauguration day throng: ‘I want to say I was here’, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 21 January 2009
(7) Barack Obama’s inauguration greeted by frenzy of internet activity, The Times (London), 21 January 2009
(8) Notes to Obama, BBC News, 20 January 2009
(9) Channel 4 News, 20 January 2009
(10) Inauguration speech in full, BBC News, 20 January 2009
(11) Bush’s legacy is America’s shame, Guardian, 18 January 2009
(12) Obama and Biden: The Change We Need, Official Website, 20 January 2009