A Speech That Said Things As I had Always Wished They’d Be Said

A Speech That Said Things As I had Always Wished They’d Be Said

Greif: The Inaugural–An Address Without Cant

IT WAS the first presidential inaugural that spoke to dead slaves. It was the first time that the exploited seemed the main figures called to mind, not the ones forgotten.

“Greatness is never a given. It must be earned,” Obama declared. Earned not by “those who prefer leisure over work,” but “more often” by “men and women obscure in their labor—who have carried us up the long, rugged path.” Earth and dirt. “For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West.” For us, they “endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.”

For us? For once I could stand the linkage of those who had no intention to suffer for us with those free enough to think of their posterity. Because I felt Obama knew all the reservations and the dishonesties of previous speakers—and that the listeners behind him on the dais, the black faces of civil rights leaders, of his wife, of the pastors and the poet, descendents of slaves, knew what improper possession meant, I trusted his “for us.”

It put me in mind by contrast of that moment in 2001 when, after the September 11 attacks, George Bush declared that the thousands who died in the World Trade Center and on United 93 and 197 and American 11 and 77 “would not have died in vain.” How depressed I was by that nonsense: No matter what country the U.S. bombed, of course our American victims had died in vain. They had not chosen to jeopardize or sacrifice themselves–they had just been sitting in chairs, waiting for nothing, they had been murdered, plain and simple. Revenge, sure; grand messianic justification, no. Here, with those who “endured the lash of the whip”—slaves brought to a country from which they could not benefit—Obama was talking about rightful possession out of wrongful suffering.

I don’t remember another presidential speech in my lifetime which treated labor in this way, not its “dignity,” not the good luck of job-holding, but the ambiguous causes and good consequences of bloody work. Work “till their hands were raw.”

For once the nitwittage of the television commentators couldn’t even bring me down. This was an address without a cant phrase. As I go through it now, black ink printed on a white page, I don’t see a sentence that holds a lie or the old suspicion that the speaker does not know the meaning of his own words – that he is going through the motions. The words are not always grand but they are honest. Young as he is, Obama is a president, unlike Bush, who doesn’t seem innocent of the meanings of terms or the pain of certain facts. “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” This rings differently when you think: here is a president who as a small child ate off U.S. food stamps.

THEN TOO, here was a speech that said things as I had always wished they would be said, and taught me other things I’m willing to accept for the time being.

“For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, ‘Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.’” Yes! At last, “terror” is not a substance, an instrument, something you can make a war upon, or a pot of paint with which to mark all enemies. It is a feeling induced in victim populations; the calm and comfort of civilization its opposite. The word stays true to its ordinary meaning. The crime is “slaughtering innocents”—intentionally killing civilians, noncombatants, in any context. The ultimate coolness one must have about terror sits well with Obama’s rhetoric and his solution: never to let up on or excuse those who kill innocents; always to assume, before illiberal and uncivilized panic, that the sheer appeal and stability and long duration of a society which seeks tranquility will survive against crime.

“We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” No! This is precisely the moment I most want the triumph of my dogma–an FDR-cum-anti-capitalist realignment; the world turned upside down for a fantasy of socialism I’ve always held!

But I’m willing to take instruction, even if that means putting away the grievances I’ve been saving up for eight years, well, so it does. It hurt me to see Obama embrace Bush. It cheered me to see Obama put Bush on a helicopter. But probably the embrace is the more important thing, and if Obama wants me to think on this, I’ll do it.

Our “full measure of happiness,” “our goods and services,” “our prosperity”—I take it that Obama still thinks the only basis for our economy is a fully grasping consumer society. We can’t have diminished expectations for material goods; nor settle the economy on any foundation other than constant surplus and debt-driven consumer demand. Of course, I don’t know on what other basis it would function, either. So, reluctantly, creeping into the tent of my ignorance, I accept this, too.

“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims.” For sixty-odd years we’ve had our nation of “Christians and Jews” and the “Judeo-Christian heritage,” an always uneasy triumph of postwar campaigns against anti-Semitism and prejudice. How much sense did it ever make? How much work does it have still to do? As a Jewish listener, I blanched when I heard the new formulation (Jews came with Hindus, next), but of course Obama was right to retool his words in this way. It’s the Muslim minority that America has to come to grips with now. The sooner we have some analog of an “Islamo-Christian heritage” branded on the national consciousness, and a real love of liberal Islam, the better off America will be. (Though I did appreciate his nod to the “nonbelievers”; a little bit of anti-sanctimony tucked into the end of a “from sea to shining sea” sort of declaration.)

EVERYONE IS proud of choking up again and again on this particular Inauguration Day. It was a day for tears of joy. From everything we’ve known of politics for eight years—really, from everything I’ve known of politics and America for thirty years (my whole life)—this is a day I never should have lived to see, and I’m not even of the generation entitled to say, as the elderly keep saying on television, that they never thought they’d live to see this day. Obama’s election, now made final with the inauguration, is a kind of rent in history, which not even a child born on New Year’s Day 2008 should have lived to see. There were no indications that the country could turn around to make a right choice on this scale. There was nothing to suggest the country was sane or tolerant enough to elect a man who looks, to the old American eye, black as any former slave in our “one-drop” regime, and who sounds, to the American ear, as Barack Hussein Obama, like the mixing of Eastern and Muslim tradition into the Judeo-Christian European line we have been pushing for so long. Obama is in the great tradition of recent American leaders—fatherless children–and shows if you learn to choose your lineage, maybe you’ll know enough to care about your posterity.

Mark Greif is co-editor of n+1 and teaches literature at the New School.

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