There’s lots going on this week – Martin Luther King Day, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Australian Open… But of course the Inauguration was unmissable.
I was looking forward to another splendid performance from one of the great orators of our age. In the years leading up to 2008 Barack Obama rescued American rhetoric from the swamps of cliché. He turned turns of phrase into weapons. He soared. He inspired. But he was most eloquent when he attempted to persuade – which is, after all, what rhetoric is all about. He used to mull over an issue with his listeners, examine both positions fairly, and – with a sigh of regret at differing with his antagonists – take his stand. His best speeches were reasoned arguments.
This year’s inaugural address was different. There was no persuasion, no acknowledgement of legitimate differences. It was a professor’s victory dance over the carcases of his opponents. What struck me was the glitter of hollow rhetorical gestures – repetition, echoing the founding fathers and Martin Luther King, alliteration, homely vignettes… But the magic was gone. It was a store-bought speech, not one baked at home. Obama could have been another Abraham Lincoln. Instead he might end up as Edward Everett, the seasoned orator who spoke for two hours at Gettysburg and is forgotten.
Two themes stood out for me.
It was impossible to miss the President’s insistence that “you didn’t build that”, in the much parodied words of his campaign gaffe. But it wasn’t a gaffe at all. It was his conviction. America ought to be a collectivist society in which “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people”.
Together. It’s an ambiguous word. It can be invoked by heroic leaders – and by bullies. It’s an ominous start for a President whose second-term agenda includes removing conscientious objection from healthcare.
Mr Obama also insisted that gay rights are a fundamental part of American freedom, “for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.” (I have read this phrase over and over and I still can’t understand it, a sure sign of his failing rhetorical skill.)
He underscored this by selecting Richard Blanco, a Hispanic gay poet, to recite a poem composed for the occasion. As a poem “One Today” is not bad. As the anthem of Obama’s America it is superb. It closes with the lines, “of one country -- all of us --/facing the stars / hope -- a new constellation /waiting for us to map it, / waiting for us to name it -- together”. Together. That word again. Is togetherness really what Americans want from their Commander-in-chief? It will be an interesting four more years.
As I said, it is a packed week and we have published twice as many articles as we normally do. Margaret Somerville and Paul Russell each tackle euthanasia. James S. Cole and Jennifer Roback Morse both examine aspects of the same-sex marriage debate. G. Tracy Mehan looks at Roe v. Wade (more on this later in the week).
Finally Alma Acevedo makes some tart observations on people who send texts during tragic moments in Les Misérables. Even though this made me feel quite guilty, we still published it, which, I feel, is a stirring testimony to our broad-minded editorial policy.