Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Obama's Inauguration Speech - A Close Read

Inauguration speeches often amount to nothing more than overblown rhetoric and congratulatory statements. Yet, some, like both of Lincoln’s inaugural speeches, signify a bold proclamation of intent, or an analysis of our founding document and principles, and an introspective investigation to the nature of American identity. President Obama’s recent inauguration speech, while filled with some congratulatory sentiment and puffed-up rhetoric represents a courageous and quietly brilliant affirmation, creation, and analysis of American vision and identity, or so I would like to contend. Given the luxury of a second term without the prospect of re-election, Obama unleashed in a subtle though clear manner an outlook for the future in rejecting the pettiness of much of the political world, specifically the Republican party. Obama achieves astounding success in this speech, one that preaches unity while implicitly calling out the Republicans, in providing not only a roadmap for the future, but also an American identity that warms our hearts. Obama's speech reminds us of the singularity of Americanism, with its attending responsibilities, rights, and obligations in a time when wearing the American tag feels inferior, when we see that our beloved country falls behind the world because of some obvious inadequacies.
In analyzing how he does this we will also come to a deeper understanding of what that vision entails. The first and most important rhetorical maneuver Obama uses is in expounding on the Constitution. Obama often uses bits and pieces of the constitution as the foundation of his phraseology, but here he does so not only to mine a common heritage, but for the purposes of a polemic. Obama begins in invoking what many see as the essential principle of Americanism: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then, in lines for the ages, he adds:
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.
Obama posits that while self-evident, they always required more than their awareness
to bring them to life, to action. He reminds us that this document we venerate made no claim of equality for women and endorsed the notion of slavery, or at least tolerated the institution. We did not stay hewn to the most literalist reading of the constitution, but sought fit to change and re-interpret as we grew moral consciences. Obama then goes to list how our historical experiences allowed us to grow with and past this initial vision. (This in of itself already signifies an attack on those Republicans or Tea party folk who claim to truly know the intent and purpose of the constitution.)
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
Step by step Obama dismantles any sort of fundamentalist argument about the constitution as perfect in of itself, or as obvious in of itself outside the context of history and interpretation. The constitution never demanded any freedom for slaves, no regulation of markets or the need to take care of our most vulnerable. In fact, each of these carefully worded and chosen instances directly attack what we now associate with republican claims. Gun nuts cite the 2nd amendment as a right to bear arms, despite the fact that no intellect with integrity could possibly espouse that the 2nd amendment not only allows, but sees it as an important right for any and every American to buy an automatic weapon. Republicans, famously, time and again see any sort of economic regulation as steps towards socialism, towards anti-Americanism, but experience has taught us that no matter the free market we need regulations. Obama then takes his next jab at the republicans who purport to speak from and for the constitution in positing that as Americans, we’ve learned and understand the importance of protecting our vulnerable, not the rich, not the comfortable, not the settled, but our most vulnerable. if you hear echoes here of the 99% they are purposeful, if you hear Obama decrying our political system’s obsession with wealth and power, again purposeful. Obama, it seems, has decided to take off his gloves and go bare knuckle with republicans who see Obama as destroying the fabric of our country. Obama offers a counter-narrative that shows the depth of the shallowness of much of the Republican rhetoric today, a rhetoric that fears immigration, vaunts militaristic pride, belittles minorities, and caters to the rich.
Further on Obama makes explicit what he hints at here. In other words, he goes for the jugular of the popular notion of republicans and what they stand for Obama insists:
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it...We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
Then, as we move forward, Obama amps up his explicitness and pushes forward perhaps one of the most liberal progressive visions for America in the past 40 years. He remarks on the insidious though quiet racism of our immigration policy, our abiding and prejudicial fear of homosexuality, our stubbornness to care only about ourselves, our distinctly American ability to quickly forget how we started, emerged, and thrived because of our commitment to immigration. More than most other countries we are a country of immigrants, built on the notion of creating a home for those yearning to be free. He comments on the absurdity of a nation with half as many guns owned as people in the USA, a place in which we cannot ensure safety to our most vulnerable, but can ensure easy access to killing machines. A country home to a party willing to stoop so low as to make voting hard for those who they know would vote against them. And perhaps the best just ass-whooping of Republicans today, Obama takes a clear and eloquent approach to global warming while insulting those who don’t believe in science:
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.
We don’t need Obama to spell out who are those who don’t believe in the judgment of science for they are the same people he later refers to who, “mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” What allows Obama to succeed so well in this speech is that he never actual names any names or any parties as guilty, or as wanting, but repeatedly calls for unity, for unified action against dogmatism. He posits a vision of the U.S. that leads, not follows, that learns from history, not simply from rigid ideology, and one that measures its success through its treatment of the most vulnerable, not the least.

Of course, Obama excluded certain topics and a person can either feel slighted by their exclusion, or understanding towards the inability to include every ill of our society in this small speech. Obama, by now characteristically, though he spoke about slavery, though he invoked the memory and word of Dr. King, time and again refuses to address the real, tangible, and abiding racism inherent within much of our system. He spoke nothing about our woeful penal system, a system that brings shame upon America with each passing day, a system which jails more of its citizens than any other country in an unprecedented manner, a system still using the death penalty, a system skewed towards imprisoning minorities and the poor. He spoke nothing of women’s reproductive rights, or of the often shady politics of drones, of torture and issues of the same ilk. I do think these omissions matter, but I think the speech transcends the importance of the omissions.
Even if you found this speech as inspiring as I did, at this point, we know enough to not conflate the spoken word as real promises. All of us will wait and use this speech as a measuring stick with which to judge Obama's second term, but I think our cynicism glosses over the importance of a speech, a vision, and a president we can actually take pride in. Because, and let's be honest here, it's grown increasingly harder and harder to take pride in our country and our identity. We've gotten to the point that we often make ourselves feel better as Americans in pointing out the flaws of other countries, like children in fact.

The previous election signified an election of little substance, and most of us voted out of frustration more than anything else. It is hard to take pride in our economy or the ludicrousness of our fiscal cliff and debt ceiling "debates", or in our morally ambiguous foreign policies, and the countless domestic massacres only continues to besmirch our international reputation. We shouldn't quickly glance over the importance of a president who can tap into our sentiments and give them voice in elegant prose. Regardless of what you say about the days after the inauguration, the speech, the ceremony signified a rightful moment of pride and honor in a country often embarrassed of its own self.