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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's inaugural speech

Well, JFK it wasn't. Wasn't FDR, either. It was decent, so-so, not too long thankfully, some highs and lows. So here are my reactions.

"My fellow citizens..."

I like this. It starts on a different note. Usually, it's "Americans," which is a mushier term that doesn't denote anything but being part of a big, privileged group of fat people. Citizen implies responsibility, membership in a polis, a unity of purpose and an ideology of commitment to living life as humans ought to live it, within a civilization.

"Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath."

Um, actually, only 43. Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, but by most definitions was still the same person. Not an encouraging boo-boo. That's already a letter grade, Mr. Obama.

"Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."

Oh boy. I don't like this statement one bit. We are not in a declared war against any nation or entity. Is there a declaration of war against Al Quaeda or the Taliban? There can't be. They are not governments. We are engaged in military activities against small enclaves, sure. But buying into this war talk is a really frightening continuance of the Orwellian newspeak of the past 8 years, designed to justify any old thing that the unitary executive feels like pushing through the congress, or minus any oversight, through secret executive orders.

"each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet."

Yay, someone is mentioning scienc-ey stuff! Also, it is useful, if not exactly stunningly original, to draw the parallel that our energy usage enriches governments who are not necessarily opposed to the types of organizations that we are engaged in combat with. It needed to be said, and finally it is said on a big stage. Ditto the mention of a warming planet being the result of our choices, not just God hugging us extra close.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, 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."

Just who is this supposed to be directed at? The Republicans on the rostrum, or the idiots who voted for them in the crowd? I am perplexed by this statement and really don't see much good which can come from it. Yes, they're stupid. Yes, they preyed on fear. But you won, dude. Trying deliberately to rebuke them is probably not the most constructive first foot forward.

"But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. "

In a sea of platitudes (regarding the crisis we're in, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, etc.) this sentence finally puts a little bit of a tooth into the mix. It's one thing to just spew a bunch of nonspecific crap about rolling up our sleeves and using a little elbow grease. But it's another to say: We have put off unpleasant decisions. This is about as far as Obama goes in saying that our government has been fatally shortsighted on things like national debt, social security, and global warming. But at least the implication is there.

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

This is pretty much the meat of the speech for techies and intellectuals. Restoring science to its rightful place is a good, specific jab at the past 8 years, not the sort of amorphous accusation that the previous 'hope over fear' stuff represents. It's a pretty clear implication that global warming won't be treated as a theory, evolution will be taught in schools, and stem cell research will be opened way up again. So Amen to that.

I'm kind of worried about "soil" in this mix, because it implies (to me anyway) ethanol cars and "clean coal" plants with buried carbon sequestration. These are stupid ideas which will just keep us on the path to ecological ruin. I wish he had said harness the atom instead of harness the soil.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. "

Ooh, awkward 'Bush is on the stage too' moment! I don't hate this. As opposed to the previous statement which seems designed to simply piss off Republicans in its overbroad reach and lack of specificity, this is a specific and more personal rebuke, and something which needed to be said. He goes on to say that we need to remember that strong alliances and cooperation between nations were keys in defeating fascism and communism, not just spending a butt-load on weapons and doing whatever the hell we pleased. It's not too hard to see who and what this is directed at.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."

A shout out to atheists! Woo! The Scientologists are probably feeling slighted though, perhaps Wiccans, too. It's nice to have atheism publicly mentioned as something other than a slimy scourge. Hopefully, this good feeling lasts - because the rest of the speech has so much God-talk in it that you'd never know that atheists were in fox-holes, too.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

I like this. Many people see our geopolitical stage now as a clash between "the west" and "the ragheads." It is good to acknowledge this, but also to see a path out by respecting common humanity. I wish it had been a bit more specific as to what those interests were, but oh well.

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. "

Well, maybe this is the specificity, since many of the Muslims above are also in this category. Nice to mention minds in addition to bodies.

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it)."

Very interesting that a Washington quote is cited here. I think it is apropos to the theme of the speech. He nicely picked up the imagery of crossing icy currents and the like, and it dovetails nicely back to the beginning, the theme of citizenship.

Overall, it was an OK speech. There was a lot of mush in there. I would have preferred that the things I cited above as strengths were expanded and fleshed out, while the weaknesses were simply excised. JFK's speech was a masterpiece of construction, whereas this came off as a bit flabby, with a few good ideas peppered within. This isn't a speech that will ring through the ages as one which inspired people. It will soon be forgotten. But speeches do not presidencies make, at least not usually. If progress can be made on putting the ideas into action with concrete and effective policies, that will be more than enough for me.

Overall grade: C+. Please revise and submit a new draft.


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