I watched the inauguration yesterday on MSNBC. Thankfully, it was a snow day (so is today), my classes were canceled, and I didn’t have to justify the broadcast as integral to my British literature course (I couldn’t, wouldn’t, and would have then missed the broadcast, as my students would have, as well).
One thing stood out in MSNBC’s coverage of the formalities—the less than solemn reactions of the crowd, predominantly black, chanting “O-Ba-Ma” for the new President, and booing the departing President, breaking into the chorus of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” at both his appearance on the stands and his exit. Something about MSNBC’s location made it easy for the masses’ vocalizations to all but drown out the network’s appointed color commentators. It didn’t seem that the dignitaries on the stand, including Obama and Bush, could even hear these rude outbursts, which sounded like the mindless self-expression of Super Bowl fans.
I’d say that 30% of me felt disapproval for the heckling, a bit less for the chanting in unison (matching, no doubt intentionally, the usual grunting braggadocio of “U-S-A U-S-A” at all kinds of events, from pro wrestling to Independence Day parades). It struck me—or less than a third of me—as unseemly, inappropriate to the cultural and political gravitas of the moment, which I felt was more elegantly served by the day’s scheduled program—Aretha Franklin’s stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful” (and the ornate black woman’s “church” hat she sported) and Joseph Lowery’s by turns transcendent and saucy closing prayer.
But 70% of me—the part that was thrilled to see Muntadhar al-Zeidi pitch his shoe at George W. Bush in Iraq, regretting only his bad aim—was right with the rowdiness—more liberated and democratic in spirit than the babble of MSNBC commentators who tried to cast the proceedings in the light of Washington tradition and fetishistic awe for what they described as America’s one concession to “royal” pomp and ceremony.
To my mind, Bush deserved to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of DC on a rail. In this light, a little jeering, probably not even audible to the arrogant asshole, is comparably civil and gracious. Further, I hope the fact that Bush gave no last-minute pardons for persons chargeable with war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan (including himself and Dick Cheney, I assume) means that trials may indeed occur during the Obama Presidency (I have my doubts, though).
Rowdiness is a particular affect of American democracy, from the wild and wooly West to rock’n’roll to student sit-ins in the 1960s. (Unfortunately, other examples include lynchings, fraternity hazings, and gang banging.) I hope the Obama election is the first of many, hopefully stronger waves of renewed democracy in American life and politics—and I hope no less that it will be joined with a respect for rational argument and variety of opinion that Obama himself likes to talk about.
That said, the other thing that stood out in MSNBC’s coverage was the calculated (it seemed obvious to me) posing of individuals and small groups within the historic mass of witnesses to the occasion. The cameras focused on beaming faces—some with toothy, unaffected smiles, others modeling themselves on Old Masters’ paintings of beatific saints at the moment of epiphany—and, with irritating frequency, weeping faces. Now I have to admit that I wept practically nonstop through the whole hour-long program, moved in part by the historic moment of acquiring a young black President, in part out of relief for seeing the Bush gang’s butts heading for the door, but, irrationally perhaps, I resented the network’s insistent use of cutaway shots of crowd reaction, which were the visual equivalent of a laugh track or melodramatic strings designed to telegraph “appropriate” emotional responses to the event. For that reason, in retrospect, I wish I had watched the inauguration on C-SPAN, with minimal pathos (or so I imagine).
I have not watched any of the subsequent replaying of and commentary on the inauguration … by design. Having watched the event once through is enough. The practice of news media (particularly television) to replay such occasions ad nauseum tends to dull feeling and discourage thinking. (Admittedly, blogging about the event is subject to the same charge, though I’d hasten to point out crucial distinctions—such as the difficulty of filtering the barrage of television noise compared to the act of will involved in choosing whether or not to read this blog.)
Weeping, cheering Obama, and booing Bush aside, the nation now has serious issues to face and problems to solve—as Obama’s speech tried to emphasize. Issues and problems require disciplined thinking more than heartfelt emoting. They also require resolve, not just the heat of a moment. But without feeling, even a feeling of outrage at Bush’s epic betrayals, without a sense of bonding with fellow Americans and with the whole world of humanity, all we’d have of liberty and democracy would be bloodless documents and marble monuments.
I don’t think Thomas Jefferson himself would mind if twenty-first-century American democracy included a bit more of the spirit of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” and a little less unblinking, unthinking “Hail to the Chief.”