Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit

At the risk of being misunderstood:

Today was a huge relief. I could list so many things: that somehow DJT’s presidency ended without the US declaring war on Iran, that there was no violence at the inauguration, that the U.S. will stop gleefully flouting both climate science and international political accord, at least at the leadership level. I also feel inspired and emotional about an educated woman a little older than me becoming Vice President — she was my preferred presidential candidate, too, so with some exceptions she and I share a lot of political views. I also know that her presence in that office will be a decisive inspiration not just to many women, but also to South Asian Americans and African Americans and probably to other marginalized groups in general. And I hope, in the interest of not dividing us into infinite groups of hyphenation, to Americans in general. Representation does matter, it does have an effect. Relief and joy, that’s been my reaction, when I haven’t been worried as hell about what’s been going on in the political world or my personal life. Relief about Biden; joy about Harris. Relief that the last presidency is over without any more deliberate self-damage or inadvertent mishaps, joy about the potential we have now to change.

I still believe things. I hesitate to say that because I am so often misunderstood, as when I say that I am skeptical of the notion of redemptive sacrifice. Collateral damage of the post-Vietnam period, and the last four years in specific: the idea that words and symbols matter. So many commentators I read today can find nothing more to say about the Inaugural Address than that it was trite, banal, a recycling of American civil religion that doesn’t really to speak to the present moment, with the possible concession that after four years in which civic rhetoric bowed to the previous inaugural address’ theme of “American carnage,” it feels “fresh.” So which is it? I don’t think you can simultaneously despair over cynicism and then poke your fingers at one person who isn’t speaking cynically.

I recognize that those things (“don’t tell me things can’t change” or “history, faith, and reason” and “I will be your president even if you didn’t vote for me”) are bromides. And yet — I’m apparently still the cornball who cries when I hear the national anthem or “This Land Is Your Land.” I am maybe less willing to believe than I used to be after four years of seeing our civic symbols twisted almost out of recognition. I love John Phillip Sousa marches and it hurt to hear them played in honor of our last president, not because he represented a conservative political party, but because he was so obviously a cynic and a demagogue and a crook, even outside the leeway that it is customary to allot to US politicians these days.

It goes the other way, certainly; I haven’t been able to hear “God Bless the U.S.A.” without slight feelings of nausea and anger in thirty years, since the Gulf War; it’s become an unholy, informal “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I know there are people who would assign a similar amount of twisting of words and symbols to liberals and progressives, because I live among them, but I am left standing on the bank of my belief that words are not infinitely malleable and there are pieces of reality that can be known. “True for you vs. true for me,” as I told my philosophy course, is not a turn of phrase that has any logical validity. Might does not make right — not when the Athenians massacred the Melians, not even when the U.S. engages in it.

We are an empire, too — witness how much people outside the U.S. cared about the election, because “he’s the president of the whole world, but only Americans get to vote for him,” as my German friends told me back in the 90s. (Or as Joe Biden said today, “the world is watching.”) The imperial aesthetic of the U.S. is never more apparent to me than during an inauguration, as politicians and spectators wind their way through the monumental neoclassical buildings of the District of Columbia, marching over squares in lines, slinking around the columns. There are similar buildings on Unter den Linden in Berlin, copied from similar models. This kind of monumentality is equally suited to the land of the free, the home of the brave and the loyalty, bravery and obedience of the long-gone Prussian Empire. It’s supposed to make us feel small, much less important than the state that governs us. The insurrection of January 6th had a mild “Sack of Rome” feeling about it, probably precisely because of the neo-Roman imperial background against which it played. All that was really surprising about that, in my mind, is that the barbarians at the gates were white and middle class.

There are groups who’d have been more justified in breaching our national fantasies of political security. Relief and joy notwithstanding, I am not sanguine. 400,000+ COVID dead and counting, and the Biden administration inherits all the mistakes of the previous one. Millions out of work. Apparently no way to combat the consequences of climate change or even try to mitigate them. But most significant for me — I feel like the can on racial equality has just been kicked further down the road. Our society said to African Americans this Spring — you’re right, you’re treated unjustly, just line up with us one more time to kick this jerk out of office, then we will work on your problems. George Bush told Jim Clyburn he was “the savior.” But there’s going to be a bill. There should be. Equality, freedom, cooperation: the risk here is that someone might believe us, someone might hold us to our principles, take us up on our words. Redemptive sacrifice, as dissatisfying as it is, would be better than the refusal to sacrifice entirely — the latter the defining hallmark of the Trump years.

As I thought my melancholy thoughts, I saw the Howard University Drum Line processing towards the White House behind the Vice Presidential motorcade. As a marching band veteran I enjoy watching the spectacle, but as a spectator I always enjoy the African American drum corps  with their colorful spectacle, their proud strutting, their flags and their high stepping and how much they seem to enjoy what they are doing. This unit marched in the parade because Howard is Kamala Harris’ alma mater; they were a different flavor in the (this time) truncated group of very conventional marching bands.

I only glimpsed them for a second; the press was not as interested in them as I was. But I was thrilled they were there. When the storm comes, it’s not going to stop before our gates just because once upon a time, we had good intentions, and that storm can scarcely yet be averted. I want to say, maybe the difference between the incoming and the outgoing administration is that the Howard marchers were at least there — at least the incoming president is trying. Is that a bromide? I have to hope it’s more than that. Acta non verba.

~ by Servetus on January 21, 2021.

15 Responses to “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit”

  1. I am also very much relieved – I believe the whole world is. I am particularly optimistic about Kamala Harris, she exudes competence and Biden will need a very strong Vice President.
    I heard some hours ago the Trump legislation didn’t even leave behind a vaccination plan, it’s unbelievable…
    Also, wasn’t young Amanda Gorman fantastic?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeah, the Biden transition team had been complaining, increasingly loudly, a few weeks ago, that the Trump administration team had been refusing to liaise with them about vaccine distribution. When the distribution began in December it was insanely slow, after Trump claiming for weeks and weeks that the US military had it all set up. They threw some general under the bus who had to apologize publicly, but nothing really changed. Then it came out that the US had passed up the chance to purchase more vaccine, that they didn’t have any reserves, and then that they didn’t really have a plan. So all these state governors made plans based on things the Trump administration told them that were total fantasies.

      Liked by 2 people

    • And yes, Gorman was great!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. We made it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We did!

      I remember thinking about halfway through that it wasn’t as destructive as it could have been — and then the last two years happened. But we are still here and hopefully, he won’t be.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Brava!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The world watched indeed. For me it was so great to hear an american president talk about ‘us’ and ‘we’ in contrast of the egomaniacal screaming from before.

    Was Bidens speech a bit soopy? Maybe, but I liked how hopeful it was. The whole inauguration felt hopeful and somewhat classy but also fresh.
    And it was great to hear an US president talking about racism, (gun) violence, climate change, etc. in the way Biden did.

    I hope this administration will be able to change many lifes for the better. Not sure if this a realistic goal but atm I am hopeful again…….at last

    Liked by 2 people

    • I heard some interesting radio commentary this morning about how essentially, the foreign powers who didn’t like DJT or only tolerated him are happy that whatever happens now, it won’t be totally unpredictable, and that even those who did appreciate him will be happy for the same reason. As you say, he substituted ego for policy.

      I think the main thing in a speech like this is to appear authentic (something that was a problem for DJT, because when he was reading speeches other people wrote that had actual public policy concerns, he sounded fake and the content of the speeches was disturbing — I mean, the theme of the previous inaugural address was “American carnage” — and when he sounded like himself, he sounded insane). I think Biden hit that really well — but also primarily because he is a basically decent, middle of the road kind of guy.

      I figure a lot hangs on what happens with COVID. If the Biden administration can demonstrate that government can work efficiently to help people out, they’ll gain ground.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As someone watching from across the world, I think you already know how happy I am that the Trump nightmare is over for now! There’s sanity emamating from the White House again and it’s such a relief.


    • Things are definitely better in terms of my own news consumption and I think the news is returning to a sort of normal pitch after four years of constant high frequency barrage. The fear that Trump could do something really horrible is definitely over. I’m not sure how over the rest of him is. However, something that I noticed about the dyed in the wool Trumpsters in the last four years is that absolutely nothing satisfied them. They were outraged before he was elected, they were outraged the whole time he was elected, and now they are still outraged (they just get less coverage for their outrage). I’m seeing a very similar phenomenon on the far Left and I am just not interested in participating even if some of their claims might be justified.

      I agree that the White House sounds so much saner now. In particular i appreciate Biden’s realism about the objective chances of some of his legislation. We are going to benefit from having someone who was in the Senate a long time, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

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