United States President Barack Obama “signaled a commitment to pragmatism not just as a governing strategy but as a basic value,” according to unintentionally hilarious inauguration dispatch by the New York Times’ Washington bureau chief David Sanger. Pragmatism, of course, is not a value, but rather the triumph of expediency over values. To call pragmatism a “basic value” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, like “studied ignorance,” or “impassioned apathy.” Obama had plenty of that today, too.

“[Obama’s] appearance on the Capitol steps was so historic that the address became larger than its own language, more imbued with meaning than anything he could say,” added Sanger, which is to say that Obama said nothing memorable. Just what was historic?

This half-Luo tribesman from Hawaii whose African father had no connection whatsoever with the West African ancestors of American slaves, was not imbued, but rather hued, with significance. His melanin carried the meaning, which is to say that he was judged by the color of his skin rather than the content of his character, in a precise reversal of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous phrase.

America’s African Americans, who have failed to produce a credible leader in the two generations since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, broke America’s last color bar, hailed this carpetbagger as a savior. For a generation of white liberals raised on the notion that skin-color aversion is the original sin of American politics, the confusion is understandable. The African Americans in attendance should have known better. In a way, they did. If not for Aretha Franklin, the day would have been a total loss.

Words failed not only Obama, as Sanger noted, but his preacher and poetess as well. The Reverend Joseph Lowery, an old civil rights campaigner of Martin Luther King’s generation, concluded his benediction with a jingle: ” … help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.” There was depth in Lowery’s triviality.

Lowery’s sing-song had aesthetic merit to the inaugural poem [1] recited by one Elizabeth Alexander, a teacher of African-American Studies at Yale University. Alexander tried to rise from the ordinary to the elevated, but managed to reach only the oxymoronic: “What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.”

Perhaps she meant, “no need to avenge grievance.” It is not clear how one can preempt a grievance, which is a response to an objectively injurious act. One can preempt the injurious act, but not the response, for the response presumes the act. One can preempt a poem, by dismissing the poet. Even better, you can visit the Adolescent Poetry Generator at elsewhere.org and get a new (and often better poem than Alexander’s) every time you refresh the page. [2]

It just wasn’t their day. I mean that literally: it was a day on which a dark-skinned man became president who had nothing to do with them. The son of a Kenyan economist and an American anthropologist walked off with the blood-stained mantle of seven decades of civil rights struggle. If the black poets and clergy offered a counterfeit of real emotion, it is hard to blame them. They were just the extras on Obama’s stage set.

Oxybarama’s inauguration has been compared to John F. Kennedy’s, when the 87-year-old poet Robert Frost recited The Gift Outright. Frost’s poem says that America “was ours before we were the land’s,” and that we became the land’s after “we found out that it was ourselves/We were withholding from our land of living,” and gave ourselves to the land in “many deeds of war.”

It is not one of the great poems in the language, but it is classical in construction, Biblical in evocation, and beautifully turned out. I will never forget hearing Frost read that poem; he sounded like the hoary high priest of America’s civic religion, and he sent shudders up one’s spine. His was a poem that the whole world might read and learn something of America. Sadly, Yale University’s Alexander measures up to Frost about as well as Obama measures up to John F. Kennedy.

When Kennedy warned that Americans would bear any burden and pay any price in the cause of freedom, he faced a ruthless and powerful contender in the Soviet Union, whose power still was ascending. Obama observes that “our power alone cannot protect us” (something else than power is supposed to protect the United States?). He added oxymoronically that “our power grows through its prudent use,” and through “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

I am trying to recall the humility and restraint that Franklin D Roosevelt displayed towards Japan and Germany during World War II, or Ronald Reagan towards the Soviets during the Cold War. Perhaps I misheard what Reagan said in Berlin: “Mr Gorbachev, in all humility, and without trying to be provocative, I would like to suggest that perhaps you should consider the possibility of tearing down this wall, if that wouldn’t be inconvenient, of course.”

Obama’s America is everything to everyone, and nothing to anyone. Where Frost evoked a land that had yet to possess a people yet to be born through sacrifice, Obama’s America is “Here Comes Everybody”: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”

It is one thing to include everyone in America, but quite another to think of the country as a “patchwork” rather than as a land to whom many belonged before they were adopted into it, the sense of its national motto, E Pluribus Unum ( Out of Many, One).

There is no “there” in Obama’s address. Instead, there are nods in so many directions that the compass needle spins. Oxymorons abound because Obama is struggling to hold together so many disparate elements that their incompatibility pops to the surface now and again. We fear at every moment that he will fly apart like the inventor Coppelius’ dancing doll of E. T. A. Hoffman’s story.

1. Inaugural Poem, New York Times, January 20, 2009.

2. Communications From Elsewhere, Poetry Corner,


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