Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The inauguration: a contrast, but no comparison

Yesterday's inauguration was something I didn't at all expect.

It had a lot of strikes going against it for me to watch it in the first place: 1) it's a re-election inauguration, and a ceremonial one at that; 2) there was no way it was going to top the 2009 event; 3) it was early in the morning on a day when I woke up furious over something and had to baby-sit my niece to boot (the two were not related); and 4) I was so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open.

But I'm glad I stuck through it. Because what I saw blew my mind.

Critics who have savaged the inauguration said crowds were smaller, the oratory less enthusiastic. They're right on both counts, but miss the point. The brand of enthusiasm and history-making that defined the 2009 convention, by definition, can't be replicated. Nor should it be. It's no longer unprecedented to elect a black president — which itself is a cause for joy, albeit a more subtle one.

No, what made this inauguration remarkable is how normal, almost pedestrian, it seemed. But it's a new normal. From Sonia Sotomayor administering the oath of office to Joe Biden, to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, to Beyoncé, to Medgar Evers' widow delivering the invocation and the presence of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Hawaiian presence in the parade and so much more, the festivities reflected the natural American diversity that has long not defined such events. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, no less. What could have come off as just another instance of forced diversity seemed as natural as it ever has.

Obama confirmed this by making a speech that, whatever soaring tones it lacked, may still rank among his best ever. This is a new, seasoned Obama, bringing four years of chief-executive experience to the stage. Yesterday, he presented his latest lesson learned — that reconciliation is only good insofar as it intersects with the truth. Whether or not that has to do with his being finished with elections, it was still a refreshing change of pace. Critics have long alleged that the president has been too conciliatory for his own good, too often trying to placate his opposition even before bargaining began. In an age where the tea party-led Republicans were openly stalling government just to spite Obama, it too often seemed like a pushover approach.

However, Obama also came off as a chess player, thinking 10 moves ahead and solidifying his gains when they eventually came to fruition. Yesterday's speech suggested that the chess approach has triumphed. To put it in the broadest sense, Obama has offered the GOP numerous olive branches throughout his presidency. When they refused to take them — and keep in mind, these branches often alienated Democrats and progressives — he was able to say that he tried. The increasing petulance of the conservatives exposed them as apologists for the super-rich, misogynists, racists and end-timers. And that intersects with a generational shift toward diversity and tolerance in general. 

This is why Obama could give a speech defending government; openly calling for full civil rights for gays and equal pay for women; calling for an end to partisan voter oppression; calling for an immigration policy steeped in basic human dignity; urging acceptance of and reversal of climate change; and standing up against moneyed misinformation in general — and it doesn't sound like something pipe-dreamt up by a blogger. It's the new normal. And it's about time. 

If there's any doubt that these ideals are here to stay, just look at the state of the opposition. 

Glenn Beck, one of the right's favorite pundits, held his own event concurrent to the inauguration, the Misfit Ball. Held in Dallas, the event featured roundtable discussions by fringe, yet beloved, GOP figures and pundits. The event was divided into such charming groups as "Hate Mongers," "Fat Cats," "Bible Thumpers," "Snake Oil Salesmen," "Shameless Self-Promoters" and "Earth Haters." Jokingly, of course. Its emcee welcomed participants to "where hate comes to celebrate." Satire!

Food included Chick-Fil-A and Hostess, apparently because of anti-gay remarks and supposed union role in destroying, respectively. Beck billed the event as a regular-guy alternative to the D.C. elitism of the inauguration, with an extra helping of apocalyptic persecution. In one discussion, Beck arrives at the conclusion that, despite everything, the right doesn't need to change, the GOP does — literally arrives with that conclusion, and also leaves with it.

Beck and his pals feel left out of America more than ever. And it's no wonder — hate, bigotry and ignorance have bleak prospects in the future of America. Indeed, they should never have had their time in the first place. Attitudes like Beck's are best quarantined in intimate echo chambers, where the sharply decaying population of subscribers can enjoy one final gasp of pseudo-relevance.

Yesterday, hate and regression reigned in a small, sequestered venue, while acceptance and progress paraded through the streets of Washington. Change has become the new normal. Go America.

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