Inaugural Special Edition

20 January 2009


Washington's First Inauguration.

This is where it began: Washington's First Inauguration.

It was a busy day in Washington D.C., though the only sign of all the goings-on in Washington that could be seen here in the upper left edge was the saturation media coverage of the inauguration. Sometimes when I observe the events of our capital on the other side of the continent I feel as though I live in another country.

This blog was inaugurated as Barack Obama was elected, and I observed at the time the enormous reservoir of goodwill that he has available to tap. The inauguration hysteria has revealed that the intervening weeks have done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm. If anything, enthusiasm has peaked at a higher point: “Antigua announced it would rename its highest peak after Mr Obama while a village in the Irish Republic with ancestral links to the mixed-race new president was turning out commemorative cakes.” The Financial Times (certainly no organ of the left) published a devastatingly negative assessment of the Bush administration, and has repeatedly emphasized the promise of the Obama administration.

So far, all of this is politics as usual, though inflated with a certain amount of hyperbole. Nothing revolutionary has happened, and continuity continues to reign. Since there are no stunning geopolitical ramifications to the arrival of the Obama administration, I find myself reflecting on other matters. Age, for example. Obama is 47 as he is inaugurated (older than I am), tied with Grover Cleveland as the fifth-youngest president. When JFK was inaugurated he was a mere 42 (younger than I am at present).

Now, there is a danger in even mentioning JFK. Several dangers, in fact. There is a danger that one will be mistaken for a baby boomer or a Kennedy worshiper, and there is a danger that one will be taken to be speaking primarily of symbols rather than of actual words and actions. I find it deeply disturbing when any family — the Kennedy clan or the Bush clan or anyone else — is referred to as “American royalty”. In fact, I despise anyone who uses the term.

Depending upon which pop sociologist one consults, the baby boom generation stops at 1963 or 1964 or 1965. Obama then ought properly to be considered clearly part of the baby boom generation, but in print he has been called a post-baby boom candidate, and he has certainly been invested with that mantle. I have also read of him being called a “cusper”, by which is meant someone born on the cusp of the baby boom (and, by extension, on the cusp of the baby bust).

As I noted above, the scope of the baby boom is differently defined. Sometimes people of my age are included, and sometimes not. I certainly feel no solidarity whatsoever with the baby boom generation, and their experiences were not my experiences. Kennedy was assassinated before I was born, so I have no memory of it. I did not listen to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and I was rather too young to participate in the Summer of Love or any VietNam war protests. When Thirtysomething was the most popular show on television I was in my twenties.

It should be clear from the above that I do not share the common experience that many people of the baby boom generation had in looking to JFK as the great hope and inspiration of their times. Certainly Barack Obama plays that role today. But I am carefully defining my stance vis-à-vis Kennedy only so it can be clear that, when I invoke the man, it is not as the symbol that he usually taken to be, but for what he offers for those of us for whom he is history only.

When I read Kennedy’s speeches, it does not speak to me as a part of my life. On the contrary, it drives home the difference between his age and ours. And much has changed. There is one speech in particular that I admire, both for what it says about his time and for what it says about our time. And, from the foregoing, it should be obvious that my admiration is not for the personal charisma of the man who inspired so many baby boomers, but for the actual ideas to which he gave voice. And the speech that I admire is not the one with the famous line, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I always hated hearing that all the years I was growing up. I cannot work up the slightest enthusiasm for self-abnegation, especially self-abnegation in favor of the state. After what the twentieth century taught us about state power, we should be suspicious ever after of any claims made on behalf of the state over the individual.

The Kennedy speech I admire is rather less well known. It was a speech at the America Cup Dinner given by the Australian ambassador to the American and Australian crews competing for the America’s Cup on 14 September 1962, at Newport, Rhode Island, sometimes called the “sea” speech.

“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes , and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.”

The whole of this speech is readily available online. I feel this commitment to the sea of which Kennedy spoke, and there is no place that I feel more at home than on the Oregon coast. I take a large part of my identity from my proximity to the Pacific Ocean.

This paragraph from the speech is a wonderful and effective evocation of naturalistic thought. The fact that such a poetic tribute to evolution would be unthinkable in a presidential speech today shows how far we have come. And we can’t call the distance we have come “progress”. Another Kennedy speech also underlines the distance we have come. In the famous speech of 12 September 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association Kennedy said:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

I admire this speech almost as much as the “Sea” speech, though in the “Sea” speech Kennedy was obviously speaking from the heart, while the comparatively well-known religion speech had a very specific political motive — to assuage doubts on the part of Protestants about his Catholicism — that makes it less authentic. Nevertheless, Kennedy here explicitly formulated political principles that are noble and honorable.

Kennedy delivering a speech about his religious views to skeptical Protestants.

Kennedy delivering a speech about his religious views to skeptical Protestants.

The last election cycle gave us another religion speech, this time that of Mitt Romney attempting to assuage any doubts that might arise from his Mormonism. Thus, like Kennedy’s religion speech, it had a very specific political motive, but unlike Kennedy’s speech it is ignoble and dishonorable in character. In his speech, Romney stated:

“The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we do indeed trust.”

In other words, if you don’t opt in to his mindless religious universalism, you may kindly count yourself a second-class citizen of this republic, and please be quiet and don’t make a fuss about it. Kennedy’s speech is not only nobler in spirit and aesthetically superior, I also noticed, when reviewing both of the speeches today, that Romney’s speech was more than 2,500 words, while Kennedy’s was just over 1,500 words. Eloquence often demands brevity.

Nietzsche made a remark somewhere about the kind of man whose spirit squints. One might similarly invoke the image of a man whose spirit stoops. This is the impression that Mitt Romney gave. Mitt Romney’s religion speech revealed a man whose spirit stoops. One cannot put it more simply or plainly than that. This is the spirit of our age unfortunately. The smallness of our time is painfully evident when compared even with the recent past.

I realize that I am striking a rather contrarian note on this day of political celebration for many, but, to invoke Nietzsche again, untimeliness is a philosophical virtue.

Munch's portrait of Nietzsche

Munch's portrait of Nietzsche

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