Under my byline

City on a hill

Posted in Living by Rrishi on 25 January 2009

Triumph and circus

Every four years, Americans reward themselves for their patience during their interminable election campaigns by throwing themselves a grand party. They call it the Presidential Inauguration, and they invite the whole world to watch.

There’s something wholesome about the American love of pomp and ceremony. They like it best when it’s about a collective, and they don’t like it at all when it’s all about one person — like a king or a dictator. Like all straitlaced republicans in history, they shy away from obvious hubris. Above all, they love colourful traditions, and are very jealous of their own, still believing themselves to be a young nation, even though the American republic is, for example, four times older than our own.

This time the whole world really was watching. There was also the extra millenarian charge of the first-ever black president, a smart, young and well-spoken liberal coming to authority in a time of troubles and after eight years of what, to many, was misrule and un-American hubris. More Americans than ever before turned out on a freezing day to “be there”.

TV was on hand, of course, to capture the drama. And where TV is, so are the celebrities who were Barack Obama’s major cheerleaders and are among America’s prime cultural exports. Before the inauguration itself, superstars like Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Shakira and Stevie Wonder performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the western end of the Washington Mall, and during the formal ceremony at the Mall’s eastern end, in the shadow of the Capitol, the “First Lady of Soul” Aretha Franklin sang “My Country ‘tis of Thee”.

Fresh-cheeked boys’ and girls’ choirs serenaded the Bushes and Obamas as they left the White House for the Capitol. As President Bush arrived at the podium and President Obama left, the Marine Corps Band played, without apparent irony, a piece of music entitled “Hail to the Chief”. For the necessary touch of high culture, Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzhak Perlman played classical music — written, however, by the famous film composer John Williams. Because it was so cold and windy, and their instruments so delicate, these musicians synched along to a pre-recorded track — an unflattering fact that was revealed to the world only afterwards.

Meanwhile, TV anchors and talking heads were straining their vocabularies. It’s a “down payment” on Martin Luther King’s promise, one said. “It’s about the possibility of America”, said another. It’s a pilgrimage, a secular equivalent of the Hajj, said a third, which was both apt and amusing. “Every word is historic right now, historians will be watching” — “It’s the world’s inauguration, it’s not just America’s inauguration” — “It’s about hope, rekindling that flame” — and so on.

It was Ronald Reagan, an actor himself, who was smart enough to have the swearing-in ceremony shifted from the relatively cramped east front of the Capitol to the west, facing the public-friendly sweep of the Mall and the secular shrines of past leaders like Lincoln and Jefferson. That act transformed a fairly businesslike event into a self-congratulatory civic spectacle that recalls nothing so much as a combination of ancient Roman triumph and circus.

The funny thing about TV, though, is that it creates a misleading proximity. By bringing viewers close to the action, in effect TV distanced them from the experience. The close-up view we had of the great and the good of the republic, the Obamas included, was one that in real life only a handful of senators and worthies had. For the ordinary Americans celebrating on the Mall, their leaders would have been mere specks in the lap of the Capitol, and even brightly dressed Michelle Obama a tiny green smudge.

The lasting impression of the inauguration, as delivered by TV and Internet, is of something bright and hopeful, but also brittle and fleeting. Watching the republic, and the world, focused on the shining seat of America’s legislature, the distant watcher is reminded of America’s ideals rather than its actuality — like a new Jerusalem, a city on a hill as yet unattained — but towards which another step has been taken.


One Response

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  1. wb said, on 10 March 2009 at 9:28 am

    Nice Rrishi…

    Write more stuff like this. Shines through.

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