Friday, 23 January 2009

The Choice of Hercules

The 44th President of the United States of America - Barack Hussein Obama.

IT was moving – how could it not be? To see an African-American standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, fulfilling the dream enunciated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just two-and-a-quarter miles distant, but forty-six long years ago, was a sight to gladden the heart of all but the most convinced cynics.

And yet … and yet … there was something missing from the inaugural address which Barack Obama delivered to the million-and-a-half Americans who had gathered in Washington’s winter sunshine to bear witness to their new president’s historic triumph.

What was it – this absent, but crucially important, element? It was only after downloading the address from the Internet and reading it through several times that I realised what was missing. Change. Where were the references to change?

In spite of running on the slogan "change you can believe in", in the nearly two-and-a-half thousand words of Obama’s inaugural address the word "change" appears only once. And the context in which the word appears hardly celebrates the power of the human will to transform and/or transcend the circumstances which constrain it. On the contrary, when Obama declares: "For the world has changed, and we must change with it", he is telling his people that when it comes to change they have no choice. A case not so much of "yes we can", as "yes we must".

Why this reluctance to promote the cause of radical change in America – Lord knows if anyone has a mandate to transform the United States of America it is Barack Obama. And who can doubt that a man of his oratorical power could have had that record crowd of citizens chanting "Yes we can!" until the marble halls of the Capitol building echoed with the people’s voice.

The answer, of course, is because a President cannot always have 1.5 million supporters standing ready to endorse his every word. The American republic is a representative democracy like our own, and in practice that means the executive power, when determining policy, is obliged to balance the many and often competing interests of a large and complex society. One can govern neither effectively nor democratically by heeding only your own echo – your opponents have rights too.

And Obama has many opponents – among both the people and the elites – whose opinions and likely reactions need to be carefully weighed and factored into his administration’s decision-making. In this respect the burden Obama has assumed is every bit as great and no less daunting than the one assumed by John F. Kennedy on the Capitol steps 48 years ago.

The man against whose formidable rhetorical skills Obama’s are most frequently compared was sworn in as president at the very peak of the ideological, military, scientific and economic competition between the capitalist and communist blocs. As the leader of the "Free World", Kennedy was required to demonstrate that the USA remained committed to the "revolutionary" ideals of its founders (the words ‘revolution’ and ‘revolutionary’ appear over and over again in his inaugural address) and to reassure the post-colonial regimes of the Third World that America was on their side. Indeed, the bulk of Kennedy’s address is directed not at his domestic, but at his foreign audience. At home the economy was booming, and the great post-war economic and social consensus had never been stronger. The most famous line from Kennedy’s speech: "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" acknowledges this rampant materialism even as it summons America’s youth to the ideals of public service and personal sacrifice.

Obama takes up the office of president at a time of acute economic crisis and ideological uncertainty in America. The great republic’s military power – vast and unchallengeable – has been revealed as an altogether inadequate substitute for intelligent and solidaristic global conduct. At the same moment, the hitherto triumphant dogma of the free market has been revealed as a tawdry exercise in untrammelled individual greed and rampant social irresponsibility. As President, it falls to Obama to lead his people out of this Slough of Despond and back into the light. If his oratory lacked the snap and sparkle of Kennedy’s, it was only because his task was not to prove that the United States was as vital and vigorous as the young man who delivered it, but to bring home to Americans the sombre realities of the crisis their years of heedless narcissism have unleashed upon themselves – and the world.

My old comrade and occasional mentor, Rob Campbell, sensing the magnitude of the task Obama faces, forwarded to me a posting from "The Epicurean Dealmaker" blogsite, based on a classical fable entitled "The Choice of Herakles". Written more than 2,000 years ago by the philosopher Xenophon, the choice which Herakles (or Hercules, to give him his Latin title) must make is between Virtue and Vice. It is a fascinating dialogue, and be it by accident or design it’s ancient themes echo powerfully through Obama’s inaugural address.

Lasting fame and true nobility come not to mortals save through pain and labour. If thou, O Hercules, seekest the gracious gifts of Heaven, thou must remain constant in prayer; if thou wouldst be beloved of thy friends, thou must serve thy friends; if thou desirest to be honoured of the people, thou must benefit the people; if thou art anxious to reap the fruits of the earth, thou must till the earth with labour; and if thou wishest to be strong in body and accomplish heroic deeds, thou must teach thy body to obey thy mind. Yea, all this and more also must thou do.

Thus wrote Xenophon. Now hear Obama:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

Obama knows that if he is to carry his people – supporters and opponents – with him, then he must first convince them that the foundational ideals of the American republic have found a safe custodian. More than that, he must instil in them the understanding that it is only by adhering to those ideals that their nation can grow and prosper. That is why the word ‘change’ appears only once in his inaugural address: because there is only one change that matters; only one change Americans can safely believe in – and that is the change they must make in themselves.


Steve Withers said...

I work with an American woman who thinks Bush was great and that Obama will be the worst President ever. She believes he wasn't a natural born American and his birth certicate is fraudulent. She's not a stupid woman. This is what her Amrican family think. She is standing evidence that the bogus reality of the Bush-backers and faith-corrupted hasn't gone away. It's merely been removed from office.

The fact mean nothing to the faithful. Obama certainly does have his work cut out for him in re-asserting verifiable reality in America. There are tens of millions of Americans who just do not DO verifiable reality.

Carol said...

I am really witholding some of assessment of Obama and his government, until I see exactly what they do. By the time of the inauguration speech I had about had enough of the stirring speeches.

However, there is interesting stuff embedded within the inauguration speech, and as Chris's post shows, it seems to have many layers of meaning constructed through cross references and stylistic features. To some extent this results in mixed messages, but ones that subsequent actions may serve to explain.

The over-riding tone of the speech seems to promote a continuation of, and positive re-casting of, the US imperialist project to dominate the world politcally, culturally and morally. Traditionally this usually means aiming to spread the US's version of democracy, which incorporates an individualistic form of capitalism. In this version, individual freedom and meritocracy trumps any collective drive for social justice.

Certainly I tend to agree with Naomi Klein that Obama so far seems, by his words, key appointments/consultants (Paul Volcker etc) and some policy proposals, to support a continuation of neoliberal capitalism.

Furthermore, the first steps by the Obama government towards the Middle East and Pakistan/Afghanistan suggest a continuation of the US/Western imperalist, militaristic project. That this incorporates a strongly western-Orientalism seems to be supported by the way the inauguration speech draws on classical western culture and politics.

However, re-reading the speech, the most curious aspect to me is the way the speech fails to strongly or even explicitly endorse the traditional US brand of individualism. The speech consistently addresses "we" and "us" and (as Chris has indicated) collective responsibility and effort.

Although, towards the end of the speech, there is an echo of the US dream of indivualistic meritocracy in the recasting of the log-cabin-to-White-House mythology as a civil rights success story. In the context of the speech this serves to resurrect US moral authority that was so damaged by the Bush regime. In doing this it re-invigorates and re-constructs US imperialism in a form suited to the networked information society; a society in which the relationship between the individual and the collective is being re-shaped.

So, I am not totally certain of the direction inscribed into the speech, but suspect it indicates a new approach for capitalism and US imperialism. This approach may be one in which the intensely selfish, acquisitive, consumer-based individualism of the Bush years is put in question, while the collective and individual responsibility is foregrounded.