I have just spent the better part of the day in front of the television at home, thankful that personal circumstances have kept me from going to work, where I would have surely embarrassed myself in front of my colleagues: the Australian, crying like a baby over the inauguration of a President for whom she could not vote, for a country for which she really didn’t care much when she started working here a few years ago.
Several times over the last few days, I listened carefully to the then-President Elect, as he spoke of Americans as one, of working together to achieve common goals, of tackling each difficult issue on its merits, rather than importing into our decision-making process biases and ideology so entrenched that we don’t recognise their influence upon it.
Today, I listened intently as the new President told us that we had chosen “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” as he reiterated his now familiar theme that we “end the petty grievances and worn out dogmas that have strangled our politics for too long”. Tears rolled down my cheeks as President Obama asked us to consider “what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose”.
A little while ago, I would have dismissed this as a load of wank. Free men and women? Free to do what? For the rich to fund their schools and send their children to summer camp and college while the poor are free to travel 90 minutes on the subway to earn the minimum wage at McDonalds? What common purpose?
I would have been incensed that, in this country, with its practically unbridled individualism and enormous divides between rich and poor, whites and non-whites, in education, health, employment and quality of life generally, such statements, so hollow as to be an affront to the American people, could be made to two million of their faces. How dare the President engage in such Brave New Worldish indoctrination, or at best, promote such fantasy.
But President Obama did not indulge in the arrogant “rah rah go the greatest team in the world” chest-beating that has in part characterised America for me. Rather, he spoke about challenges, and what could be, if people dreamed together, sacrificed together and worked together.
In the cold hard light of day, maybe it is still just talk. But it’s beautiful talk. And, again while I have in the past been squeamish about such barracking for one’s country, or cynical about calls to hold hands across ideological divides (not to mention loathe to do so myself), perhaps it is a good thing for a country’s people to hear. After all, change starts with an idea and then advances with an idea shared.
Sharing these ideas was part of a ceremony infused with history — the simple celebration of the inauguration of a new head of state, who takes the oath flanked by all living previous heads of state, brings people of different backgrounds together and reminds Americans that they are all members of a living union. A union that was formed with the objective of making its citizens’ lives better, together, consistent with values espoused (but certainly not always practiced) by its founding fathers.
Just watching a new President take the oath of office, listening to his vision of the nation and even being put on notice of what he might expect from the citizens of the country, is both an uplifting and sobering experience — one which we are denied in Australia (and not merely because we have a Prime Minister rather than an elected Australian Head of State, but that’s another — albeit in some respects related — matter).
While some election-night speeches might come close, I do not recall an Australian Prime Minister ever addressing the country in the way that I saw President Obama do today, with no other purpose than to mark the beginning of his role in the government’s executive. There are no speeches to reinforce the values of our country, the spirit of our democracy, the collective dreams of all of our people. There is no formal celebration of our parliamentary democracy or the election of the government by the people.
Perhaps Australia could do with a little such pride, a dialogue led by our Prime Minister about how we see ourselves, what our vision of our future is and how we think we’d like to get there — even if it is only in broad, lofty terms upon which we can all agree and which bind us all, into which we can all impute our own values.
Sure, like a lot of people, I’ve skulled the kool aid and its effects will surely begin to evaporate by the morning. And while the realities of governing and attempting to negotiate with legislators — who while they are not so much bound by party discipline, are nonetheless possessed by ideology and belief, not to mention being beholden to interest groups and donors — will undoubtedly frustrate efforts to legislate for the President’s idea of the common good, it would take a hard person to not at least want to believe that seeds of change have been sown.