Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Puritanism and the inauguration

Sometimes I think I'm basically a libertine but with a puritan streak a mile wide - on other occasions I think it's the other way around. I say this as a way of trying to impose a bit of structure on the thoughts cluttering up my mind after watching Obama's inauguration because it's this theme of puritanism that keeps recurring.

Part of this has to do with the content of the speech itself. I heard and welcomed what most people heard and welcomed - what I assume is an implicit rejection of torture as well as the illiberalism of the measures introduced under the Patriot Act and so on.

Others noted the "tough-mindedness" of the speech, with its call for sacrifice and struggle and all that. But in this context there was one line that struck me as being remarkably puritan - and it was the reference to people who who "prefer leisure over work". Very Protestant Ethic, it seemed to me - but maybe that's because I'm a lazy bastard. Weber's point, though, is that the notion - which is implicit in what Obama says here - that work per se is a virtue is something that has religious roots because it is from the perspective of individual utility, irrational.

This brings me to the other part, which has to do with people's responses. Chris Dillow's, for example, is way too puritan for me:
"Instinctively, I don’t share the left’s excitement about today’s inauguration of Barack Obama... It’s just another chief executive taking a job that he’ll probably do more or less averagely."
How Calvinist is that? The man should be made an honorary Scotsman, I tell you. From the March on Washington to walking into the White House - just another inauguration like any other? Nah.

Having said this, I think on balance I prefer this slightly Vulcan approach to that of people like Polly Toynbee - someone I often think of as a bit of a puritan herself. Here, though, she's got religion alright - but it's of the happy-clappy variety:
"There has never been a day like it for Britain's postwar generations. As that inauguration speech echoes out, the globe itself seems to inhale a mighty, collective intake of breath, frighteningly audacious in its hope.

A BBC World Service poll shows a tidal wave of optimism about what Obama will do, spread out across a rainbow of nations. Here is the world's wish list: first save global finance from ruin; next get out of Iraq; then fix the climate and bring peace to the Middle East. Yes he can, is the world's expectation."
Because the world has just elected Santa, you see - and to suggest otherwise is just lazy British cynicism.

I get the sense there's a few people out there that wish they were American today. David T's taken it a bit far though. Ain't much to this post: chunks of the speech are reproduced with the only comment being, "These were the moments at which I wept, with pride." What kind of pride is that, then - national pride? I didn't know he was American* - there was me thinking he was an English lawyer with a blog about Muslims.

Methinks Norm's got the bug too - albeit in his characteristically more understated way:
"It's hard to imagine a British leader speaking like this. But is America the poorer for the fact that its leaders should be able - and also willing without embarrassment - to call on a tradition of high rhetoric and practiced eloquence in cementing civic loyalty and affirming allegiance to democratic ideals? Yesterday, it didn't look like it."
High rhetoric and practiced eloquence? Bits of it were very good but I'm afraid I think Rosie Bell's right ("I expected him to say, "Lo" at some point"): soaring rhetoric that soared just a little too high - this being down to the excess of hot air. No, America isn't poorer for its capacity to stage an occasion like this - just different. There are a number of reasons why Norm is right: it is indeed difficult to imagine a British leader speaking like this but one reason is a feature of the American Presidency that I think both Norm and Chris haven't taken proper account of in what they have written about this. It is that the President of the United States is the head of the executive and also Head of State. Therefore - and apart from the peculiar significance of Obama's election - a certain amount of pageantry, ceremony, dare I say magic - is appropriate for someone who is clearly not just another chief executive. Not so for a "British leader", if by this Norm means a Prime Minister. Perhaps some would welcome it but for myself if a British Prime Minister produced a speech like this, I'd want to know: who died, and who changed the constitution, and made them Head of State?

Barack Obama's election is for a nation with a history like the United States an achievement in itself. For those who have been unable to recognise this, the word cynical might be a little harsh - but not entirely inaccurate. His election is welcome for a host of other reasons too. I'll stick with habitual partisanship and list "Not a Republican" as chief amongst his perceived qualities. Beyond this I think some people could do with calming down a bit. I'd suggest it might be an idea to judge his Presidency by his deeds, rather than his words. But I suppose that's a rather puritan thing to say.

Sorry for going on - here's an uplifting song. Polly Toynbee's in the third row, second from the left.

Update: *But apparently he is - so that's that bit spoiled.

Norm responds here. I don't disagree that "in the US politicians are generally much readier than they are here to resort to high-sounding appeals". In general, Americans are much more idealistic and positive, aren't they? This is why I could never live in America. Even by Scottish standards, I'm a miserable git; in the US I'd end up being sectioned as a depressive.

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