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President Obama

I was at work last night, but I got to half-watch the inauguration. Wasn't it amazing? Congratulations, you Americans! Hail to the Chief!

Rick Warren seemed to make all the right noises, I suppose, although I was too busy muttering about the separation of church and state to really pay attention. Aretha Franklin (and her hat!) - fabulous! I'm sure the classical musicians were too, but I was mildly perplexed by the musical choice of Lord Of The Dance - I hadn't expected the spectre of Michael Flatley to rise up and disturb the proceedings.

Obama's inaugural address (text and video) was sheer brilliance. And his speech-writer is only 27 - I can't decide whether that's depressing or inspiring. It hit so many great spots, while still keeping in all the religion and uber-patriotism that seems to be compulsory.

There was something for pretty much everybody, which Obama seems very good at. A bi-partisan style of politics seems much closer than it's ever been, and certainly much closer than it is in the UK, even though there's much fewer differences between Labour and Conservatives policies than there are between Democrat and Republican. The two phrases that got (slightly muffled) whoops of joy from me were "we will restore science to its rightful place" and "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers." Wow. Did NOT expect that - at the start of the sentence, I was gearing myself up for some serious tutting and eye-rolling. Non-believers getting a positive mention - what is the world coming to? But looking at the speech again, there's so many bits I could quote with happiness and hope.

Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics.

An acknowledgement that the oil issue is connected to the war(s) America's involved in and of global warming in the same sentence, and then a mention of "data and statistics"! That may be an odd thing to get excited about, but Ben Goldacre's been depressing me about our politicians' and media's grasp of the subject, whereas I suspect Obama knows the value of evidence-based knowledge as well as the more abstract issues he went on to talk about.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

I don't suppose this is anything other politicians haven't said, but I can't help hope that Obama not only means it, but has the competence and imagination to make these principles work.

As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

Yes, yes, 100% yes. "Those who would give up essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety", etc. The constant "security theatre" and eroding of civil and human rights is a far greater threat to our ideals and way of life than any enemy we currently face, and that's true of both the US and the UK. Also cunningly worded to appeal to right-wingers, implying that it's more patriotic and stronger to defend your rights than to bunker down in fear of what might happen.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

Imagine what the world would be like now if Bush had thought like this. (No Team America: World Police, for a start!)

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.

I'm still making internal squeeing noises whenever I see that, although conversations elsewhere have me questioning the "non-believers" terminology. But when 53% of the American public are happy to admit to pollsters that they wouldn't vote for an atheist - and I suspect the true figure is higher - it's something that NEEDS to be said. And repeated, hopefully.

Random Inauguration links:

  • Inauguration video from the LA Times, with a Martin Luther King clip predicting a black president within 40 years, clips from the inauguration, and reactions from various people including the Heroes cast who stopped filming to watch.

  • The BBC Wordles the inauguration speech. Notable lack of "change", there, actually.

  • The new White House site, notably the blog and the technology agenda. "Restore Scientific Integrity to the White House: Restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on ideological predispositions." I <3 you. Please come and govern here. And bring your "safeguard internet privacy" and "improve science teaching" policies, too.

  • CNN's "The Moment" photo blending thingy with Microsoft Photosynth - combines all the photos people have sent in of Obama taking the oath, so you can scroll and drag to see it from any distance and any angle. Technology awe!

  • And Anna Pickard at the Guardian reviews the internet reaction to the inauguration.


( 19 comments — Comment )
Jan. 21st, 2009 07:43 am (UTC)
The reason you're confused by 'Lord of the Dance' is that Sydney Carter's famous hymn is to an adaptation of the tune that was played yesterday -- the Shaker tune 'Simple Gifts'. I think that was a very reasonable choice. I in turn was confused by your reference to Michael Flatley -- and now discover from the Interwebs that Flatley ripped off Carter in the belief that 'Lord of the Dance' was traditional. Surely the highest reward for a writer of modern folk songs; everyone believing your work is in the public domain.

Edited at 2009-01-21 07:47 am (UTC)
Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:13 am (UTC)
Heh - I figured it was an old tune, because I certainly remember singing Lord of the Dance at school, well before Flatley got involved. It's just unfortunate that my immediate reaction to the tune is to start Riverdancing, these days.

I didn't know that Flatley thought it was traditional, though - heh!
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
Interesting! I followed the wiki link through to the Shakers, I'm not sure I've ever heard of them before. But I can see why the song would have been thought relevant, yeah.
Jan. 21st, 2009 09:24 am (UTC)
Rick Warren seemed to make all the right noises, I suppose, although I was too busy muttering about the separation of church and state to really pay attention

The US separation of church and state guarantees freedom of religion (or, for that matter, non-religion), it doesn't mean that a President isn't allowed to have a reverend, pastor (or for that matter rabbi or imam) recite a prayer at his/her inaugeration, on the contrary it guarantees him/her a choice on the issue.
Jan. 21st, 2009 05:20 pm (UTC)
I don't think that's the issue (the right to choose the speaker).

It's more a matter of just how much religion was crammed into a ceremony which put in place the highest ranking member of our government. And by crammed in, I mean highly concentrated in that one man's speech. It was overkill/overload for some of us, such that it felt as if the line between Church and State was being blurred beyond recognition. (Plus, I found Mr. Saddleback Church to be more than a little creepy...)

But, no, I don't think it's a question of the President's right to have the speaker of his choice. I don't equate that with the separation of Church and State.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:22 am (UTC)
I didn't say he shouldn't be allowed to, but to be honest I think it makes a bit of a mockery of the concept of total freedom of religion if Christianity is an integral part of political processes or even political ceremonies, which it certainly is in America.

I would really like to see someone try to have an imam at their inauguration, I think it might show some things about the guaranteed freedom of choice :D The numerous and continual attempts to smear Obama by claiming he was a Muslim don't say much for it, either.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 09:03 am (UTC)
My point is that Obama wasn't required to have a Christian presence at the inaugeration, he chose to have one and this is what the importance of sepration of church and state is. In the UK, for example, the head of state is required to also be head of the state religion (the Anglican church) because we don't have separation of church and state. Obama could, for example, have replaced the reverend with someone reading a poem and constitutionally there would have been no problem. Obama's a Christian so he chose a prayer.

A lot of people forget that the US separation of church and state guarantees freedom of religion (or lack thereof) and no direct church interference in politics, it does not mean that religion has to be removed from state business on a personal-choice basis. For example, it is arguably unconstitutional for a state-run school to require pupils ("students", over there) to attend a religious ceremony but it would not be unconstitutional for that school to have a Christian group operating in its grounds. In the same way it would be unconstitutional to require that the President of the USA has a reverend read a prayer at his inaugeration but not unconstitutional if he chooses to have someone do the same.
Jan. 21st, 2009 09:45 am (UTC)
"Those who would give up essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety"

You're right about the necessity of protecting constitutional rights but I wish people would stop digging up this silly quote and actually think about what it says. Say I'm in a house and there's a party with around 100 people there and someone's murdered. I take charge and order all the doors locked, no one may leave until the police arrive so the murderer can't escape. The guests have given up an essential liberty (being able to come and go as they please) for temporal safety (to make sure a murderer among them doesn't escape), according to that quote they deserve neither which is preposterous. As a more pertinent real-world example, when I have to hand-over a portion of my pay-packet to the taxman to pay for a welfare state that means I don't deserve any liberty? There are situations where a little control over our personal and economic liberty is a good thing (and, indeed can protect our wider freedoms) in both the short term (the theoretical house) and the long-term (the welfare state). I think the issue isn't the arch-libertarian notion that if you surrender any liberty at all then you deserve none but that how much you do surrender ought to be justified, constitutional and done with consent.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:29 am (UTC)
Of course you have to be sensible about it, nobody's saying you can never give up any liberty for any reason. It's more of an ideal to aspire to than a literal instruction, though - encouraging people to actually think about the compromises they're making and if they're worth it. And, of course, we never seem to give up the liberties *temporarily* when it comes to politics.

In other words, I agree with your last sentence, but I don't think that's how it works just now. The tax example throws me a bit, because for some reason I don't see paying tax as an intrusion on my liberty, perhaps because having a welfare state is clearly more important in terms of liberty as well as safety than keeping all your salary is. Hmmm.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 08:56 am (UTC)
The quote is pretty straightforward, though: give up some liberty to obtain some safety and you deserve none. Hence why I think people really need to think about what it actually means.

As for the tax example, well there are a lot of people who don't think Guantanamo Bay, 58-days or even ID cards, to use obvious examples, are any infringement on their personal rights; paying taxes is an infringement on economic liberty but it's done in the structure of a political system based on consent and the welfare state to some extent protects liberty by providing us with services free at the point of use that would economically ruin us if we paid for them on an ad hoc basis. But, by the logic of the quote, it's something to be condemned because we give up a little freedom for safety.
Jan. 21st, 2009 09:57 am (UTC)
I'm still making internal squeeing noises whenever I see that, although conversations elsewhere have me questioning the "non-believers" terminology. But when 53% of the American public are happy to admit to pollsters that they wouldn't vote for an atheist - and I suspect the true figure is higher - it's something that NEEDS to be said. And repeated, hopefully.

I was hugely-impressed when he said "gay or straight" during his victory speech so I was a bit disappointed he left it out this time but, yeah, mentioning "non-believers" in his first speech as President was very heartening. I also loved his dig at the "culture wars" and the nasty, vicious and devisive politics (not all of it from the Right) that have made the American political culture so full of ideologues and paranoics. I doubt Obama can stop that in its tracks but it's good to hear a President actually lay-into it.
Jan. 21st, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
That new robot.txt file is impressive, however, maybe they just haven't gotten around to it yet! We'll see. But it should make for better transparency, that's for sure!
Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:30 am (UTC)
Yes, that is very cool!

I must read all the agendas at some point...
Jan. 21st, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
With the whole non-believer thing, I'm REALLY glad he said it. It's definitely a step in the right direction. I do think it's funny that we "non-believers" are getting all excited for one tiny little mention, yet the whole inauguration was filled with "God this and God that"...but ya gotta start somewhere, right?

Like I Tweeted to Penn Jillette last night when he said pretty much the same thing, I said that maybe someday we'll have an Atheist president. It could happen. I mean, look, a black man just became president and no one thought that would ever happen either! It might take some more time, but the possibility is out there. It took a cultural change of attitude. The same thing will need to happen on the gay/lesbian front as well as the non-religion follower front. Cripes folks, we're all just people, dammit! LOL

It's just gonna take some dialog and effort to make the "believers" out there realize that just because we don't necessarily believe in a "higher power", it doesn't mean that we worship Satan, are evil baby eaters or are out to destroy their way of life. It doesn't mean we can't be good people. In fact, traditionally, most atheists and agnostics adhere to the Judeo-Christian ethic. It boils down to the Golden Rule, really. Treat others as you'd have other treat you. So once the more ignorant (and unfortunately more numerous) of the bible-thumping believers get that through their thick skulls, the closer we'll all be being able to live in harmony. And that one little word, "non-believer" being broadcast worldwide in Obama's speech is definitely a great start!

Great post here by the way, Caz!
Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:33 am (UTC)
Word. (And thank you!)

I honestly can't imagine an atheist US president - and I'm only slightly more hopeful about a UK openly atheist prime minister - but the example of black people and Obama is sooo encouraging. I hope he can help to make some progress on the sexuality and religion fronts too.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 07:48 am (UTC)
British government at all levels is stuffed with non-believers though. It's seriously not an issue here. One of the Whitehall departments did a diversity survey that discovered that they had nearly as many non-believers as Christians. People talk a lot about people being 'openly' this or that; but the British way is normally to just not mention stuff. Whereas it's not just that someone who was openly atheist couldn't be the US President, it's that people look to see the depth of faith of their public officials. In the UK people just don't care very much. On the other hand, somebody who was atheist to the extent that they wouldn't, say, give a reading in church at a memorial service, would have some trouble.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 08:08 am (UTC)
I'm not surprised at the results of the Whitehall department, really, but I'd be interested to see the same done for MPs, or ministers. Didn't Nick Clegg have some trouble when he said (or implied) that he didn't believe in God, and subsequently backtracked a bit? I take your point about being "openly atheist", and it's obviously going to be easier to identify religious people because religion is active where atheism is passive, mostly - the papers aren't looking out for what people don't do, or don't say.
Jan. 21st, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
Isn't it something?



(By the way, your eloquence, as always, is a pleasure to behold.)
( 19 comments — Comment )


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