Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gales All Around

Inauguration Day here has dawned cold but clear. I was a bit surprised because the 1am shipping forecast had begun with the news "Gales, Force 8 in all areas except Cromarty". Those carefully carved regions of irregular shapes cover the ocean from Iceland down to Spain, around Ireland (both of them), and all of this little island that I call home. Gales at sea can stay there or they can roll onto us with force. So for now, the day is clear, but the gales are there and their impact is not known.

It seemed an apt analogy to the pending inauguration day: great optimism with an awareness of storms at sea.

Much has been made on the news about the similarities between Lincoln's train to Washington, D.C. and that of Obama, including the fact that there is a threat of assassination now as then. Violence runs through American history like a burn through peat: sometimes in spate and dominating the landscape; other times out of sight, but never far away.

Racism, or racialism as it was in John Brown's time, is the tragic flaw of American history as seen as a Greek tragedy. By agreeing to keep that ugly little secret of a compromise too far to preserve the fragile new country it has grown up like a tree around a stone--strong, healthy but permanently disfigured.

Those are the chronic gales--the familiar but unwelcome part of the climate of the country. Uncle Sam, the personification of America, is an uncle given to unfortunate fits of temper and antisocial behaviour. He embarrasses me, and I have argued with him and refused to go along with his tirades from time to time, but I have always been there with hangover remedies and rolled up my sleeves and cleaned up the messes made as best I could.

I put up with Uncle Sam's inexcusable behaviours because he has with that same violence and dark energy managed to carve an amazing experiment out of a raw country. Land hungry Europeans went to America for a little patch of ground to call their own. It was not free. Land speculators had gotten there first. Not free, but cheap enough that ordinary people could carve out a life that would otherwise have been impossible.

Uncle Sam is at his best when he engages his enlightened self-interest--the conviction that a rising tide lifts all boats--and then he makes the tide. From time to time this self-interest has become unenlightened. From the safe distance of history, we can look back on the post civil war era of a failed reconstruction when, rather than stitch the country back into its best self, the great barbecue of President Grant led to plundering and despair that replaced legalized slavery with economic slavery that kept generations deprived of their share of the American dream.

When Bush was elected, my heart sank. I envisioned a new generation of carpet baggers swarming not only over the carefully preserved wild parts of America and all those with a small share of the American dream but also over the treasures of a culture far away where they hoped to avoid the watchful eyes of those like myself who shook our heads. It has been even worse than I could have imagined. That legacy of unenlightened self-interest is another one of the gales swirling around Washington on this inauguration day.

There have always been gales around America. Perhaps that is why I am not as worried as I should be. America was born in the small space created between the wars of the European giants of the time and it fought Britain again less than a generation later to show that it meant it. It has convulsed and reinvented itself several times. That resilience is founded on the belief vested in so many people that they can make their own destiny. Americans are far too fond of Uncle Sam to let him go on with his tirades for too long. The inauguration today is, among many other things, a collective "enough is enough" to the spree of the past eight years. More importantly for me, it is a return to enlightened self-interest. Not every black child in America can grow up to be president, but they can grow up to be a bigger part of their country and feel welcome in it. Obama in the white house is dusting off the welcome mat to the American dream. Martin Luther King reminded us that the check given to black Americans had come back unpaid. Now Obama is making good on that check and telling every single person that they can take their dream out of the cupboard or the rubbish heap and dust it off and get on with living it.

No one ever told any of the Americans that it would be easy. That has never really been a part of the American dream. And so I took great hope from having Martin Luther King's birthday become a day of service. Community service should not be a punishment reserved for those who offend the laws; it should be a way of life, a weaving together of the us and them that forges a community from a collection of individuals. I plan to celebrate the inauguration both by watching the event and by recommitting myself to helping my first country into its best self. The same group of American ex pats that helped me find my way through the bureaucracy to vote for Obama have continued their involvement with service activities. I have decided to spend a little time writing letters to service men and women recovering in hospital. When Uncle Sam took us to war, I said No, but I respect and support those who answered their country's call. That's part of the dream, too, we have room to disagree with each other and then sit down with a cuppa and look after each other.

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At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a suspicion that whoever advised Obama to emulate Lincoln's train journey didn't think the whole thing through.
If I remember correctly it was shortly after that journey and Lincoln's inauguration that the Civil War between the States started.
Somebody please calm my nerves and tell me things are not really that bad over the pond.


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