Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cynicism, Insidious Cynicism

Like millions around the globe, I watched our new president's inauguration on Tuesday, glued to the television from the moment the crowds were streaming in before the festivities began to the last moment I could keep my eyes open during coverage of the inaugural balls. There was a brief window when we turned off the TV for a bit of wine and cheese before I trucked off to a PTA meeting. Even at the PTA meeting, though, conversation veered between how cute the kids were and how much they were growing up to wonderment at the events of the day and the general sense of relief generated by two simple, wonderful events: the end of the Bush era and the arrival of President Obama.

How sweet it is to type those words.

Without question, the past eight years were marked by a torpor and a malaise. Adequate was good enough. The lack of events proved the triumph of ideological policies. The opacity and lack of respect shown by the administration for the populace as a whole and their clear contempt for the idea that the government could be a tool for good left us beaten and complacent. As I listened to a piece on NPR last week about Dick Cheney, it occurred to me that I had become so numbed by the cynicism that I had completely forgotten some of the truly egregious things that had happened during the reign of error.

The fact that President Obama's movement has been able to stand this cynicism and complacency on its head is — to my mind — just as powerful as the historical significance of his election. In fact, I'm tempted to say one could not exist without the other. It was his power to inspire millions of people and to engage the communities around the country that brought the change. And based on my conversations in the past few days, it may be that same power that truly helps to lead our country forward.

I have heard and read commentators who believed that Obama's speech did not soar, that it did not rise to the heights he had reached in past speeches. But I have to reject that. The speech we watched was quiet, determined, and powerful. Those who say it fell should watch it again, or read the following:

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.


Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

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.


We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.


And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.


For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.

It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.

It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.


...What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.


At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Clear, determined words with one powerful message: Together, we can do better.