Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Hail to the King?

Examining the substance of Barack Obama’s rhetoric, an article in January’s Prospect noted that, not only is there nothing particularly audacious about hope, but if the formulation were reversed to read, ‘the hope of audacity’, it would make little difference to either the meaning or content of the phrase. It was an observation which returned to me as I listened to Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday.

The address was not to my taste. Upholstered by metaphor and platitude, it sounded like narrative from a Hollywood movie. American presidents frequently do. There were traces of a significant message, but it was difficult to disentangle from high flown, meaningless speechifying.

Burke’s Corner takes the US to task for ignoring its own Lockean myth in its inauguration ceremony. It forms less a celebration of sovereignty which rests with the people than a quasi monarchical coronation. Obama is elected whereas our own head of state is not, but it is hard to disagree that this distinction can be rather lost in the pomp and circumstance.

The News Letter reports that the new president might grace Northern Ireland as early as April. If he does pay us a visit it will not be the best day to be a motorist in Belfast.


yourcousin said...

While I attempted to avoid as much of Obama as possible (from Iowa, to Denver, to yesterday) I would note a couple of things. It is not hard to make a distinction. Your head of state is there simply due to the fact that they were born. Nothing else is required of them. Maybe they have to wear a crown and a cape every once in a while. Our head of state is their because they were voted in. IE "the people" or the myth of them anyways filled in the little box next to their name. Now obviously the electoral college tweaks this a bit, but still better than knowing that Harry or William will someday be head of state based soley upon their lineage.

A would also note that in Burke's Corner,

"It is not the voice of 'We the People' that is heard defining a political culture, but the voice of President Obama. It is not the numberless stories of the diverse multitude that are supposedly the constituent parts of 'We the People' which define America, but the narrative of Barack Obama."

And yet it was the narrative of "the people" or at least a section (a large section) of them that Obama invoked yesterday. Indeed I would argue that his "narrative" which Burke's corner argues silences the masses was actually crafted by the masses and pressed upon Obama. He has consistently ducked the question of race and indeed acknowledges that it was his wife who introduced him to "black" culture. But to many people out there he was the great black hope (so to speak) and his narrative from yesterday was crafted by that fact and was influenced greatly by their wishes and expectations.

Well, if you excuse me I've got to run and have a baby. And yes my wife isn't too thrilled that just prior to leaving for the hospital I'm jabbering away on some blog, but oh well.

Chekov said...

But then in the UK power does not reside so disproportionately with one man. The head of state is the King / Queen in Parliament.

I think what BC was getting at was the pivotal role that history and tradition plays in shaping the US constitution, even though it is written down.

Anyway, the important stuff. Good luck having the baby! I hope your wife is also some help in that. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Trust all is well with yourcousin, wife and baby.

Just a few points - having a head of state elected or not ... does it really matter? Is life in the UK materially impacted by having an un-elected head of state?

As for the contention that "the people" elected President Obama, this where the myth really starts.

The number of Americans who voted against Obama + the number who didn't participate is much greater than the number who voted for him.

As for those who did vote for him, their motivations were diverse and disparate ... and could change many times before the next election.

At best, we can that a majority of those who voted in November consented to Obama being President.

And all that is without even examining the fact that the 'sovereign people' were really not sovereign in choosing who to choose - that happed in the primaries, involving a very small % of Americans.

So, yes, the Lockean Republic is a myth - but a pleasant myth that works reasonably well in holding together a great, diverse nation.

yourcousin said...

Okay been a bit in getting back to this and I'm doing this on borrowed time as I should be putting away laundry while wife and baby get some sleep. Appreciate the kind sentiments though.


But then in the UK power does not reside so disproportionately with one man. The head of state is the King / Queen in Parliament

But if we do take the long view then the King/Queen has historically/traditionally had an extremely disproportionate amount of power up to rule by divine right where they were answerable to none but God. Now this has been whittled down over the years to symbolism, but the fact that the symbol is still there is telling.

Obviously Bush abused the power of the executive branch and this will probably be his legacy especially in regards to constitutional law and what not in the future. That is the idea of checks and balances. I think the fact that it was abused so much is part of the reason why the Republicans faired so badly in the elections.

The constitution while a written document is indeed a living social contract subject to revision as times change. For better or worse, but it does hold itself as a check against unbridled authoritarianism such as Bush's attempts to do away with habeas corpus etc. Not perfect by any means but something.

But certainly I appreciate how tradition and history have often come into conflict with the written constitution and how more often than not the government has been found wanting in defence of liberty.

having a head of state elected or not ... does it really matter?

Most emphatically yes it does. You whittle it down to "materialism" which I feel is missing the point, but then how much does it cost for the upkeep of the royal family? No offense but you can't tell me that the upkeep for the family and estates is cheap, especially for a token head of state who doesn't do anything meaningful in the democratic process.

As for the number of Americans who voted. I would venture to guess that the number of Americans who didn't vote (and I haven't looked at it in quite awhile) outnumbers all of those who voted period (regardless of who they voted for). But democracy does require one to show up to be counted and I would say that the numbers of voters for this election are probably higher than in the last couple elections.

As for reasons why people voted for Obama...You are right to say that there are many reasons and that those might change before the next election, which is true. And if enough of the people switch and don't vote for him then he will be forced out of office by the people or at least the myth of them.

At best, we can that a majority of those who voted in November consented to Obama being President

I think that by participating in the voting process one accepts the validity of the results regardless of which candidate wins. Certainly since 2000 the elections have been acrimonious and filled with controversy but we have yet to see a serious attempt by one side or another to contest the results outside of judicial channels.

Again oddly enough the number of people involved in the primaries was larger than ever before but I do agree that the two party system is fairly narrow but I feel that has more to do with modern capitalism than Lockean politics.

As for myths. Our entire society runs on them, from societal relations (the social contract) to the economy (the free market). It is not just Locke that that propounded a belief that depended upon a willful suspension of disbelief.