So yesterday Beyonce and I sang “America the Beautiful.” Oh, and did I mention the other 400,000 people on the Washington, DC mall who joined in? Yeah, fine, it’s a bit of a stretch to say “Beyonce and I” since actually I was watching her on the Jumbotron, and besides that her lips were about five bizarre seconds out of sync with the sound blaring from the speaker tower, but it was a wonderful experience nonetheless. The concert celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama’s presidency was an interlude of almost utopian group dynamics, Springsteen, Garth Brooks, and Usher on the same stage, and everybody, I mean everybody, dancing? In between the songs, various celebrities performed brief readings to build a historical trajectory starting with Abe Lincoln and leading through FDR and the Great Depression, JFK, and Dr. King to the almost unbelievable present, while historical film clips projected iconic mall moments on the ol’ Jumbotron—FDR’s “we have nothing to fear” inaugural, Marian Anderson’s rendering of “America,” JFK’s “ask not” speech, Dr. King’s address to the civil rights March on Washington—and there we were, hundreds of thousands of us in 1932, 1939, 1960, 1962, shoulder to shoulder, only in newsreel black-and-white that seemed almost pre-technological. We had faced, we were being told, immense challenges in the past, and, through America’s amazing capacity to re-invent itself—ourselves—had in every case overcome adversity to become, as a consequence of our own efforts, stronger and, even, better? And now, in the face of two wars, a vortexing economy, and a bitterly partisan political environment, we would take the next step toward our future stronger, better selves, with Barack Obama as our Lincoln, FDR, JFK, King. It seemed incredibly plausible.
Everyone was holding their cell phones over their heads to take pictures— of the sea-like crowd, of the celebs on the Jumbotron. That sentence would have been gibberish to the last generation of mall standers, even if war, depression, and bitter politics were all too familiar. And there you have it: human frailty in all its recidivist glory on the one hand; technological progress as bystander and witness on the other; and between the two, Barack Hussein Obama, next President of the United States, leading the charge onto the gerbil wheel, where I, for one, am happily following.
About the Author: Dan Sarewitz is co-director of CSPO.