Searching for the thing with feathers

· Logos/Ethos

 February 3, 2020 

I’m not a glass half-full guy, not by a long shot. In the face of certain grim realities, I’m not likely to conjure hope, what Emily Dickinson called “the thing with feathers”. My glass half-empty bona fides are evidenced by the fact that my journalistic hero is not the courageous Edward R. Murrow, the cerebral George Will, or the morally astute David Brooks, but the curmudgeonly H.L. Mencken, who once famously wrote, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

But at least for today, I’d like to change that. I’m currently writing under the influence of the majesty and pomp of Inauguration Day and the un-Churchillian but earnest speech of President Biden. On the low expectation side, I was simply grateful that he did not return to his tired opinion of white supremacists and latent secessionists that “this isn’t who we are. We are better than this.” Count me among those who say, “No, this is exactly who we are, and we have always been so.”

But the events around the inauguration have stirred me. The cynic within tells me it will be a short-lived emotion, but I really don’t want it to fade. I want to embrace and be sustained by the power that civic ritual has over me. I want to weep, in awe and respect for the goodness of this nation, not in shame over its injustices and defilement. If Joe Biden, in fact, lives this spirit in his soul, I’d like to steal just a little bit of it. I have no idea how he can influence change for the better among our myriad national problems, but he thinks he can and I’m going to try to give him my support.

One thing I can’t do, however, is deny historical evidence. This nation has been tempting the forces of division and secession since before Ethan Allen’s paramilitary, separatist Green Mountain Boys. We succeeded fully in 1861 and have been back at it since backyard militiamen started playing guns in the Michigan woods 25 years ago. Since our current homogenized demographics make a territorial civil war unlikely, we are faced with angry, shadowy domestic terrorists, networked through social media, who may well have outposts on your block. In giving in to the comforting promise of a better day in America, we don’t have the luxury of taking our eye off that ball.

Nevertheless, Inauguration Day began the evening prior when we beatified the lives of 400,000 fellow Americans with a simple but stately installation of lights along the Reflecting Pool. It was stunning to realize that this was the first and only official commemoration of our Covid victims by the federal government. It is a poignant remembrance and I hope it becomes a permanent part of the vista from the Lincoln Memorial.

President Biden’s address will not be remembered among the pantheon of soaring speeches rich in cadence and metaphor but it ought to be remembered as an expression of the aspirations which live deep in the man. Like him, it was unpretentious and built upon the restrained rhetoric reminiscent of the sound of truth. 

I’ll remember this Inauguration Day for a number of things – the absence of exhilarated throngs, the introduction of Amanda Gorman, a remarkable prodigy destined to play a role in our history, and a moment so simple and graceful that I think I’ll carry it with me forever. Lady Gaga, singing the national anthem as if it was truly about our troubled nation and not as a self-serving vehicle for career advancement as most singers do, met the crescendo required of “and the rocket’s red glare” but graced the historical moment with a heartfelt glance back and upwards towards the flag as she sang “and our flag was still there”. What simple movement could better reflect hope for a nation living with insurrection?