Thursday, December 18, 2008
Poetry and pragmatism
Dear President-elect Obama,
Hi. How are you? I know it’s been a while since we last spoke, but I assure you that I’ve completely gotten over the fact that you didn’t pick me to be your running mate. The guy you picked didn’t do any damage, so all good, I say. In fact, I’ve been pretty well-disposed toward you these past six weeks, unlike that nasty Angry Left® I read about in the papers and those Centers for Advanced Criticism kinda blogs where disgruntled Clinton supporters pretend to be somewhere to the left of Joe Hill. Your cabinet has been meh-to-OK with me so far; I remember that at this point sixteen years ago, Bill Clinton hadn’t gotten around to doing much more than practicing his presidential signature, so I’m glad to see a Democrat taking the transition seriously. And though I’ll never invite Robert Gates to guest-blog, I’m willing to see him at stay Defense over the short term if (and only if!) you’re really going to withdraw from Iraq.
But we have to talk about your inauguration. Seriously: Jamie (he’s my son, you know) has been home sick the past couple of days, so I haven’t had much time to read or write, but I did notice two striking things yesterday afternoon when I checked my Internets. One was that you’d asked poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at your swearing-in ceremony. Dude, that is, like, absolutely the coolest thing ever. Way cooler than Maya Angelou or Robert Frost, seriously. Infinitely cooler than Miller Williams, too. Good call, Mr. President-elect dude. Very, very good call.
And then, a few minutes later, I heard this news about Dr. Rick Warren giving the invocation. My god, man, what are you thinking? Rick Warren alone undoes all the good of Elizabeth Alexander and Aretha Franklin combined. Yes, I know you have your talking points, full of the usual stuff about how you disagree with him on some issues but not others, and how your inauguration will be really diverse, and how you are “committed to bringing together all sides of the faith discussion in search of common ground.” (Ye gods! That’s an actual quote from the executive director of your Inaugural Committee!) But you know what? When someone tries to strip gays and lesbians of basic human rights and
bears false witness lies about the reason why, there isn’t any common ground to search for. Really. Don’t bother. Don’t waste your time and my patience. If, back in ‘64, LBJ had been sworn in alongside someone in the “faith discussion” who opposed what they used to call “miscegenation,” and who claimed that proponents of interracial marriage were infringing on his right to free speech, we wouldn’t call that “bringing together all sides” and “searching for common ground” today. We’d call it . . . uh, what would we call it? “Shameful,” maybe, if we were being kind.
Look, Mr. President-elect, I hear you’re a pragmatist. I can respect that; I’m a pragmatist too. We ought to get together and talk about Dewey and Rorty sometime. So I’m not going to tell you that Rick Warren’s homophobia is an affront to human decency. I won’t remind you that the LGBT community is still hurting, badly, from Proposition 8, and doesn’t need another kick in the teeth just now. I’m not going to direct you to People for the American Way, who point out that Warren “has recently compared marriage by loving and committed same-sex couples to incest and pedophilia,” and I’m not going to suggest that this is a form of batshit fundamentalist wingnuttery that shouldn’t be anywhere near shouting distance of a Democratic administration, no matter how much the wingnut in question loves him some poor people.
Instead, I’m going to ask you, on pragmatic grounds, what is to be gained here. In searching for that elusive common ground, you’ve basically courted the people from those districts that actually went more heavily Republican in 2008 than in 2004—you know, those old white people living in the Smoky Mountains and the Ozarks, the GOP’s only remaining base. The people you’re “reaching out” to here don’t respect you and never will. What’s more, many of them will be dead in a couple of years, and they’ll go to their graves clutching their Left Behind books and spitting at the sound of your name and the Muslim Marxism it stands for. And meanwhile, you’ve alienated pretty much everyone who voted for you. That doesn’t seem very pragmatic to me.
Maybe you’ll tell me to calm down, chill out, and remember that this is only a symbolic thing; the question of who delivers the invocation at your inauguration has no policy implications whatsoever. It’s not like Clinton with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or Bush with just about everything. Well, that’s true—this is purely symbolic. But that’s my point: because Warren’s appearance is purely symbolic, the insult here is completely gratuitous. Or worse: because it’s not pegged to any specific policy, and because there is no “common ground” to be found here (see above), the symbolism speaks all the more clearly. Think of Ronald Reagan kicking off his 1980 campaign by invoking “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi. A purely symbolic gesture—and all the clearer because purely symbolic.
See, with a guy like Gates, you can plausibly argue that we need to transition smoothly and put someone in charge of Iraq withdrawal who knows his way around DoD. With your economic team, you can argue that we need to transition smoothly from the hell-in-handbasket economy we have now to the purgatory-in-knapsack economy of the future. But there’s no parallel argument for a guy like Rick Warren: no one out there is saying “we have to transition gradually from the open homophobia and bigotry of the Bush Administration to the utopian egalitarianism of the Obama Administration, and Rick Warren is part of our carefully phased withdrawal from homophobia. After all, if we move too fast on LGBT issues, we could wind up with man-on-dog situations and people divorcing their spouses for box turtles.” There is no one—really, trust me on this—no one you need to placate with the transitional figure of Rick Warren.
By contrast, the selection of Elizabeth Alexander wins you all kinds of good will among the sixteen Americans who read poetry. It’s like tapping Bleeding Gums Murphy to be the official saxophonist of the inauguration, and thrilling everyone within KJAZZ’s twenty-eight-foot listening radius.
So, Mr. President-elect, as a fellow pragmatist, my advice is simple: dump this Warren guy. I hear he’s a friend of yours; all the better! Part of being a pragmatist at the Presidential level involves dumping “friends” who are wingnutty bigots who piss off nearly every single one of your supporters. And who, besides Warren himself, will be upset at the dumping? Well, you may get a severe tut-tut from David Broder, who’s spent the past sixteen years searching for that bipartisan common ground between Dick Armey and Barney Frank. But that’s about it. And you can establish some real common ground—namely, between you and your supporters—by having Elizabeth Alexander deliver the invocation instead.
You say she’s not a minister? Great! All the better better! We could stand a little healthy secularism in Washington right now. And it would be good for poetry, too – sort of like the lightning that struck KJAZZ’s broadcast tower and boosted the station’s signal so that all of Springfield could hear the work of Bleeding Gums Murphy.
How about it, Mr. President-elect? Do the pragmatic thing.