Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Ones We've Waited For

Heather MacDonald steps into a few confusions when she cites Rick Warren's invocation and then puzzles over the form of its god-free equivalent might take:

“Give to our new president Barack Obama the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity,” Warren said. [transcript]
Such public pronouncements are not mere empty gestures. We cannot take the continued strength of our values for granted; they need to be reinforced in public as well as private settings. Invoking God as the external source of those values is rhetorically and grammatically efficient; we can direct our wish towards someone with the power to grant it. One could rewrite Warren’s optative to remove its purported target—“May our new president Barack Obama possess the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity”—and perhaps that does the trick. The rewrite, which is a common enough form, does raise the question, however, who we think will fulfill our hope. In truth, it is the president himself who alone possesses the power to act with humility, integrity, and generosity, but saying so directly in such a setting is a bit awkward. Maybe it is enough to simply express the hope for such noble behavior in a general way, thus putting the stamp of public approval on the values being affirmed.
Since there is no good reason to believe god exists in the first place, it's even less reasonable to expect him (it? her? them?) to be listening, and still less to expect him to care about what has been asked, and even less to expect him to do as asked. In the face of this rather glaring shortcoming in the presentation, its "grammatical efficiency" is pretty weak tea. And for that matter, there's no shortage of grammatically efficient constructions one could use -- "May the market's invisible hand direct its servant, Barack Obama, to ...", "You who have been so kind to us these past centuries, O Lady Luck, please continue ..." etc. -- illustrating that "grammatical efficiency" is to public pronouncements what "let's be friends" is to romance.

I don't think MacDonald would disagree with anything I've said -- she is not a believer -- but I also think she is puzzled only because she has recoiled before its implications. Perhaps it is "awkward" to acknowledge it, but it is the president who will preserve, protect, defend, and affirm our values or fail to. And the judgment of whether he succeeds or fails will come from us and from future generations. We're the ones we've been waiting for, you might say -- and not because we are or must become exalted, heroic, idealized versions of ourselves but because there is no one else. We are responsible for very inch of progress and regress, now and always. There is no god, and nothing else superhuman or supernatural, to praise or blame or implore for what has happened and what comes next.

No, we certainly cannot take our values or their continuation for granted. Affirming them in public is a good thing. But doing so properly involves, it seems to me, a reality-based account of how we attained them and how we have protected them to date. It is worth noting -- perhaps not yelling, but just noting -- that none of the invocations of god in past inaugurals has had a thing to do with it. From the start, we have been the ones we've been waiting for.

MacDonald continues:
But there is another problem. Without officially-designated God-channelers, who should issue such public blessings? Can one public official do so for another? We have decided that preachers carry the moral authority to speak for the whole; it’s not obvious to me who stands in their place without the concept of God.
This was abundantly answered last Tuesday. Who came forward to affirm our values? Former presidents, existing members of Congress, members of the military, accomplished performing artists, a public intellectual or two. Reverend Lowry was selected to deliver a benediction not because he has an actual pipeline to a god -- people claiming such a pipeline are as common as termites -- but because he is bodily connected to the civil rights struggles. Aretha Franklin carried much the same affirmative symbolism, as well as embodying the excellence in the arts for which the USA is renowned. That same excellence put the Perlman-Ma-McGill-Montero quartet on the stage. And so on.*

Be it awkward or inefficient, let the grammar carry the truth: we're the ones.

* Rick Warren was selected because ... um ... because he represents the all-too-American struggle against being a transparent social-climbing asshole? Not sure.

1 comment:

larryniven said...

I dunno, man - I think that's a coward's response to call direct confrontation awkward. Unless I'm mistaken, people do this all the time, even at public functions. They sort of half-turn their head towards the person and say something like, "You ran a campaign infused with [insert values in need of reaffirming here], and the White House needs those values now more than ever. Your country is desperate for you to display them in office, but we all have faith that you will." And so on. What, exactly, is awkward about that? You even get to name-check faith or belief if you want, but the main thrust of the message is that we (the people) elected you (the inauguratee, so to speak) basically because we thought you'd display the right virtues, so could you please not screw that up. Seems straightforward enough tom e.