Spectacle, I think, is its own excuse for being. It does not arise out of necessity, nor does it come to be as a consequence of some condition or course or action. Its natural corollaries must be hurricane and wildfire; initiated in an instant of unnoticed, unremarked, insignificant eddy or spark, those potent systems come to our attention only as they become big, bigger, enormous, powerful, unstoppable, and they sweep over whatever we consider everyday or normal. So it is with those events in the lives of men and women that for a day or a week or a season consume our attentions and power our passions.
We do love a parade. And a circus. Every four years the Olympics comes to town, some town, somewhere, and there go the cameras, the commentators, the sponsors, the advertisers, and the emotions of millions. Then it's over and there is perhaps a moment of quiet embarrassment as we realize we stayed up late to watch both the opening and closing ceremonies, and not a few of us cried real tears over some skater's triumph or skier's fall, or we actually cared, however briefly, whether this or that runner would produce a vial of urine tainted or pure.
There is Superbowl Sunday and March Madness. Even Public Television puts real news aside and reschedules science and culture and contemplation when the high school basketball tournament season is engaged.
And what drives the local news coverage? Fire, car wrecks, stabbings, shootings, rapes and abductions. All of this, of course, is because the brains of Homo sapiens are built out of several sorts of older, simpler brains and nervous systems, cobbled together through evolution, and they for the most part function smoothly and well enough for us to have done many great and terrible things and to have come very far from the savannahs where we parted company with our ancestors. We have much to be proud of and a great deal to reflect upon and to be ashamed of. And we have some things we can't escape and mostly don't want to. Among these is the primitive, emotional reaction to fire and lightning, to the passions of crowds, the gatherings where anything might happen and something surely will.
And in our modern time we have a far better feedback system than our Medieval or Cro-Magnon ancestors or Homo habilis or Homo erectus before them. We need not take our cues from our neighbors only; we have the print (what remains of it) and broadcast press to fire our collective enthusiasm for the Big Show.
So we came this last week to the inauguration of President Obama.
I am not unaware of the historic nature of the event. When I was a boy and a young man the newspapers almost daily showed photographs of black Americans being ridiculed, belittled, abused, beaten, and not infrequently killed by their neighbors and by agents of the state charged with their protection. That the color of a man or woman is not any longer an impediment to the presidency is a triumph of education and decency and of our ability to (sometimes) help each other rise above our ignorance and bad behaviors. We are not yet an equal society by any measure, not in race or sex or creed or economic class. But we are better than we were in several regards, and that a man with darker than average skin stood up and took that oath of high office must be remarked and studied and celebrated.
But must the celebration be so gross? So overblown, so expensive, so massive, so (like most of our lives, sadly) corporately-sponsored? Probably. It is in our nature. We hang a half dozen large flags when one small one might do. And then we schedule a score of grand balls so that the very rich, the truly useless, the furriers, the limousine companies and the gown designers can ride high and happy while the laundresses and line workers and lettuce pickers wonder if their jobs will be here a week from now.
How many "green" citizens rode or drove to D.C. to stand in the crowd and at what cost to the ecosphere?
And this whole oath business, the Bible, the swearing to God. I know it's boilerplate, pro forma, something you do because the guy before you did it and the ones before him. But if you mean it, you're mixing government and religion, and if you don't, you're just standing there all erect and formal and mouthing blather, so why don't we just have our presidents promise to stay legal, decent and honorable, and to try to be wise and honest and to look out for the least of us?
Estimates vary, and ten million one way or the other makes little difference: about fifty million from the Federal government; up to seventy-five million to support crowd control, law enforcement, transportation facilitation, and emergency services in the states of Virginia and Maryland; something around forty-five million in "party money" from the inauguration committee. Of course the Republicans spent almost as much probably on George Bush, but money wasted (or favors bought, in the case of that portion contributed by corporations) is somehow more annoying and depressing when associated with these winds of change we've all been so excited about since we (finally) figured out how useless and dangerous the Bush administration was.
But it is over, and we can all return to our jobs, if we have them, to our lives, to whatever amuses or excites or inspires us. And President Obama may be the agent of change that he said he would be and that millions of us hoped he could be. No good will come, though, from putting aside our skepticism or making excuses or allowing leeway or deviation. We were too long in the wilderness of ignorance and greed to assume that anything will much improve by saying it will, or by singing it so. George Bush once had approval ratings above seventy per cent. Four days after his inauguration the first bright spatters of blood hit President Obama's cuffs as this new Commander-In-Chief's bombs landed in Pakistan. And every American slaughtered in Afghanistan after the twentieth of January will be laid to his account.
The money still pumps by the billions to banks and incompetent and corrupt corporations. But now it is Democrats and Barack Obama who turn the valve.
Optimism is in order. Doubt will serve us well. Faith should be laid aside. Direct and forceful criticism may help slow if not prevent the already manifested turn toward accommodation with wealth and conventional thinking.
We have elected a black president. It is a great day, and it was a long time coming. But if blackness is a virtue, color a commodity that enriches our collective doings, consider the fact that our new president is, in popular parlance, only "half black." His Kenyan father and Kansan mother might seem to have given us the perfect solution to our racial divide, if we for the moment do not account for our American Indian or Asian or Latino citizenry. But was his mother wholly "white" and his father completely "black"? Likely not. We humans have been too long at the business of recombining our genes; we are too many migrations and ice ages and cultural shifts removed from our descent from the trees for any of us today to imagine we are "pure" black or white.
Hell, we're not even wholly straight or gay, entirely male or exclusively female. We are built out of pieces not only of old reptilian and early mammalian nervous systems, but we are awash in hormones and subject to the seasons and the tides and the Teflon that is in our tissues and the radio frequencies that course through us. We have elected our darkest-skinned president to date. That means something to each of us, but it probably does not tell us much about where he will lead us or how enthusiastically we will go.
He is skinny, marvel the giggling fools describing this president on television and radio? Does this mean a fat man or a short man would not make them so ecstatic?
I make more sense of and find more assurance in nature than I do in culture. I know that plants and animals do what they have to do to survive and grow and reproduce in the environments they inhabit. And I know that what an organism looks like is less important than how it is constituted. There is a tree that grows in Arkansas called the maple-leaved oak, Quercus acerifolia. Genetically, it is all oak, but its leaves are palmately-lobed as any in genus Acer. It may look like a maple, but it will grow acorns, it has coarse, open-grained wood, and it will not yield sugar sap. And I have maples growing in my own dirt that bear leaves you would say are elder or ash or to which you could put no name.
Animals, too, will shrink or grow, elongate, change color, come out by day or by night, eat bugs or bunnies or berries as they move across the face of the Earth by their own volition or are propelled thus by wind or current or continental drift. These surface features, these veneers, are the phenotype of the organism. Its DNA, its inner self, its basic constitution is its genotype. This is eighth grade science, but we forget it to our regret.
Add the further overlay of culture and experience and the corrupting influences of money and power and religion and ego and the animal, this human animal, becomes a very complex and unknowable creature indeed.
President Obama is black. He looks black; he has features we associate with those of millions of Americans whose history, whose very arrival on our soil in chains and servitude, stands in naked and glaring contrast to what we claim our nation is and means and intends to be. It is a great accomplishment that we have so eagerly and effortlessly and happily and by such a majority elected a person of his phenotype as our president.
Will he distinguish himself? Will we regain our sense of decency and proportion? Will we stop bombing innocents? Will we start locking up bankers and businessmen who rob us of millions and billions? Will we haul into the light and deliver justice to the worms and bugs that have infested our government and our corporations for so many years? Or will we compromise too often, make deals too easily, accept small improvements at a time when complete revisions might well be our last hope to save ourselves? Four years from now we will not only know what our president looks like, we will know what he is made of. We will discover the genotype that is his fundamental character.
I ask the geneticists among my readers to grant me this public muddling of their science. Sometimes I use an imperfect tool to dig out a new way of understanding the changing woods through which I walk.
This piece originally appeared in The Wiscasset Newspaper, Wiscasset, Maine.