Obama Inauguration

I cried. I knew I was going to cry even before the benediction was given. In fact, my eyes were moist from the moment Obama appeared on the platform.

This must be the last posting on the Obama inauguration on the planet. My only excuse is that I was on the downward slope from feeling sickly to being really, really sick the night of the inauguration. It was night here, 12N in Washington, DC was 10:30PM in the Sri Lankan time zone. (Yes, Mom, Sri Lanka has its own time zone.) I had napped after dinner and Kris woke me at 10PM.

I cried for two reasons. The first is the one everyone recognizes as historic, the election of the first African-American president of the United States. The first presidential election of which I can recall anything was in 1960. There were serious questions at the time about whether or not John Kennedy, as a Catholic, could (politically) or should (as a matter of policy) be elected president. After all, through his church affiliation, Kennedy was supposed to obey the Pope’s directives. In the event, he was elected, and though I am a bit cynical about all the accolades laid at his feet after his assassination, he served well and, more importantly, truly led the Nation. We have come so far from 1960.

In 1960, white America did not know black America. The only points of contact were in the city slums or the rural South. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was still seven years from release, James Whitmore in Black Like Me is still four year’s off, the Civil Rights Movement is active, but the Nation is only starting to pay attention. Sure there were lots of people who would never vote for a black man for any office out of active racism, but there were many more who just would not know what to make of it, and so would not vote for a black man for any office out of ignorance and confusion. And I use “black man” as opposed to “black person” quite deliberately, since politics was not considered a suitable occupation for a lady, either.

Much has happened since then. Probably most of it, as painful as it was, had to have happened. Thank God for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his philosophy of non-violence or it would have much more painful and taken much longer to heal.

In 1986, I was in graduate school in physics at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was an activist time in my life. I co-authored a report with other physics grad students and attended a hearing opposing the City of Seattle’s cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA, lately of Hurricane Katrina infamy) in setting up evacuation plans for the city in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I signed a petition opposing the deployment of Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense system.

In addition, I became involved, for the first and only time really, in presidential politics. Jesse Jackson was making a run for the Democratic nomination. I had spent 1972-6 as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, on the South Side of Chicago. I was  horrified to see the conditions that most blacks had to live with on the South Side, conditions for which they were actually expected to pay rent! If I had to live like that, I would be angry, too. In fact, being students living in Hyde Park, we got a just a tiny taste of being treated like blacks by the local merchants and slumlords. The University of Chicago ran its own police force, the fourth largest police department in the State of Illinois at the time, at least partially to keep its students from getting  a taste of how the Chicago PD treated slum residents.

And in this milieu, there was Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson had not quite inherited the leadership position left by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he certainly represented that tradition. Jackson’s oratory was powerful, as compelling as King’s own, gospel preaching turned to political  ends. Being in Chicago, I heard both sides of his message, the challenge to white America, but also his challenge to black America that I don’t think was heard by many whites outside Chicago. Jackson’s challenge to white America was to heed King’s call for “justice to rain down like water.” But unlike many black leaders at the time, Jackson also had a challenge for black America and it was a difficult one, one that has not been fully addressed to this day. There was an obvious fact staring anyone in the face who was willing to look: that much of the misery inflicted on urban blacks was inflicted by other blacks. The Black Muslims could see it, but preached hate and separation as the cure. Other black leaders might have seen it, but while they had the courage to “tell truth to power,” they did not have the courage to “tell truth” to their own people. But Jackson saw it and spoke to anyone who would listen.

In 1986, I wanted Jackson heard beyond the South Side. While I may have known he would be unlikely to get the nomination, I wanted his views on race in America as part of the Democratic platform. And I wanted to hear other views, on other topics, that this courageous man had to offer. And he was making a serious run, winning three Democratic state primaries, collecting 20% of the primary votes. With thousands of my fellow Washingtonians, Kris and I went to our local caucus to make our views known. I will save the story of my being selected as a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Convention committed to “Uncommitted” for another time.

Jesse Jackson ended up disappointing me. He was not the force that Martin Luther King, Jr. was. He could have taken on several political jobs that would have advanced his agenda, but he ended up sitting and sniping from the sidelines in mostly predictable, unhelpful ways. But my point in bringing up Jackson’s candidacy in 1986 is, that for the Democrats to have nominated him in 1986 would have been nominating a black man to be president in order to bring race to the forefront and deal with it as a primary issue of the age. But Obama’s nomination was fundamentally different, at least for white America. Obama was nominated not because he was black. He was nominated despite being black. His color was largely secondary to the campaign, the campaign was fought on the issues. And I think that this election thus marks an even more significant milestone for America than electing a black man because he was black. I could not be prouder for America than I was on inauguration day, 2009.

But there was a second reason that I cried. Kris will testify when my sobs reached their peak when Obama intoned during his (First) Inaugural Address: “We will restore science to its rightful place…”

Knowing that I am a scientist, you might think this just rooting for my own profession, but it goes far deeper than that. There has been a “War on Science” in our country that was being fueled actively by the Bush administration. It was, moreover, a “War on Reason” one of the founding principles of our country. Reason was attacked from the Left by “if only”  Marxists, by “postmodernists,” and fuzzy-headed liberals with no ability in quantitative reasoning or ability to make tough choices. Reason was attacked from the Right by extremists for whom ideology triumphed over fact, over common sense, over reason, over practicality. These are not the values of our Founding Fathers. They were guided primarily by the progressive thought of their day, the Enlightenment. They were wholly sick of endless wars fought in the name of iconoclastic religion. It is no coincidence that Benjamin Franklin was both a prominent scientist and a leader in helping form the new Republic. No coincidence that Jefferson had cut-and-pasted himself a Bible he could believe in, wrote a treatise on the natural history of Virginia, sent Lewis and Clark to explore the headwaters of the Missouri River, and was a key political theorist in creating our founding documents. (I get so mad at the Right for co-opting our Founding Fathers. The only way they can do so is by distorting the historical record beyond belief. If he were alive today, Jefferson would be a Democrat!)

And did it not chill your blood to hear Obama talk about our ancestors’ struggles for us? Not for white Americans. Not for African-Americans or Asian Americans, or Native Americans, or any hyphenated Americans. Just Us. He said, for example, “For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.” Think about those wars, how different the demographics of the country were at the times those wars were fought, how different the demographics of those in power and those doing the fighting when those wars were fought. When the first black president of the United States legitimately could have been talking about how his election was signal moment in race relations in the US, instead he was saying that we are, and always have been, one people. That we are defined as a people by our belief in America’s ideals, not by the last stop each of our ancestors made before coming to America.

And that is a great thought. Let’s stop arguing about who the “real” American’s are, how long you or your ancestors have to be here before you are a “real” American. Instead, let us ask who, whether your ancestors came on the Mayflower or you crossed the border yesterday, who is going to pick up a shovel and join in with all of us in digging ourselves out of the hole we have gotten ourselves into and who will join in with all of us in fighting for our founding principles of justice for all, the rule of law, and a government of the people.




  1. Charles said,

    January 28, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Tim, like you, I too was very moved by the fact that Barack H. Obama was elected the 44th President of the USA. After 8 years of Bush rule (or misrule), anything would smell roses. All newly elected Politicians usually enjoy a period of honeymoon with the people but disappointments creep in when deeds fail to match the past rhetoric. As I read somewhere, an old American aphorism has it that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Obama is an excellent orator. I am hopeful that he would adopt an even-handed approach to dealing with problems both local and global.

    But I was genuinely disappointed at Obama’s pointed lack of mention of the native Indians in his inaugural address. It was their country the Americans took and there was no mention of the people who were sidelined. The native Americans suffered much more than the blacks did in America. Over coats infested with smallpox virus were handed down to hapless Indians who died by their thousands. Bison was slaughtered to make the Indians helpless and starve. Their land was literally stolen and a proud people were confined to reservations. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave! Thomas Jefferson when discussing the harm done to the Indians, once remarked: “I shudder to think that God is just”. “When the truth is replaced by silence”, as the Soviet dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko said, “the silence is a lie”. So, I feel such a good man as Obama (or his speech writer Jon Favreau) should have mentioned the Native Indians in his speech. It takes a great man to say sorry. A great nation like America should not suffer from collective amnesia. Just 46 years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, we have a Black President in the White House. Mission Accomplished. It is only in America that such an event is possible. It therefore speaks well about the people.

    In Sri Lanka, every time a politician loses, we cry, because he would be replaced by a worse rascal. Our politicians promise less and plunder more. Even when they try to pull wool over our eyes, they use cotton instead. There is a joke about a Polish nobleman who threatens his Jew with death if he does not teach his beloved horse to read and write. The Jew asks for 3 years to accomplish such an arduous task. When his wife hears of it, she exclaims: “But you know you cannot teach that to a horse!”. The Jew calms her: “Three years is a long time. By then either the horse or the nobleman will have died”. Our politicians ask for 4 years.

    I too am glad that Obama has emphasized the need to boost science education. I.I. Rabi once exhorted his students to switch to politics from Physics. His logic was that the world needed scientists to solve global environmental problems. The launching of the Russian satellite “Sputnik” led to massive investment in science and contributed to the material welfare of the people. So, let’s give Obama a chance. If he can resolve the financial crisis at home, and the on going conflicts in Palestine and Afghanistan, he would change the world. But that’s asking for much.

  2. Anna said,

    January 29, 2009 at 10:07 am

    The president’s speech was moving. I was especially impressed with his call to all Americans to help this country, and us as a people, in a time of need.

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