Smile Politely

The World in a Bean

In 1970, the French theorist Roland Barthes wrote a 271-page book titled S/Z. Bit by bit, the essay examined the 34-page story “Sarrasine,” by Honore de Balzac. Barthes unraveled every word, phrase, line and comma in the story, naming each according to their cultural codes.

In the end, the meaning of “Sarrasine” had become something beyond anything Balzac could have imagined. It became a text that contained the whole world. As Barthes wrote in the very first line of his essay, “There are said to be certain Buddhists whose aesthetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean.”

Like everyone else, I have been listening to and re-reading President Barack H. Obama’s inaugural address, going over it with a fine-tooth comb. The pundits can’t agree on the greatness of the text — Leonard Pitts thinks it is “miraculous,” while Karl Rove heard it as an “angry frenzy of untruths” — and these differences of opinion only add to the speech’s dizzying potency.

Roland Barthes is dead, but I have a feeling every word in Obama’s speech will be parsed to within an inch of its life eventually and repeatedly, year after year. I have been sitting here staring at the computer screen, a post-inauguration vacuum in my head since the evil Elvis left the building, so I thought I might as well start in on the dissection, tackling the speech that kicks off the rest of our lives in these United States of America.

First line:


“My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you’ve bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”

Linda Hirshman pointed out in The New Republic that by saying “My fellow citizens” rather than “Americans,” Obama is calling on everyone to fulfill the “civic responsibilities we’ve misplaced.” The previous inhabitant of the White House told us to go shopping in the face of adversity. Obama isn’t pulling any punches. He is telling us this is going to hurt a little, right from the start.

The next line offers perfunctory thanks to GWB, #43, for “his service to our nation.” Obama gets this ceremonial requirement out of the way quickly. It’s almost like saying “buh-bye” to the guy and pushing him into the airplane headed out of town.

Obama then comments on the oath of office he had just bumbled through, thanks to Justice John Roberts’ perhaps subconsciously subversive prank. If anything shows the importance of the minute aspects of language, it was this slip. The oath had to be redone later, to make sure every comma was in place.

“The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace.”

By using a water metaphor, Obama invokes memories of Katrina, the potential floods of climate change, of recent tsunami. In fact, the water of the downed plane in the Hudson comes to mind as well. And the term “sea change” has been bandied about again and again in the past weeks.

He then calls upon “this generation of Americans.” Obama is declaring that we are a new generation, no matter what our literal age. We are putting away our childish things (his well-chosen Scriptural reference). He is setting us apart and telling us to grow up, while the would-be emperors are rolling away in their wheelchairs and being booed off the tarmac.

To use another Scriptural reference, “Behold, all things are become new.”

Then, Obama punches. He hits hard, conjuring up “gathering clouds, raging storms, in the midst of crisis, at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred, economy badly weakened, homes lost, jobs and businesses gone, health care unaffordable, schools failing, our planet threatened by our misuse of energy.”

But who does Obama blame for the catastrophe? Not 43. Rather, Obama blames “greed,” “irresponsibility” and ultimately “our collective failure.”    

It’s our fault. Together.

And now we have to fix it.

Without the fear-mongering, which was the stock in trade of the previous administration, that blamed everything on others, on evildoers, on the different, on outsiders, on the rival football team, Obama says it is our own damn fault and, yet, not to worry. No-drama Obama says, like a confident Tim Gunn with a motley crew of dress designers buried in tattered fabric, we are just going to have to “make it work.”

“Terrorists” are not named in the speech. “Evil” is not named in the speech.

Race is given one mention in one paragraph with a poignant and pointed historical reference.


“Men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

9/11 is not invoked, nor is it made into a rallying cry.

Iraq and Afghanistan both are mentioned once, in reference to our leaving them alone.


“We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”

Iran is not mentioned, nor are Israel or Palestine.


“And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken — you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

This is the only line conservatives like Cal Thomas liked, but they need to put away their childish things, methinks, even though Obama tossed them this bone. And those “inducing terror and slaughtering innocents” might easily have been pointing a finger at Israel, given recent events. I believe this was stated in just this way with complete deliberateness.

Finally, although I’ve hardly begun the task of dissecting the speech and have ignored some of the best lines entirely, the New York Times noted just today that the speech mentions two things that Presidents never, ever mention, particularly in an opening address: atheists and Vietnam.

In invoking the many hardships faced by all Americans over the generations, Obama talks of those dying at Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn, the 1968 battle in Vietnam.  
Obama’s welcome to “nonbelievers” is his celebration of the strength of our “patchwork heritage.” America is the ultimate proof of his inclusivity.  

That would be my favorite paragraph, but I also am cheered immeasurably by his specific outreach to the Muslim world.

This was Obama’s Sermon on the Mount moment, and it would not have been complete without a promise to the poor. Community organizers do remember the poor, after all.

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

People heard what they wanted to hear in Obama’s speech.

Geoffrey Nunberg heard the literary aspects, the Biblical allusions, the references to Tom Paine and Jerome Kern, but noted that “Ceremonial speechmaking is an unnatural, anachronistic exercise” anyway.

Maureen Dowd, always the clown, called the speech a “high-level version of Stephen Colbert’s share-the-stage smackdown of W. at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2006.” She reads this from the line “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Or perhaps Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place.” Or that he told the rest of the world “that we are ready to lead once more.”

Those lines pissed off Karen Hughes, too. “(Obama) really missed an opportunity to be as big as the occasion was and, frankly, as gracious.” Marc A. Thiessen, the chief White House speechwriter of the past regime, grumbled, “It was an ungracious inaugural. It was pretty clear he was taking shots.”

But those outgoing cronies are still seeing everything through their dirty mirror. Sadly, they still think the world revolves around them and their failed, disastrous actions. Buh-bye.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman happily discerned a “shout out” to economist John Maynard Keynes, who wrote as the world was plunging into the Great Depression. I’ll take Krugman’s word for it.

Bob Herbert loved Obama’s promise about our problems, that “they will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.”

And Stanley Fish, the intellectual, called the speech “a framework on which a succession of verbal ornaments was hung.” “Canonization has already arrived,” he wrote, noting that Penguin Books is releasing a keepsake edition of the speech, with comparative essays by Emerson and Lincoln.

Obama ends his speech again with the mention of troubled waters, of “a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires, on the shores of an icy river … snow stained with blood.”

He is bringing us pictures from the first days of the country, not Lincoln’s day as we might have expected him to do, but Washington’s.

And, indeed, this week’s New Yorker magazine gives us the image of a black George Washington, our second first President of the United States.  

We are starting over.  

This is United States of America, take two.





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