Sunday, January 27, 2013

Inaugural Musings

My goal for this blog is ironic. I hope to use the Internet to shine a light on its flaws. The Internet is no longer young, but we still approach with too much awe and too little reflection.  In the political realm we see dozens of progressive conferences proclaiming the brave new world of social media. But just as the social critics of the 1950s were wrong to proclaim television as the savior of mankind, and could not envision a 500 channel universe where the intellectualism of PBS is drowned in a tsunami of Jersey Housewives and Honey Boo Boos, Internet evangelists are blind to Internet failings.

The Internet kills books dead. We have replaced real research with a quick Google search. But search engines are more interested in quantity than quality. What pops up in the top 10 search results are partisan rants, not nuanced discussions by experts. Google is a popularity contest, where the number of visitors is valued more than the content therein. 

Anything more than a few months old is hopelessly buried; we live in a sort of permanent present tense, where 2004 is ancient history.  Brevity is worshipped.  Search Engine Optimization favors sites with brief content and repetitious keywords.  Complex issues become factually distorted 15 word memes on Facebook or Twitter.

The interpretation of President Obama’s second inaugural address is a sad example of the marriage between lazy media commentators (who Google first and research never) and online partisan hacks. Many commentators focused upon an isolated sentence: 

“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate"

The Fox News/right wing online echo chamber view this comment as a direct assault on the GOP, and mainstream commentators delight in the President’s unprecedented aggression, at least for an inaugural.

But those who fail to study history are doomed to misinterpret it. Indeed, decrying partisanship and vitriol are a time-honored tradition in inaugural addresses. In drawing comparisons, no one has pointed out this sentence, from President Obama’s FIRST inaugural:

“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”  1/20/2009

And consider the following:

“The American people returned to office a President of one party and a Congress of another. Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore. No, they call on us instead to be repairers of the breach and to move on with America's mission. America demands and deserves big things from us, and nothing big ever came from being small."  William Jefferson Clinton 1/20/1997

“We need harmony; we've had a chorus of discordant voices. For Congress, too, has changed in our time. There has grown a certain divisiveness. We have seen the hard looks and heard the statements in which not each other's ideas are challenged but each other's motives. And our great parties have too often been far apart and untrusting of each other.”  George Herbert Walker Bush 1/20/1989

“So let us reject any among us who seek to reopen old wounds and rekindle old hatreds. They stand in the way of a seeking nation.”  Lyndon Baines Johnson 1/20/1965

“…America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.” Richard Milhous Nixon 1/20/1969

So, reconsider President Obama’s words. Uncharacteristic of an inaugural address? Hardly. Indeed, it would be far more noteworthy if that lone sentence had been omitted.