Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech: a British Perspective

Official photographic portrait of US President...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is interesting reading President Obama's speech delivered at his second inauguration today.

Despite being a dual-national Anglo-American myself, despite having studied American Studies for four years at university, and despite having lived there and visited on numerous occasions, this set piece occasion reminds me of how very different America is to Britain, culturally and politically.

I mentioned to friends at dinner this week, who have never been to the United States, that one of the surprises British people often have when they travel there is that they experience unexpected culture shock. Many British people assume America will simply be a bigger, brasher version of the UK. They are often thrown by the profound differences in outlook and mindset that lie beneath the near-common language.

Some of the differences that leap out at me from the President's speech today include:

  • his reference to God. British politicians tend not to "do God", or if they do, they are a bit diffident about his involvement in the life of the nation. Rightly or wrongly, Americans by contrast assert that their political system exists to ensure certain "unalienable rights" that are endowed upon them by their Creator. I can't quite see Nick Clegg embracing such a doctrine any time soon. 
  • his reference to America's creed. It is quite logical, of course, that a political system based on divinely-endowed rights should be expressed by its chief executive as being a "creed" - a term normally reserved for a formal religious statement of doctrinal belief (from the Latin credo - I believe.)   
  • The phrase "we the people" which Presdient Obama uses five times in his speech, is one I cannot remember ever hearing from a British politician. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the name of the Irish political party, Sinn Fein - "we ourselves." Used in that way (British socialists used to use the term "comrades" in a somewhat similar way), it speaks of a class or cultural identity in distinction from that of the rulers. Obama, like many American millionaire politicians, uses the term without irony, in the sure belief that his hearers will assume he is "one of them." The real irony is that America may be more unequal a society than Britain, but it is the latter that is far more class bound.
  • The mythologising of geography. Places have symbolic, historical and cultural significance in American political rhetoric in a way not found in Britain. Seneca Falls (location of the nineteenth century declaration of women's rights), Selma (location of the early black civil rights marches in 1965 under Martin Luther King) and Stonewall (the gay bar in New York City, scene of a riot in 1969) were all cited by the President, and understood by his listeners. Interestingly, Obama used this device in his previous inaugural speech in 2009, citing Concord (War of Independence), Gettysburg (Civil War), Normandy (World War Two) and Khe Sanh (Vietnam)  as examples of American military heroism. Apart from Churchill's promise that "we will fight the on the beaches", it is difficult to imagine a modern British politician talking of British geographical places in quite the same way.  Bannockburn, Brixton and Belfast are all places resonant with division rather than national unity in the British political psyche. 



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