Thursday, January 21, 2021



Candle stand, 1830s, from the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing ("Shakers") of Mount Lebanon, New York, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I take the same general feeling from the inauguration festivities, watching TV all day, as so many of us, of immense relief and consolation, of reassurance that we have a working government again, with kind and caring and reasonably truthful people at its head, which doesn't mean they're going to fix everything but that we're back in a place from which it's possible to navigate. We all found ourselves in unexpected tears at one point or another, and for me one of the oddest points was that first normal press briefing in four years from Jen Psaki, State Department spox under Obama and now Biden's press secretary.

There's a concept from the British ordinary language philosopher Paul Grice of the four "conversational maxims" that make discourse possible: you must assume that your interlocutor will try to be informative, truthful, pertinent, and clear. These are things that you don't get from arguing with Gish-galloping conservative trolls, and we didn't get them from the communications of Trump or his official representatives, of course, and the freshness of Psaki, just being well-prepared, level-headed, on point, freely admitting to not knowing what she didn't know, and having no reason to lie about anything, seemed miraculous and somehow out of the nowhere, and it really did fill my eyes with tears. I think it's a kind of PTSD: like Londoners in the Blitz, we've been living disoriented and fearful from the constant bombardment of gaslighting language, and as welcome as the silence is it's filled with our own emotions, the ones we haven't been able to listen to for such a long time.

I'm crazy about President Biden's tone, in that way, because it seems so completely free of artifice. That's not quite true: it may not be literary, like Obama's oratory, but it certainly is crafted, not to inspire us as a group but to speak to each of us intimately, as individuals: the really special thing is that the rhetorical devices are right there on the surface, themselves not fancy, as when he says, "Look!" or "Look, folks!" It doesn't have a lot of elements, but they're put together beautifully, like Shaker furniture: you need a certain amount of refinement to say it's beautiful, but most people feel the beauty, directly, without knowing that's what it is.

There was one thing about the inaugural address that disturbed me at the outset, a peculiar disjunction between the overarching theme of "unity"  exhorting Americans to come together in unified readiness for action, and a sort of countertheme to the effect that there are enemies among us:

Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this:

Bringing America together.

Uniting our people.

And uniting our nation.

I ask every American to join me in this cause.

Uniting to fight the common foes we face:

Anger, resentment, hatred.

Extremism, lawlessness, violence.

Disease, joblessness, hopelessness.

I'm thinking, are the angry, the resentful, the lawless not Americans too? How is he asking all to come together to fight some? And I wasn't the only one who heard this: 

But really, that's just a misreading: what Biden does is the opposite of that. By using those abstract nouns, "anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence" right alongside "disease, joblessness, hopelessness", he makes it clear that he's not attacking any people at all. He's attacking problems from which everybody suffers in different ways (the suffering of the racist seems small compared to the suffering of the racist's victim, but it's corrosive and it does hurt), and inviting "every American" to contribute to fixing them. It's the same with "political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism"—he's not calling out anybody for being an extremist or supremacist or terrorist, he's calling on all of us to do our share to end or at least mitigate them.

He's obviously not attacking the sick or the jobless or the hopeless, he's asking us to help them, or to seek help and help ourselves if we're sick or jobless or hopeless ourselves. By the same token he's not attacking the white supremacist but asking us to help them, and seek help and help ourselves if we're white supremacists. If Rand Paul is worried he might be a white supremacist, he can do something about it, and we should all hope he does.

The same goes for "people who don't tell the truth": Paul is being over-sensitive, for some reason. Biden doesn't call them out either. He calls out the action of lying, and asks us all to do something about it.

There is truth and there are lies.

Lies told for power and for profit.

And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders – leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation — to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.

If Rand Paul is worried he might be a liar, cool! He can make an effort to stop telling lies, like these absurd lies about Biden's inaugural address. It will be good for his soul, and he'll have better friends.

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