That’s right; history is always written by the winners and beneath our current dividedness is a battle over the historical narrative that determines how we understand the past and how we will shape the future.
President Obama’s second inaugural address set the stage for meeting the right head-on in the battle for the right to shape that story. Much will be written about the stunningly beautiful diversity and the unbridled embrace of a progressive political agenda. But just as important, I think, is that the president finally challenged the tea partiers’ claim to represent the “real America” (suggesting that the rest of us are not).
The old narrative has us “fighting for freedom” around the world, and the stirring version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic included “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free,” when the more common version these days calls on us to “live to make men free.”
Yet even with regard to the way military force has been central to what it means to be American, the president presented a new narrative, asserting that “peace and lasting security do not mean we are in a state of perpetual war.”
One of the most important ways in which the tea party and the religious right make the claim that America is a Christian nation, despite the absence of religion in the Constitution, is to point to the phrase in the Declaration asserting that men’s rights are “endowed by their Creator.” They read the Declaration and the Constitution as though they are Parts One and Two of the same text and they conflate their own version of the creator God with a rather different one common in the founding era.
The president began by invoking the Declaration, focusing specifically on the assertion that all men are created equal. Yes he left the gendered anachronism intact but the remainder of the speech left no doubt that the meaning of the term has expanded. The story he told was not the story of conquest and expansion; it was not the story of the rise of corporate capitalism symbolized by the “self-made man;” and it certainly wasn’t the Wall Street “greed is good” creed.
Like any good sermon, the president’s address invoked a three-part alliteration that tells the story of America from an entirely different vantage point: Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall. Indeed, this narrative places women, African Americans, and LGBT Americans as well as immigrants, the poor, children, and others at the center of the unfinished story of the expansion of freedom to all. Articulated beautifully in the speech, the narrative was echoed in every aspect of the ceremony.
One of candidate Obama’s strengths in the first campaign was his ability to invoke these powerful mythic themes (though he was less adept at making them work for him in governing). Let’s hope he’s better able to do it in his second term because the divide has never been clearer: it’s between those who know and celebrate Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall and those who do not.