It wasn’t a very good speech. Even his brother-in-law yawned.
The oration’s first problem was accidental: how he must have regretted opening with a reference to all the men who have said the Oath of Office, given that (ouch) his own oath had just got mangled — but he passed on the opportunity to ad-lib a joke about that. From that point on its larger problems were fundamental to Barack Obama’s politics: CounterPunch readers won’t have been surprised at his dull technocratic insistence that there’s no more room for argument about the path forward; we know the code when he talks of “hard choices” and “unpleasant decisions”; and we’ve seen enough of Washington’s idea of ‘change’ to know that 98 per cent of the speech would have fit comfortably in John McCain’s mouth.
But there was one largely overlooked passage that was so stupid, and so disturbing, that I may have to withdraw my standard concessionary, “Well, sure, I admit he’s obviously a smart guy with some decent instincts.”
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.
Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
Okay, partly this passage is standard, put-on inverted snobbery from a man whose own CV is short on making things. The right-wingers who claim Obama is a closet Marxist might find the labor theory of value lurking dangerously in it. But for me its most striking phrase is the denigration, alongside the despised “faint-hearted” and fame-seekers, of “those who prefer leisure over work.”
It gets worse, a lot worse, if you follow the rest of the passage logically in terms of the contrast he has set up. The productive good guys of the next sentence, the doers and makers who brought not just prosperity but freedom – those folks clearly must have preferred work over leisure, or maybe they scored them even. And the final sentence tells us explicitly who he is talking about: farmers and settlers, sweatshop-workers and … slaves.
The idea that slaves helped build American greatness because (among other things) they preferred work to leisure is so offensively stupid that it clearly wandered into Obama’s speech via sloppiness rather than by design. (This is in itself undermines his reputation for wordcraft and attention to detail: the only reference to slavery in the inaugural speech of the first African-American president was permitted to carry this crazed logic.) Maybe we can just write it off as the sort of thing that happens when you’re absent-mindedly knitting together clichés and you drop a stitch. Nobody seems to have noticed it or taken offence anyway.
All the same, I say, in the light of that striking phrase: leisure-lovers of the world unite, and watch out for this guy’s moralizing work ethic. No one would wish to deny the pleasures of a job well done; but so much of the work of the industrial era has been short of such satisfactions, and so many of the great struggles of that era have focused on having the time and money to enjoy the time away from the job. Remember “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will”? Those sweatshop workers weren’t preferring work over leisure, they were earning a crust and fighting to get out of there with enough energy left in their bones to enjoy life.
Meanwhile, while American capitalist prosperity was built on the blood and sweat of slaves, it was at least partly their leisure-time and that of their laboring descendents that gave us the greatest musical culture we have known.
“Those who prefer leisure over work”? You’d want to have some great job (President?) not to be one of “those”. Me, I think I’ve got something approaching the world’s best gig, as a college teacher in a public institution, paid well to talk and think and read and write about stuff that interests me, encouraged to have an active involvement in public affairs, in the company of open-minded young people, never lugging anything heavier than a bundle of student newspapers or an overhead projector. Here’s a partial list of things I like even better: going to the movies; reading John Le Carré; pretending to be a cat with my three-year-old; shopping for pretty things with my 16-year-old; a few pints with pals; a morning in bed with my beloved; a walk on the beach; cooking a needlessly complicated meal; reclining on the sofa with a glass of wine and Wayne Shorter on the stereo…. You get the idea: your basic personal-ads stuff. (As personal ads reveal, we see ourselves as we wish to be seen in our leisure loves, not in our job titles.) I can do all those things because forbears, especially in the trade-union movement, fought for my wages and my leisure.
Leisure should be a crucial political priority, especially in recession. There’s not enough work for everyone to do? Sure there is, if everyone worked less. Our preference for leisure, frankly confessed and proclaimed, can serve the common good, and point the way toward a more equitable distribution of hard-work, soft-work and no-work in our societies. A leisure rebellion in the US would also help to break the world’s most enduring stereotype of Americans: that they ‘live to work.’
Meanwhile, in Washington, at the end of his big day, Obama couldn’t be bothered to party. His visits to inaugural balls were supposed to finish at 2:55am, but he rushed through and wrapped up more than two hours early, before 12.45. One hopes he eschewed a late night of pleasantries, and messed with his supporters’ and donors’ timetables, because he and his wife longed for some intimate leisure after their long, extraordinary public day. But I’m worried he just wanted to be well-rested for work.