Opinion | 10:28 am | January 22, 2013 | By Jennifer Gersten, Scott Remer, and Scott Stern

Forum: Inauguration

The crowds gather in Washington, D.C. for the inauguration.
The crowds gather in Washington, D.C. for the inauguration. Photo by Patrick Casey.

From President Obama’s second inaugural address to Beyoncé’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” yesterday’s inauguration ceremony was filled with moments both historical and .GIF-worthy. In this edition of the YDN Forum, our contributors weigh in on the speeches and symbols that remained in their thoughts long after the crowds on the National Mall thinned.

Scott Stern, Staff Blogger | Sophomore in Branford College

Social media has made everything a spectacle. The inauguration wasn’t even over, and already we were hearing about Obama nearly flubbing the oath again, Beyoncé’s earpiece, Sasha’s absurd yawn and Scalia’s even more absurd hat (apparently it has something to do with Harvard Law School — go figure). But I want to briefly comment on something that I haven’t seen someone moaning about online — yet. I want to bring your attention to Obama’s final five words.

In concluding what was a wholly decent inaugural address, Obama said, “Thank you, God bless you, and may he forever bless these United States of America.”

Don’t see it? Obama mentioned “these” United States, not “the” United States.

The difference may seem trivial, but it is the difference between singular and plural — a collection and a unified entity. For the first hundred years or so of its existence, the United States existed in spoken language as a plural. It was a collection of states. After the Civil War, politicians started referring to “the” United States, since we had just affirmed that our country was one, united. “These” indicates that we are nothing but a collection of disparate pieces; “the” indicates that we are one great country.

According to at least one Confederate soldier, the Civil War “was fought to settle a question of grammar,” that is, the question as to whether “the United States” was singular or plural.

As G.H. Emerson wrote in 1891 in his authoritative essay on the difference between “these” and “the”: “For about a decade the states, under the technical name, ‘the United States of America,’ were a Confederacy; but when the Constitution was adopted, the United States was. ‘They’ gave place to ‘it.’”

Emerson contends that the Constitution gave our country its singular article, but it took the Civil War to “make the difference unmistakable.”

This is not nitpicking. It’s serious. If you think language isn’t powerful, try telling Judge Scalia that his hat looked stupid. Consider that the legal justification for waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques rested on the distinction made between “torture” and “acts of torture.

“These” has remained in use, off and on, for more than a century. It’s time to firmly and finally settle on “the.” Now, when our country’s divisions threaten to overwhelm us once more, it is of paramount importance to stress that we are, and forever will be, united.

Scott Remer, Contributor | Freshman in Pierson College

President Obama, true to form, gave an excellent speech today. It was a call for unity, a reminder of our shared values and history and a tantalizing taste of the issues he’s thinking of pursuing. He rebutted the right’s Randian worldview, defended our social safety net and regulations and called for forceful action to revitalize our nation for the 21st century. His soaring oratory called a number of liberal icons to mind, among them FDR and MLK, and indeed, we can read the fact that his inauguration took place on MLK Day as a symbolic assumption of MLK’s mantle.

But we’ve been here before. We know Obama is gifted with remarkable eloquence. He has given many excellent articulations of liberalism before. And yet we have also watched as Obama has caved to an intransigent, irrational opposition again and again … on health care reform, on the debt-ceiling debate in 2011, on financial reform and most recently, on the “fiscal cliff” debate. Judging by Republicans’ continued refusal to compromise, the fever hasn’t broken.

They’ve grudgingly accepted that we must raise the debt ceiling, but, very shortly, we will undoubtedly have another round of calls for draconian cuts to crucial programs in the name of deficit reduction. (We eventually need to reduce the debt; the question isn’t whether to do so, but when, and now’s not the right time.) But there are a host of serious issues it is imperative that we address: gun control, immigration reform, climate change, income inequality, education reform … the list goes on and on.

MLK understood that civil rights are inextricably intertwined with economic justice. He was killed in Memphis, where he had gone to participate in a sanitation workers’ strike. He was planning a Poor People’s Campaign, a movement where the poor would go to Washington and call for an end to poverty and an economy that worked for all. The ultimate test of whether or not Obama is MLK’s ideological successor is whether he will be able to translate his high-flown rhetoric into action and tackle the inequality that continues to corrode our society.

King once said that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus” and that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” Obama would be wise to remember these words as he prepares to begin his second term.

Jennifer Gersten, Contributor | Freshman in Saybrook College

My political education amounted to a solid grounding in whom I’m supposed to like and whom I’m not.

The way my parents handled elections was like how you might handle a game of “Space Invaders”: Accept from the outset that you are the good guys, and the goonies on the other side are the bad guys. They’re dangerous, there are a lot of them and they have guns. The thing is, you also have a gun, and you’re shooting it just as furiously in the name of intergalactic justice. Who’s to say you’re not both fighting for the same thing?

That I got older didn’t mean I was thinking any more critically. In the fifth grade I sponged up my neighborhood’s liberal indignation at the re-election of George W. Bush, and joined my classmates in assailing a curly-haired boy who had made the mistake of enthusiastically declaring that his parents were Republicans. We were ready to chase him off a cliff for the Democratic Party — an institution about which we knew two things for certain: that Al Gore lost, and that another name for our mascot was a bad word I heard my daddy say.

It took me a while before I started reading what other people were thinking about what I was thinking, and then doing more thinking about what I was reading. I still agree with everything my parents said in the first place, but now I have some basis for why. I care about these issues for my own reasons, which are not necessarily theirs – and now, I want my government to do something about them.

Over cereal today, my friend and I watched our president charge all of us with the task of making things better. At one part I started nodding in agreement, and became immediately suspicious of myself. Was I just bopping along to his words as mindlessly as I’d bop along to a pop song? I had reason to be skeptical; my fifth-grade self had made me cautious. Did I actually believe what I thought I believed? What reason had I to trust this man, or to waste precious hope on what he was trying to make happen?

But the burden of improvement does not rest exclusively on his shoulders – we share it. And the way we carry it is by figuring out where we stand, and why. Recently I’ve been trying to do this, although I’ll be the first to admit that it is a lot harder to be angry about something than to be in the fifth grade and angry about nothing. When things start to matter, they start to hurt.

I am trying to believe that change is possible, but a well-written speech and a well-dressed speaker aren’t going to help me do that. Actions, not words, are what I need right now.

Comments