Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Today was Inauguration Day, in case you didn't know or weren't reminded by every major global news outlet. I watched the ceremony via live videostream on my computer at work, starting from about 4pm UK time. I knew a lot of people who joined the throngs on the National Mall in Washington, and for one of the first times since moving here I really felt like I was missing out on something in the US.
For so many reasons, the national election of Barack Obama is a moment for Americans - no matter where they are in the world - to stand up and be proud. I feel like I can walk down the street now (in New York, in London, in Paris, in Mumbai) and not be ashamed or afraid. We as a nation proved it to ourselves and to the world that despite our past mistakes and missteps, we're still the incredible society we always claimed to be. To see the millions (literally, millions) of people gathering on the nation's front lawn together at 6am in the bitter cold was a tangible reminder of our inherent unity and idealism. To be watching the display 5 hours ahead, in the dark, with cynical and sarcastic Brits surrounding me was less of a celebration and more of a reminder of how much farther we have yet to go.
Clearly much of the derision I heard was cultural; for a country who prides itself on the separation of church and state (the US), it was confusing to the English to hear a pastor give an invocation and the oaths taken over a Bible-so-help-you-God. But for a country with more pageantry and pomp and circumstance woven into the fabric of its nation and empire (the UK), they couldn't believe the amount of grandeur the Inauguration Ceremony displayed. I personally thought it was quite a tastefully American ceremony - poor public speaking (besides Barack Obama), various iterations of the flag, and Aretha (they did, of course, approve of her hat).
What was most upsetting, however, was the disconnect of the moment somewhere across the cultural divide. I didn't catch much of Obama's speech because people around me were cracking jokes and asking where the sniper was located. They didn't give themselves the opportunity to absorb Obama's message of turning the ship around and braving the storm instead of running from it. In the end, that might be the moment of true cultural difference in the US and UK's child-parent relationship: we're always ready to believe in the possibility of tomorrow, whereas the UK is bound up in the legacy of yesterday - too jaded to look forward.
I've learned so much about myself and myself as an American living in the UK these past eight months. Today's inauguration of Barack Obama was one more lesson in framing the nuances of living in a global society. I can only hope that as America eases the chip off of its collective shoulders and emerges from the Bush era with a restored confidence, Barack Obama's message of possibility will start to permeate cultures that don't have their own agent of hope.