Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obama, Thoreau and the Inaugural Address

Anticipation for Barack Obama’s inaugural address mounts.

The nation is in the grip of a terrifying recession. Americans are losing their jobs right and left. There is no clear exit strategy for the disastrous war in Iraq. The government is bailing out non-performing industries that may cost future generations their future. Layoffs, bankruptcies and Ponzi schemes dominate the news. The winter of despair stalks the land.

Against this backdrop, can mere words perform miracles?

History teaches that they can. Think Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy. Uniting a nation torn by a brutal civil war, putting America back to work by conquering fear, passing the torch to a new generation of Americans – the words of these presidents nourished the soul and renewed the American spirit.

Barack Obama must deliver the goods when he addresses the nation on January 20. We are looking for hope and inspiration, not numbers and statistics. Facts and plans can come later; what we want now is to see the light beyond the darkness that surround us.

While Obama will probably evoke Lincoln in his speech, another American he should consult is Thoreau. The Bard of Walden was no Utopian. He made allowances for life’s idiosyncrasies and yet taught us how to lead lives of dignity and fulfillment.

Hard, honest and meaningful work (unlike, say, the work of speculators and money managers) was central to Thoreau’s vision of life. “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” With millions of people losing their life-savings to Wall Street greed and cruelty, we need to be reminded that “goodness is the only investment that never fails.” Obama has promised dramatic changes in the status quo but he should also tell us that ultimately “things do not change: we change,” that “what lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”

Thoreau spoke uncomfortable truths with clarity and grace. His words were tough, true, lyrical and soaring, a synthesis impossible save for a few. While telling us unflinchingly of what lay beneath our feet, Thoreau also made us look up at the stars. His is a supremely difficult act to emulate but that’s what the 44th president of the United States must do in his inaugural address if we are to rise above our current crises and become a beacon to the world.

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