Amanda Gorman's stirring poem sharpens President-elect Biden's dull call for unity.
For many, inauguration day was an overdue chance to reboot a democracy run amok. It represented the conquest of humility over arrogance, expertise over incompetence, truth over fiction, and science over wishful thinking. In short, the adults had returned to mind the store and much of the nation, for whom the Trump presidency had been an unrelenting nightmare of mendacity, could finally breathe a collective sigh of relief. At last, we thought. It's over.
But, of course, it's only just begun. Trump became even more popular during his presidency and has left behind an indelible legacy of destruction and incivility. On his watch, conspiracy theories and white supremacy have oozed up from under the floorboards and out into the public square only to be harnessed, amplified and coalesced by conservative media around the lost cause of a "stolen" election in an attempted coup that shook our democracy to its very core.
And so, in the midst of Democrats taking control of Congress and an impeachment trial seeking to hold the outgoing president accountable, many wondered how President-elect Biden would use his mandate and moment in the spotlight to chart a new course for the country. Would he promise justice for seditionists, consequences for pandemic deniers and new guardrails against political corruption and self-dealing? Or would he seek to turn the page, reach across the aisle, and get things back to "normal?"
The safe bet, of course, was on the latter. Indeed, so deep are Biden's bipartisan instincts that at a campaign stop he actually pined for the days of "civility" when he could get things done with segregationist lawmakers -- prompting his now vice president to rebuke him on the debate stage.
Thus, while I wasn't surprised that Biden picked "unity" as the central theme of his inauguration address (and, hey, it sure beats "American carnage"), I found the set-up to be ironic if not downright naïve. Remembering New Year's Day 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Biden quoted Lincoln as saying, "If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it." Biden then promised to dedicate his own "whole soul" to "bringing America together, uniting our people, and uniting our nation."
All of which sounds good, except that the Emancipation Proclamation was historic precisely because it did not unite. It was not a compromise like those made in 1820, 1850 and 1854 in order to keep the Union together by appeasing the slave states. Though initially announced on September 22, 1862 as a threat to pressure Confederate states to return within three months or else have their slaves freed by executive order, the proclamation's execution on January 1, 1863 was punitive and removed any path to reincorporate the rebel states as slave-holding. It was an ultimatum from the North to the South: to end this war you must surrender and under our terms.
After losing 61 out of 62 lawsuits, Trump and his most rabid supporters had failed to overturn the results of a free and fair election in the courts, but still refused to concede. Instead, they linked arms with white supremacists in an attempt to overpower the democratic process through coercion, terrorism and violence. There is nothing to unite with here. Only ultimatums to be made.
Then, just weeks after the attack, with the capitol on lockdown and its silent streets secured by the national guard, we inaugurated a new president who delivered a soothing message of unity in a window of relative calm. But, if Biden truly wants to be remembered alongside Lincoln, he'd be wise to stiffen his resolve against the enemies in our midst by heeding the prophetic words of our nation’s youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman:
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn't always just-ice
It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
While I have no doubt that both Biden's heart and soul are in the right place when he says he wants to end America's "uncivil war," Gorman and history warn that we return to the old way of doing things at our own peril.
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