Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It was the minor moments that counted

One of the very best things about today's inaugural ceremony was the closing prayer by Rev. Joseph Lowery, a veteran of the civil rights struggles of 40 years ago. Lowery, who has more gravitas in his little finger than the simpering Rick Warren does in his entire body, gave an eloquent benediction that made one mercifully forget the clumsy "poem" by Elizabeth Alexander that preceded it, gave the most honorable and dignified presentation possible of the new President's commitment to govern the nation by the ideals of his faith, and, at the end, erased Warren's comically condescending attempt to be inclusive to Jews and Muslims.

As to dignity, I don't know what possessed the Chief Justice of the United States, who is my age, to act in a way that was just this side of the president of a local high school student council, overwhelmed at the opportunity to be at a grand event and misquoting the oath of office to the point that Obama, self-possessed as always, was reduced to staring at him in dignified, waiting silence, until he got it right. I can only hope that Roberts, who seems to have a well-deserved reputation as a distinguished jurist, admired by right and left alike, is better at conducting sessions of the Supreme Court. Speaking of the Supreme Court, it was interesting, as Aretha Franklin ascended the podium, to see the brutish mug of Antonin Scalia right behind, her, staring out at the world with his customary look of belligerence and self-complacency.

Warren, who doesn't belong within 10 miles of any occasion to which the words "grand" or "solemn" might be attached, reminds me of someone who intends to sign me up for a multi-level marketing plan and, when he learns that I prefer reading, assures me, with a wink and a nudge, that he can probably get me a good deal on a set of Reader's Digest Condensed Books (so you can get through them faster!). His prayer did, indeed, contain some good things about the hopes and struggles of the American people, but it was destroyed by the cringe-inducing climax, in which he said "I pray this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus," etc. Technically, one can't fault a Christian minister for offering a prayer in the name of Jesus, which is all but a formal theological requirement (although fellow-Protestant Lowery simply ended with "Amen"), but to assume, as Warren must have, that he would somehow make Jews and Muslims feel better by including Jesus's Jewish name or the name by which he is referred to in the Koran (where, of course, he is referred to as a prophet only and not worshipped as divine) was astonishing in its fatuousness. There are times, as Warren perhaps has yet to learn, that the best way to show awareness of something is a prudent silence.

Obama himself gave a competent and workmanlike speech, as he always does, though little in it rose to the level of anything that could be called inspirational, and I can only assume that he had let Al Gore's speechwriter contribute a phrase or two when he ran into that clumsily worded patch in which he said "These things are subject to data, statistics, and analysis"—good God! It's probably a good thing the statue of Lincoln sitting in the Memorial down the Mall could not come alive at that point, or he might have uttered something hardly in keeping with the decorum of the occasion—or, better still, spat a marble gob of tobacco juice into the Reflecting Pool to give that part of the speech a fitting response. I turned the TV off after about 12 minutes, reflecting that watching Obama speak reminds me of what Emerson said about the elder William Pitt: "It was said of the Earl of Chatham that there was something finer in the man, than in anything he said." Obama inspires, all right, but it is by the impression he makes, more than by what he says. There was more applause when he appeared than there was during the speech itself (indeed, the camera caught his brother-in-law suppressing a yawn as he sat behind him!). Nevertheless, he said one thing, at least, that was extremely important: that we as a nation repudiate the belief that we must sacrifice our ideals for the sake of security.

Aretha Franklin's appearance was symbolically important, but the measured, majestic 18th-century musical phrasing of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" hardly suited her rather informal performance style. For my money, one of the best parts of the ceremony was the brief instrumental ensemble that included Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, a female pianist, and a black clarinetist, performing an arrangement by famous movie composer John Williams of themes from Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. Once again, today's arrangement wasn't exactly right—Williams had a fine opportunity, which he seems to have missed, to have also included a theme built on a black spiritual—but the performance seemed to be a musical reflection of how our new President seeks to present himself and his proposed government: cool, simple, elegant, direct, drawing from history but arranging the themes in new ways, a blending of different voices, a performance executed without flaw. It seemed to me that it was that performance, as much as his own inaugural address, that set the standard by which he will be judged.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 19, 2009

If not now...

For years, I never thought I would live to see the day when Leningrad would be called St. Petersburg once more. If my expectations of an African-American President were not quite so dismal as my hopes for the fall of Communism, they were at least projected into an ever-receding future of perhaps 30 to 50 years. The last time I watched a Presidential inauguration on television, in 1961, the Civil Rights Act had not been passed, and the University of Mississippi had not been integrated. Many adults I knew regarded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a dangerous radical.

I remember that in 1988, George F. Will suggested that the Republican Party nominate Colin Powell for Vice-President and steal a march from the Democrats, but that opportunity was forfeited by both parties. (Senator, you were no Colin Powell!)

Tomorrow's inauguration comes 200 years after the birth of the Great Emancipator, 120 years after the death of a sad and unrepentant Jefferson Davis, 100 years after the founding of the NAACP, about 70 years after FDR nominated Benjamin O. Davis as the first African-American general in the U.S. military (his son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., later became the first black Air Force general), and roughly 100 years after Teddy Roosevelt outraged many Southerners by having Booker T. Washington to the White House as his dinner guest. When Roosevelt had visited Memphis, in 1902, he had spoken at Church Auditorium, built several years earlier by millionaire black Memphis businessman Robert Church Sr., since local laws forbade him and his fellow blacks to use city parks and other facilities.

Writing in today's New York Times, Henry Louis Gates and John Stauffer argue, quite plausibly, that Lincoln himself, a man of his own time, would likely have been horrified by the thought of the government of the United States being entrusted to a black man. I agree. As the article points out, Lincoln casually used such terms as "Sambo," "Cuffee," and "nigger," and addressed Sojourner Truth as "Aunty." On the eve of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he invited black leaders to meet with him and discuss the possibility of founding a black republic in Central America to which freed slaves would be urged to emigrate. Like the author of the words "All men are created equal," Lincoln saw no possibility of racial equality as consistent with a stable system of government.

Having said that, Lincoln should be honored, not only for political measures, but for his own efforts to transcend the attitudes of his day and stretch his understanding of the possibilities between whites and blacks, as he did, for instance, in cultivating a personal friendship with his contemporary, the charismatic black spokesman Frederick Douglass. Nor was he alone; even former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had became notorious for the slaughter of black troops at Fort Pillow, attended an Independence Day picnic in Memphis as the invited guest of black organizers in 1875, 2 years before his death. Admitting privately after the event that he had been quite uncomfortable, the former slave trader addressed the gathering and said that he was ready to offer the hand of friendship and assist the black man in achieving any station in life to which his talents entitled him. For the founder of the Ku Klux Klan to utter such words was like walking a thousand miles, and I doubt that any of us today, having been raised in this more inclusive age, have progressed as far in our own attitudes about race.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Google Warming

I'd heard about the losing battle that newspapers are fighting to stay afloat as they steadily lose ad revenue to the net, and perhaps that accounts in part for the article in yesterday's Times of London that painted Google as a carbon-spewing behemoth. But I see the article is actually carried in their online edition, so perhaps they are daring Google to block searches to their damning report and thus incidentally redeem itself from the sin of environmental spoliation. Or perhaps, since they draw a comparison between a Google search and the homely English cup of tea, it's a belated rebuke, 235 years late, to our disrespect of their favorite brew in Boston Harbor long ago.

In any case, the article quotes Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross as saying that two Google searches generate about as much carbon as brewing a single cup of tea, about 15 grams, and of course, if we multiply that by all the millions who are looking up baseball scores, their favorite celebrities, or their horoscopes online, instead of brewing a cup of tea and opening a paper copy of The Times, the worldwide impact could be severe. If Samuel Johnson could be made to understand the issue here, he, at least, would feel vindicated, since he is said to have consumed tea by the basinful after he gave up wine and liquor. On the other hand, he peopled his attic with a swarm of scribes to help him mark and copy passages from books for use in illustrating the definitions in his Dictionary. Presumably, he supplied them with candles, so perhaps their labors were not more energy-efficient than if they had used Google.

To be sure, the computer industry worldwide is not lagging in its efforts to burn kilowatt hours and is said to contribute to 2% of the planet's carbon emissions, about the same as world aviation. On the other hand, since greater energy use adds not only to the deterioration of the materials in networks and computers but to their operating costs, it's in the interests of information technology to discover better materials, more rational designs, and greater energy-efficiency. For that matter, the growing capacity of smart phones is leading us to a future in which much of what is done from desktop or laptop computers today is about to take place in the palm of the user's hand, instead. Meanwhile, the consumer who shops online, the reader who reads online, and the traveler who goes online and finds the quickest routes and lowest prices all contribute to saving energy, compared to older and more conventional means of accomplishing the same things.

Google published a response that denies Wissner-Gross's figures and asserts, instead, that the carbon involved in a Google search is many times smaller, involving, in fact, about the same amount of energy that the human body burns in about a tenth of a second. Indeed, Google says, its networks are so efficient that the the seeker's journey to the desired information consumes less energy than the computer sitting on one's desk.

Meanwhile, the Washington Posts's TechCrunch feature notes that the average book is responsible for 2,500 grams of carbon (Ayn Rand, you should have trimmed some of John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged!), while a cheeseburger accounts for an unseemly 3,600 grams, not to mention what it does to the profile and the digestion.

The London Times article certainly has a point in saying that a great deal of time and energy is wasted by sharing with the world what would have been confined to one's diary a century ago ("Walked the dog; it was hot today; rosebushes are not doing well," etc.). Indeed, that's one of the reasons that I've never seriously considered carrying a cell phone and would have little interest even if I had more room in my budget: I refuse to become part of an enterprise in which millions worldwide pay to say at a distance what was never worth saying face to face in the first place. Air quality isn't the only issue here; we also have noise, thoughtlessness, and what I'll call spiritual pollution to reckon with. Still, Google represents a force that, used wisely, ought to increase our efficiency and make knowledge more widely available, and at a lesser cost.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.