In these hard times it is tempting to look back on the entire decade in negative terms, especially in light of a difficult job market and the financial challenges that being an adjunct professor entails. That might indeed be the way I remember these times, but today I would rather frame the decade with politics and end on an optimistic note.
The decade began well with a nice celebration in Freiburg i.Br., where I was doing my dissertation research. But then I returned to a country that soon made George W. Bush its president. Just how fateful that election was, we did not know until after the attack on September 11, 2001. Here is an email I wrote the next day. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was right to be worried about “the impact that this violence [would] have on our own humanity.” The Bush administration invaded a country that had nothing to do with the September 11th attack. And it chose to use torture. The basic outlines of the story are well known, although historians will soon need to teach it. After all, our current crop of freshmen was only about ten years old at the time of the attack, and time shows no signs of slowing down.
Given these sentiments, my experience of President Obama’s inauguration at the beginning of this year should come as no surprise. I am republishing it here, nonetheless, because I have closed my personal blog, where I first posted it. I knew things in this country would not change overnight, so I am not disillusioned by the rancor in American politics this past year. But I am also struck by how long ago the feelings in this piece were. As we move forward into a new decade and better times, I would like to recapture the note of sober hope that I felt on January 20th.
Happy New Year!
Two of Two Million
January 20, 2009
On Sunday, January 18th, we attempted to see the concert at Lincoln Memorial. We took a bus down Wisconsin Avenue and got off at Foggy Bottom. Walking towards the memorial, we soon joined a mass of humanity heading in the same direction.
There was good will and a sense of expectation in the air. Unfortunately, there was also only one hour till the concert’s begin, and we had badly underestimated the time it would take to get through security. Exacerbating the situation were people cutting the lines, sometimes willfully, sometimes because the architecture of the lines was confusing.
We decided to give up at 2:00, when the concert was supposed to begin. We could chock it up to experience and be better prepared on Tuesday. Besides, just seeing the expectant crowds was a good thing. We also decided to walk to Memorial Bridge via Washington Monument, thinking we could at least see the crowds—and maybe hear some sounds—across the water. It turned out, however, that there were JumboTrons and loudspeakers at Washington Monument, no security checkpoints to go through, and the concert had not yet begun. We got within one or two hundred yards of a JumboTron and saw the whole thing from within a growing sea of humanity that reached as far back as the eye could see. The monument is on a hill, which means the crowd from my vantage point looked endless, since my view at the scene behind us reached only the monument, dropping off like the ocean does on the horizon at sea.
I choked up while singing the national anthem at the beginning. Catharsis. Healing after eight years of a leader who encouraged us to follow our worst instincts. The sense of joy and anticipation around me was palpable. We sang and we danced. Catharsis. Having the eighty-nine-year-old Pete Seeger there at the end made it that much sweeter—so did the whole choreography of the show, which brought not only different ethnicities on stage together, but also generations and genres. Garth Brooks’ singing “Shout!” was fine example of this tendency.
Afterwards we walked half of the way or more back home, though we found room in a bus for part of the trip. We talked with other passengers as if we all knew each other, which happens in DC, but seldom this easily.
That evening, my wife convinced me to volunteer for service the next day as Obama had been encouraging citizens to do, but my earlier hesitation meant all organized activities were already booked. So instead we signed up for a pledge drive next month for our local public radio station, which I had been planning to do anyway. And I reminded my wife of her other volunteering. She’s always been much better than me at stepping up when help is needed.
So Monday was a day at home. Sure, there were special events for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, but the next day would take a lot of energy and planning.
Told we had to choose between inauguration and the parade, and told the parade had security checkpoints, but a spot on the Mall for inauguration didn’t, the choice was easy. Moreover, being there was more important than having a chance to see Obama in the parade. What better way to bear witness than with two million people?
The decision to brave the crowds was easier, because we live in Glover Park, which is close enough to make it possible to avoid packed Metro stations.
This morning we took a bus to Dupont Circle and walked to Washington Monument. We left the apartment at 8:00 and had a spot with a view of a JumboTron by 9:00. They rebroadcast the concert to distract us, and they showed us the arriving guests. The wait passed by pretty quickly this way.
Our long-johns and other layers kept us reasonably comfortable. So did a folded yoga mat (for both sitting and standing on) and snacks and tea. The more crowded it got, the less the wind bit into us, though the breeze never completely went away on that small hill.
The mood reminded me of the Sunday concert, except we got past the anticipation to the main event. At times it felt like at a church, as some neighbors from Newport News responded to parts of the president’s speech with a rhythmic refrain of “Okay,” as if in a conversation with him. An “Amen” even slipped from my lips a couple times, including at the part where Obama denounced the false choice between security and our values. I was doubly impressed then when that Obama line drew a lot of extra cheers and applause where we were standing.
There will be more to ponder in the coming days and weeks. Right now I am exhausted from the cold and windy, but beautiful walk back from Washington Monument across to Lincoln Memorial, along the Potomac to Georgetown, and up Wisconsin Avenue to Glover Park. (Were we ever stiff after a short bathroom break at Barnes & Noble in Georgetown and then coffee at a small cafe on Wisconsin Avenue!)
Tired, beat, exhausted—the good kind.
Georgetown University in Washington, DC did not cancel classes on September 12th, so I went into a class packed with mainly freshman at 9:15 a.m. By that point teaching early modern European history was out of the question, so we talked. After I got home, I sent the following message to everyone.
Date: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 12:56
Frankly, I was surprised by the rather large turnout in class this morning. Yesterday’s news was disturbing, and many of us feel worse as the details and reality of the terrorist attacks sink in. The class discussion was heartening for me, because I saw a large group of curious, thinking, politically astute and morally aware students, who will one day help to lead this country. There is still much to learn (for your professors too), but your remarks show that you want to learn. This desire to learn about and engage in the world might help give a little meaning to the tragedy.
Those of you who did not come to class leave me worried. Was it because of the general sad and bewildered atmosphere that has enveloped this city? Or have you lost family members or friends? I do not expect an answer to these questions, but I do want to point out two things to all students. First, those of you who feel despondent, in shock, depressed, angry, or confused should know that this is normal. You should also know that such feelings can be extremely debilitating if you cannot address them in some way. Make sure you seek out counselors, chaplains, advisors, professors, friends or family members for assistance. Some of you will find your academic work a good diversion–or way of understanding what happened. If, however, your personal situation makes such work impossible, because of depression or family obligations, please also visit your dean, who can run interference for you with your instructors.
Student reactions in class covered a wide spectrum of opinion and emotions, which I would like to summarize. Some of you appeared numbed or angered by the attack and could not yet put it into some sort of abstract moral or political framework. Others were outraged at the apparent insensitivity some people showed towards this great loss. These are normal reactions, and I imagine most of you have felt or will feel similarly, at least for a time. Many of you pondered what the U.S. reaction should be. While some expressed concerns about the morality and justice of retribution, others worried about what application of force might actually work. Who was behind these atrocities and what would be the most efficacious manner of dealing with them? One of you pointed out that any political or military reactions must consider the mindset of the terrorists, their cultural assumptions and psychological make-up. We cannot assume that they think as we do. Some of you talked about what yesterday’s event meant for your sense of security in the U.S. This concern appeared to waver between two poles: our own physical security and the impact that this violence will have on our own humanity. I underscored the latter concern. Finally, Anton [my TA that semester] pointed out that coming to terms with many of the big conflicts in our day entails learning how to ask the right questions. Besides learning about what happened in the past, our course provides an opportunity for you to learn how to ask trenchant questions.
Finally, some personal notes: A friend of ours in Augsburg, Germany (north of Munich) called this morning to find out how we are doing. She says no one in Augsburg is talking about anything else. They are horrified. My mother-in-law in Munich spoke of a minute of silence being observed today in the textile industry (probably elsewhere too). As far as my friends in New York go, well, it is impossible to get through on the phone. One can only hope and, if one is so inclined, pray.
I encourage you to participate in the university’s various forums for dialog today, and to listen to or read some quality news, such as NPR radio, The Washington Post, and so on. Some of you might also read the foreign press online. Participating in the country’s and world’s dialog is good not only for your intellectual development, but also for your mental health.
Take care of yourselves.