Sunday, January 18, 2009

Progressive Patriotism

Among the premediated inaugural activities covered by CNN, Fox, and other news networks was a live program on HBO, which presented the "Obama Inaugural Celebration," featuring performances on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by notable progressive celebrities from the entertainment media. Actors like Tom Hanks and Samuel Jackson did short readings. Musicians like John Mellencamp, who sang "Ain't That America" before a flag-filled backdrop, did patriotic numbers., for example, performed as part of a trio with Sheryl Crow and Herbie Hancock singing Bob Marley's "One Love," and Queen Latifah sang a duet of "My Country 'tis of Thee" with Josh Groban. 

Perhaps the most troubling moment of the entire Inaugural Celebration was the performance of Garth Brooks, who sang a medley that included a truncated version of Don Maclean's "American Pie" and a raucous sing-along of "Shout," the theme song of John Belushi's Animal House and a hackneyed and un-selfconscious example of white America's centuries-long exploitation of black American musical traditions.

Brooks was followed shortly by U2, whose performance began with Bono's questionable assertion that Obama's inauguration fulfilled the "Dream" that Martin Luther King articulated on the same location some 46 years ago. Bono's rose-colored vision of American racial politics was usefully countered later by his insistence that freedom was not just an American dream but one of other people as well, including among his shouted list of people who wanted to be free "the Palestinians." 

Obama's brief speech freely remediated King's "I Have a Dream" speech in urging people to be patient in dealing with the difficult problems faced by the nation. Obama was followed by the trio of  Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and Seeger's grandson leading a sing-along version of "This Land Is Your Land." The Inaugural Celebration ended with Beyonce soulfully singing "America the Beautiful" joined by a chorus of all of the performers of the 2-hour special, the conventional closing tactic of star-studded events like this one.

As enjoyable as some of the performances were, and as happy-making it is that this celebration means that eight years of Bush-Cheney rule are about to end, the sorry but unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from this entire event is that the ideological performance of liberal or progressive patriotism is only barely more tolerable than its conservative counterpart. And insofar as it is more tolerable, this is due perhaps more to the better musical and aesthetic taste of progressive patriots than to the particulars of their political vision of America.

The progressive patriotism of the nationalism and American exceptionalism that premediate Obama's inauguration and presidency reminds us that the more things change in Washington, the more they stay the same in the premediated imaginary of the United States of America. 

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