Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Should Arianna Huffington Ask Everyone to Speak the Oath of Office?

I read The Huffington Post as much as anyone. And as those who follow this blog are aware, I have occasionally gone on record regarding certain bloggers, from my noisy tete-a-tete with playwright and Brothers creator Jon Robin Baitz to two recent essays by Randall Bourscheidt, president of Alliance for the Arts (here is a link to Bourscheidt's first essay; here is a link to his second).

And, like many people, I devoured The New Yorker profile of Huffington, cutely called "The Oracle," with great interest. Damn, squawked I, she has so many Facebook friends that she is barred, apparently, from acquiring any more! Always too late for the party, I suppose.

But I have to say that Huffington's essay, Obama Isn't the Only One Being Inaugurated on Jan. 20th, posted on Jan. 5, is making me more than a little uncomfortable. It's not because of what she says in her second graph, because her point is really inexorable and inarguable, particularly at this danger-filled moment in our nation's history:

And that's not just because Obama has promised to make a call to service "a central cause" of his presidency. It's because this moment in history demands that we stop waiting on others -- especially others living in Washington D.C. -- to solve the problems and right the wrongs of our times. Now, more than ever, we must mine the most underutilized resource available to us: ourselves.

No, I agree with her -- how, indeed, can one not? What bothers me, rather, is what is contained in two of her succeeding graphs, when Huffington explains the scheme she has hatched in order to illustrate her point:
The night before Obama is sworn in, HuffPost is co-hosting a pre-Inaugural ball at the Newseum in Washington. Just before midnight we are going to have a Countdown to a New Era. It's a new era not just because the Bush Years will officially be over, and not just because Barack Obama will be president, but because taking on the challenges America is facing will require a new era of citizen responsibility and engagement.

To illustrate this we are putting together a video that will symbolize that we are all stakeholders -- all being inaugurated on January 20th -- by having people from across America send us video of themselves taking the presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

I mean, oy. On the one hand, this idea does take chutzpah: there is something finely whimsical and performative about asking Americans, presumably from all economic and social strata, to articulate the words that have been traditionally reserved for the miniscule number of men who have occupied the Oval Office for the last 200-plus years.

On the other hand, how does engaging private citizens in such an act of performance steep them in a more substantive and enduring way in the "call to service" that Huffington rightly demands? For the President of the United States, at least, the oath is universally considered legal, binding; the elected officials and citizen activists who have pushed for George W. Bush impeachment for the last few months and years regularly cite the fact that he did twice articulate the oath of office as reason enough for Congress to initiate hearings. Jane and Joe Sixpack, by contrast, operate under no such legal or, while we're at it, moral constraints: I can shoot a video of myself raising my right hand, putting my other hand on a Bible, and uttering "I do solemnly swear...," and then I can morph into a "What can government do for me?" liberal and never suffer a consequence. (Then again, Bush hasn't suffered consequences either.)

Yes, I realize that what Huffington is going for is something symbolic, something memorable, a way to connect voters, despite who they voted for, with their inaugurated leader.

To me, though, the President of the United States is at once of the people and leading the people, which is not to confused with above the people. This is the individual we have selected to lead us; it is thus incumbent upon him, not upon the whole of the citizenry, to speak those words. What is incumbent upon us, though, is to listen to those words, to place our faith and to take our measure of that man (or woman) in such a daunting, historical, stirring moment.

Ultimately, Huffington's idea strikes me as a way to generate attention for The Huffington Post. Is it not, in it's own way, superb advertising, a marketing ploy? What does it say about America that we find inspiration in co-opting citizenship with self-promotion?

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