It was a moment of victory in the political cultural war that has gripped the United States since the tumultuous days of the 1960s. It came in the middle of the inauguration celebration held at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. And its bearer was Garth Brooks. The man who has epitomized country music, the official music of Red-State America, was hailing the election of a man who represents what many people with a Red-State mentality oppose: an America that embraces liberal attitudes of diversity and tolerance, that does not equate Ivy League-style education with effete elitism, and that does not hold on to traditions to block social change and progress. True, Brooks is no rock-ribbed redneck. His 1992 song, “We Shall Be Free.” essentially endorsed gay marriage. But when he performed the old Isley Brothers soul classic, “Shout,” before a massive crowd of Obama supporters, you could almost hear some Red-Staters wail, “They’ve turned our Garth into a black guy!” When he finished, Brooks doffed his cowboy hat toward President-elect Barack Obama, who sat with his family to the side of the stage.
The show at the Lincoln Memorial contained other moments signaling that the cultural civil war that began with the civil rights crusade, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the rise of hippie-dom was done—at least for now—and that the libs had won. Toward the end of the HBO-aired event, Bruce Springsteen, once a greaser-rocker, brought out folk music hero and activist Pete Seeger, once derided by conservatives as a commie, and Seeger led the crowd in “This Land Is Your Land.” This song is the liberal national anthem, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a populist-minded response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which was too rah-rah for Guthrie’s liking. (Beyoncé then hit the stage and belted out “God Bless America.”)
Earlier in the day, minutes before HBO threw the on-switch for its taping, gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson delivered an invocation that probably would be considered heretical by many fundamentalists. He began:
Bless us with tears–for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.
Bless us with anger–at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people….Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance–replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.
Take that, Rick Warren.
During the show that followed, the Washington Gay Men’s Chorus performed “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”–appearing on the same stage as military honor guards. Gays and the military–it was all part of this “We Are One” extravaganza. Had John McCain and Sarah Palin (and their America) won in November, there would have been no such coming together. And no U2 singing “Pride (In the Name of Love”), its anthem-tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., for the new president the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day (a federal holiday that had been opposed by some Red-Staters, including McCain).
In the United States, culture is politics—and vice versa. Obama’s election helped define—or redefine—which currents and sensibilities are ascendant. And Obama made this victory possible with his skills as a political communicator. He has deftly blocked the right’s traditional assaults on his—and, by extension, his supporter’s—patriotism. In fact, he has masterfully embraced America’s mythology—such as when he praises the drafters of the Declaration of Independence—while recognizing the past and present flaws of the nation.
On Saturday, in Philadelphia, as Obama began a train ride to Washington, DC, he delivered remarks that were better than many inaugural addresses of the past. Celebrating the revolution that gave birth to the United States, he said, “The American Revolution was–and remains–an ongoing struggle in the minds and hearts of the people to live up to our founding creed. Starting now, let’s take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union.”
Politicians and others often smugly cite the nation’s founding fathers and their accomplishments in a self-satisfied manner and as an act of (national) self-validation. Obama references the country’s civic icons as an argument for national betterment. Before hopping on that train, Obama proclaimed, “People who love this country can change it.”
That is the opposite of the old slogan used by the right when the political culture war began: “America, love it or leave it.” No, the protesters of that time countered, America, make it better. The expansive view of America—that it is ever-changing, that it always can be improved, that it embodies a wide assortment of people and views—was on display beneath Lincoln’s marble gaze on Sunday. More important, it had helped propel the electoral wave that landed Obama in office.
No victories are permanent. Shifts, backlashes, reversals are always possible. But for the moment, via Obama’s election, a great debate has been decided. The times have a-changed.
For a different review of the show, click here.
Flickr photo from the Presidential Inaugural Committee used under a Creative Commons license.