Although skin color cannot travel the airwaves, last week I had a distinct impression that I was hearing an officially important black lady, on the phone long distance, talking to a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She was saying she would not go to the inaugural ceremony of President-Elect Donald Trump. She’s not alone. As she noted, it’s in the news that a number of elected democrats are planning to “not attend.” To her the inaugural was a celebration, and since she didn’t see Trumps’ election as something to celebrate, she wouldn’t attend.
A celebration? A happiness thing? Wrong. While it’s true that everybody will be wearing their “Sunday go to meeting” clothes, the event is not solely like the happiness of shouting the gospel, but also, in small part, like the quieter formal sacrament of the bread and wine. Every society needs ceremonies. Old ladies just know in their bones that certain traditions are necessary, while old philosophers know why: The alternative is grim.
A thought-scenario might help explain things: So I invite you to depart with me,
To another space and time.
There I am, a simple peasant hoeing my simple plot of land in the shadow of the castle. Do I care if the flag on the castle changes? Or if the duke is killed and replaced by his rival? In truth? Not unless my taxes go up. I don’t care for the elite, I don’t like them, and I even—whisper it—despise them. That’s why every Sunday the priest says, “Bless the squire and his relations, and keep us in our proper stations.” My station? Peasant. One day my blood boils over because the elite are being extra stupid, my family is getting extra skinny, and maybe the queen is saying, “Ah, let them eat cake.” So we take up arms and leave the farm for a while, then we return home—and we all convert to democracy.
So far, so good. For the first time ever we have folks without royal blood, without the anointment of God, in charge of the country. Heaven on earth? Or history repeating?
If the new leaders are not quite legitimate, then next thing you know, some really short guy decides on a “stroke of state,” something the French call a “coup d’etat.” Me? This time around my blood only gets lukewarm, and I stay put. I don’t know much about democracy, but I know that my little plot needs hoeing.
When I was a boy growing up in the mid twentieth century, when all those former colonies were becoming new countries, and joining the United Nations, every once in a while a young country would experience a coup de’tat. As Turkey did just last year. If they can, the rebels quickly put a symbolic tank in the public square. Not to fight other tanks, —what tanks? But to be a symbol: Don’t resist, you can’t fight the new city hall.
If the stroke was sharp and swift, then peace would be restored within 48 hours, after someone had literally lost his head. Maybe a king, maybe a rebel. If the stroke was not swift, half bungled, then there would be a long civil war: Now people would leave their farms to fight.
Of course, if only you would all rush to join the fighting right away, then you would avoid a lot of future bloodshed and a long war. Yes, but what if you see that ominous tank? History shows us that on rare occasions an army unit will rush in during the critical 48 hours, that sometimes a short captain will show initiative with his small body of troops, rushing up the stairs of the capital building. But not the bureaucrats, no, they will stay in their cubicles, like peasants on a plot. And not those “bureaucrats in uniform,” the city’s finest, also known as the police.
An expert on coup de’tats, Professor Edward Luttwak, could not find any case of a police captain taking action. To me this makes good sense: The cops in those new countries don’t know much about democracy, but they know they don’t want to take risks for a… not-so-legitimate government. They won’t care to die for an elite who won’t “give a care” about them.
Meanwhile, back in America,
The issue is the word “legitimacy.” Be it the stars and stripes or the stiff formal robes of a judge or the heavy chain worn by “the” mayor, people will rally around a legitimate symbol. In a courtroom, as the judge enters, I will “rally” by jabbing the uninformed longhaired boy next to me in the ribs, advising him we must all rise when the judge enters. My own freedom to sit is not as important as all of us having a society where the forces a judge wields are legitimate.
There’s another word, “force.” Local farmers will little note, and little care, when down at the local widget factory a new chief executive officer takes over the big corner office. No ceremony is needed. But at the rural army base, then even if none of the farmers are going to come attend a really boring parade, there will always be a “change of command” ceremony. Always. Force must be legitimate.
The outgoing U.S. president managed something President Clinton tried and failed to do: To drag the U.S.A. kicking and screaming into the modern world of affordable health care. The U.S. system is not as good as over in New Zealand, Australia or Japan, not as good as up here in Canada or over in Western Europe, but at least it’s a start.
And if you were opposed? You probably called it “Obama-care,” you probably routinely referred to that man’s surname without using the honorific of “president,” and you may have even maintained he was not born in the U.S.A. (The “birthers”) All this friction could only have been worse if Barack Obama was without the legitimacy of a presidential inauguration. The symbolism matters.
In England, of course, they elect a prime minister. The King only leaves office by dying. Back in the day, though, the English avoided civil war by saying, all in one breath, “The king is dead, long live the king!” It sounds silly to us here and now, but for them? The alternative was too grim.
As for me, I guess even if I lived right in the city of Washington I might stay at home or go to the library on the day of the presidential inauguration. Fine. And if I was a female black elected official?
Attending the inaugural is important, because America is important.
up in Canada,
hazy on modern specifics,
clear on old principles,
~For folks overseas, coup de’tats are not boring history. In fact, Edward Luttwak’s book, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, has been translated into over 100 languages. Here's a New York book review.
~Of course I’m not a minority of one. I'm sure others know history too. By the time you read this, older and wiser heads may well have talked the elected democrats into attending.