Proximity without intimacy

Obama’s presumption of unity may serve to undermine the very thing

By Matt Barnum

[img id=”77176″ align=”alignleft”] History was made Tuesday morning, and I was not a witness to it. I was not one of the two million people packed into the National Mall. I was not on my couch watching it on CNN or even in front of my computer watching it on Hulu.

In fact, at the moment that the first black president took his oath of office, I was sitting in Cobb listening to people in my Intro to Screenwriting class explain why they decided to take screenwriting. (Sample response: “Because I love movies!”)

Surprisingly, all but two people were present in class. One person, the professor mentioned, had e-mailed in explaining he was sick. Good one. Some people had their laptops open, and judging by the intensity of their attention, they weren’t just surfing Facebook.

Another girl bravely walked into the three-hour class an hour and a half late. When the professor asked her what happened, she responded unabashedly, “I was watching the inauguration.” She added, as if to explain, “I cried the whole time.”

I felt then an odd combination of envy (she had the guts to skip that the rest of us lacked!) and superiority (how dare she skip?!). This was, as it turned out, the defining emotion of my day.

When I got home from class, I began reading the coverage of the inauguration, but quickly stopped. I turned instead to a listing of my Facebook friends’ statuses. They were almost uniformly about the inauguration: “____ is so proud to be an American,” many wrote. A couple contrarians countered with something like, “____ doesn’t care about the new president.” I began attempting to formulate a biting status of my own, one that would humorlessly and succinctly show those mindless Obama supporters the error in their ways.

Once again, what I felt was superiority, and then, quickly, emptiness and jealousy. Not jealousy that my guy lost and Obama won—I can’t imagine feeling a particularly strong emotion had it been McCain standing across from John Roberts. No, the jealousy was from not being a part of something. It was from lacking the hope bordering on certitude that everyone around me seemed to have.

I felt like I was in Dante’s idea of hell: proximity without intimacy. Not exactly it, but quite like it. (Some readers may think that I’m being a bit melodramatic here. They would probably be right, but perhaps we can hold this aside for a moment.) I was so near something—the Obama movement—but had no connection with it. So my defense mechanism was to feel superior. Superior that I was not sucked in, that I was able to keep my head about things, to avoid irrationality and hero worship. (And even though I call it a defense mechanism, that really is what I feel, even now.)

In President Obama’s inaugural remarks he said, “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” What he said to me, however, was that in not supporting him, I apparently chose fear and conflict and discord.

And there I was, thinking that I was choosing low taxes and free markets and conservative judges. But no, our president informed me. I had bad intentions in mind, intentions of some sort of nebulous straw-man dystopia. Or was I just an idiot, hoodwinked by the folksy, fast-talking Sarah Palin?

I don’t think that’s really what Obama meant in his speech, but that is what he said. He spoke of a unity that simply doesn’t exist, as if saying that it is so will make it so. No doubt, millions of Americans who did not vote for Obama watched his inauguration and were profoundly affected. They were affected, but they were not changed; they did not turn from conservative to liberal, from pro-life to pro-choice, from free-market loving to low-tax hating. And then there were others, like me, who were not affected at all, who could only think of the policy differences between themselves and Obama.

I can really only speak for myself of course, but on that Tuesday afternoon as I read our president’s glib words, implicitly condemning supporters of his opponent, I felt the opposite of “united in purpose.” I felt alienated.