Did you know Barack Obama was sworn into his second presidential term twice? The first, the “real” one mandated by the US Constitution, was in a private ceremony at the White House, and the second, held on Monday, was the big event at Capitol Hill watched by hundreds of thousands of people.
Did you also know he took his oath of office on two bibles? One was owned by the civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the other by President Abraham Lincoln, remembered for abolishing slavery in the United States.
I stayed up late to watch the Obama inauguration on cable TV in 2009 and again on Monday night as an anthropologist fascinated with public rituals and its rich symbolism, two Bibles and all. Public rituals are windows into cultures. In the Philippines, presidential inaugurals are long and drawn-out, sometimes ad hoc, while the Americans have everything scripted down to the minute, each event brief and crisp.
Rituals also have elements of theater and performance, a way of bringing people together and affirming common values, especially those that are just emerging and contested. It was not surprising that the Obama-Biden oath-taking was an important opportunity to pitch for gender, racial and ethnic equality. It took the United States 228 years before electing an African-American president. Even more striking, the United States has never had a woman president or vice president in its 232 years of existence.
The opening invocation was given by Myrlie Ever-Williams, an African-American woman civil rights leader whose husband, also a civil rights activist, was assassinated 50 years ago. The invocation was significant, too, because Ever-Williams is not a religious minister.
After the invocation Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor administered the oath of office to Vice President Joe Biden. Sotomayor, said to be a personal choice of Biden, represents so much of what Americans like to talk about in terms of equal opportunities—her parents were Puerto Rican, she grew up in the Bronx in New York, lost her father at the age of 9, and struggled with diabetes from an early age.
I watched Sotomayor in a TV interview just last week, where she talked about her tough childhood and how she was determined to live life to its fullest because her health condition had a poor prognosis. Affirmative action, where ethnic minorities are given special priority for access to jobs and schools, got her into Princeton, but this policy has always been controversial and seen as unfair by the majority (at least for now) white Americans. Significantly, Sotomayor and her colleagues will have to make a decision soon on a case that challenges affirmative action.
But there was more to this presidential inaugural than symbolic rituals. In many ways, the United States is at a crossroads when it comes to defining its ideals and values, and given that we Filipinos so often follow the US lead, sometimes being more American than the Americans themselves, it is important to understand the changes that are going on.
The last election was crucial, Americans having to choose between two very different presidential candidates. Republican Mitt Romney invoked the rhetoric of rugged American individualism and an aversion to “government interference” to oppose Obama’s programs, notably mandatory health insurance, increased taxes for the rich, tougher environmental laws to tackle climate change, gay rights, and amnesty for the children of illegal immigrants.
Local Internet sites followed that election in a strange twist: some groups opposed to the reproductive health bill kept claiming that Americans were up in arms against a dictator named Obama, the same evil force pushing an “imperialist” agenda of population control. I was initially shocked, then amused, at how Obama came constantly under fire from these anti-RH Filipinos, using press releases from Fox News and other US right-wing political sources (including more conservative American Catholic bishops) claiming Obama was promoting socialism (through expanded health financing), immorality (through contraceptives) and sexual perversion (through gay rights). Other postings came from the fringe, like those saying Obama was Muslim and not a US citizen.
After the Obama victory the postings turned even more grim, painting a picture of America with a bleak future, Catholics marginalized and doomed, the unborn condemned to a holocaust, young people left drifting in a moral vacuum, with all these adverse effects spilling over to affect the Philippines.
More then than an Obama watch, we need a more rational America watch or, in academic terms, American studies. To understand ourselves, we need to understand America (and Spain), not just in terms of the past and the colonial occupation but also in relation to the present. At least three million Filipinos live in the United States, imbibing all kinds of values. But even for Filipinos who do not live there, we are bombarded daily with all kinds of representations of America and imbibe, often unconsciously, its values.
America-watching, especially at this crucial time when Obama uses his reelection to push harder for much-needed reforms, allows us to understand why we, too, need reforms in the Philippines. I’m particularly interested in what will happen with the American healthcare system, which has been left to “free” enterprise with very little government intervention. A book just published by the US National Research Council, “US Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” paints a depressing picture of the consequences of such laissez-faire policies: Americans are less healthy across their entire life spans than their counterparts in 16 developed countries. The findings apply as well to college-educated upper-income Americans.
Yet our healthcare system is based on the Americans’—too much left to the private sector, with even more adverse impacts on Filipinos because we have so many more poor people left to fend for themselves, and many more people, even the rich, who are almost illiterate when it comes to health knowledge.
On another important front, I do share the disappointments of many American liberals, who feel that Obama has not done enough to end US intervention in international affairs. Obama’s inaugural speech suggests this policy will continue, invoking the need to defend democracy in other countries but which is often based on American self-interest.
But Obama’s speech also dwelt on finally implementing much-needed reforms in healthcare, education, the taxation system, environmental protection, and gun control. In the aftermath of the often acrimonious presidential election campaigns, Obama also warned his fellow Americans: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
There are lessons to derive from an America watch, as we prepare for our own election watch in May, not just on the conduct of the elections but also in relation to the visions, programs and promises our politicians will be dangling. Listen hard as they declare their stand on social issues; you may just as well be hearing American politicians.