How should we interpret the election of Joe Biden, and especially the way it was staged? Left-leaning public opinion in the United States has by and large rejoiced at what some view as a re-affirmation of democracy, and others as a victory in the never-ending (and above all ritual) struggle against fascism. The following text offers a very different take on the recent events in the United States.
Amanda Gorman, a twenty-two-year-old Black poet, apparently stole the show at the inauguration ceremony for Joe Biden when she recited a poem of hers. Penned for the occasion, “The Hill We Climb” stands out much less for its literary quality than as incantatory propaganda, as well as for the author’s status as a symbol, like Obama, of how worthy U.S. Blacks can be and how far Americans imagine their country has advanced toward leaving behind a legacy of slavery and racism.1
There’s no need really to dwell on the “politics as show business” atmosphere at the event, particularly since it is hardly a novelty. Likewise, the many religious allusions in the poem — “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree,” “We’ve braved the belly of the beast” or “A country that is bruised but whole,” evocative of the Second Letter of Paul to Corinthians (“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed….”), fall squarely within a time-honored tradition in U.S. literature and cultural life.
In contrast, the number of times Gorman makes oblique reference to political speeches that have marked the country’s history deserves emphasis. For example, when she declaims, “But that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect,” she is drawing not only on the Preamble to the United States Constitution (“In order to form a more perfect Union”), but also on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural address (“Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy. And so today, in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons, at a fearful cost, and we shall profit by them.”). This last quote is surely also what inspired the line, “To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.”
Most importantly, Gorman turns for inspiration to Abraham Lincoln, admittedly an outstanding public speaker: “We seek harm to none and harmony for all,” “But while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated” and “Because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.”2 The main difference is perhaps that the young poet strikes a rather triumphant tone (in keeping with the upbeat, “can-do” mindset so highly valued in the United States), whereas the nineteenth-century president was imbued with the tragic, cruel nature of the events under way.
So we’re dealing with a fairly effective political speech, though filled with compulsive, rap-style rhyme and alliteration. Its underlying meaning emerges more clearly, however, from the presence of another performer at the ceremony. Bruce Springsteen, who has written many an ode to the victims of deindustrialization, got to sing “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a song that he went so far as to offer as a kind of “prayer.”
Why, you may ask, pay any attention to this? Because both figures also put in an appearance on February 7 at the Super Bowl, the most-watched sports event in the U.S., and therefore potentially the most lucrative of all for advertisers, some of whom roll out their costliest commercials of the year there. Gorman got to recite another of her poems, a tribute to three front-line workers during the current pandemic, that works pretty much like the one before in that the goal is to electrify and unite the crowd. As for Springsteen, apparently for the first time in his forty-eight-year career, he agreed to feature in a video. It was for Jeep, a Fiat-Chrysler subsidiary.
Some viewers were outraged at this “sell-out.” I certainly wasn’t, but what did strike me was how much the rock singer’s message in “The Middle” had in common with Gorman’s. After showing us a chapel constantly open, and open to all, that is located at the country’s exact mid-point, this son of working-class New Jersey goes on, like the young poet, to stress the importance of finding “common ground” (“the middle”), overcoming our divisions, emerging from darkness and reclaiming the freedom that connects us all — because “we need that connection.” Like her, he presumably takes a leaf out of Roosevelt’s book (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”) when he reminds us how toxic fear can be. Like Gorman again, he uses the image of a hill or mountain we must climb — and climb we will. And like her, he assures us that there is “hope on the road up ahead.” Those words ease the transition to the advertising slogan that soon comes up on screen: “Jeep.com/The Road Ahead.” But just before, we read that the video is dedicated “To the ReUnited States of America.”3
Taken together, the visuals, background music and narration create a good deal more impact than most such commercials. True, it’s only advertising, but if you assume the main point is to stir up emotions, “The Middle” is arguably just as “effective” as the poem recited in front of the Capitol. Now, automakers are obviously well-advised to urge everyone to “cross [the] divide” so they can sell as many cars as possible. But what about authors? Mindful of their careers, they, too, often feel the need to cast a wide net. However, as suggested above, Gorman expresses herself almost as much as a propagandist as she does as a poet. And in any case, she has admitted to dreaming of making it someday to President of the United States.
Gorman’s poetry and the Jeep commercial both play on shared references rooted in the country’s religious past, but even more so in the attitude of near worship that Americans have for their institutions, their founding document and the most revered figures in their history. However, after the most divisive U.S. election since the 1860’s and the assault on the Capitol by a motley mob — bringing together resolute right-wing militants and simpletons who probably fantasized that they were in the midst of some thrilling video game — it’s somehow hard to be impressed.
The widening rift between urban centers and rural areas gets plastered over with nostalgic footage of the great plains. The gap between people with low incomes, many of them living in the countryside, and affluent urbanites draws little more than a vague, fleeting mention from Springsteen (“freedom [is] not the property of just the fortunate few”). In broader terms, the patterns that once shaped connections between the individual and the community, the role of institutions, the composition of the U.S. population, male-female relations and the global status of the United States have eroded. The resulting mix of confusion and distress has given rise to a genuine right-wing mass movement. None of that gets dealt with, however. As the boundaries between politics, poetry and advertising grow increasingly blurry, we are fed a steady stream of soothing cant in lieu of serious analysis of the issues at hand or efforts to change society. Then again, the winner of the presidential election actually did much better than his opponent at raising funds from the wealthy and the most powerful corporations. So there will be change after all. It just won’t be the kind we had in mind.
1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz4YuEvJ3y4. A good many U.S. commentators fairly seem to marvel at the very idea that a young Black woman can actually write poetry — and to hail that as yet another sign of how exemplary their country is.
2 – In his second inaugural address, Lincoln said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all….” In the Gettysburg address, delivered after the North’s victory in the bloodiest battle in the Civil War, he stated in conclusion, “… that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” And in his speech to Congress on December 1, 1862, Lincoln warned, “Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history.”