The Inaugural Brawl and Shivers up Your Leg

by | Jan 24, 2017

You’ve no doubt heard about the fanfaronade between Trump and the media over the number of people who watched the Inauguration.

Unlike the brawlers, I know the correct number:  too many.

Too many watched the pomp and ceremony, the plutocrats on the stage, the proletariats massed beneath them on the Capitol Mall, the praising of God for being on America’s side, and the firing of a battery of 105mm howitzers, which had a special meaning to this former Army Artillery officer.

For sure, such displays of government power and leader worship should not be watched by innocent children.

What’s wrong with loving one’s country and admiring a peaceful transition of power?

Well, pomp and ceremony is a strange way of showing love for something.  I love my family dearly but don’t fire howitzers in the street to show my love.  Nor do I stand on my roof with a bullhorn and announce to my neighbors that my family is better than their family and that God is on my family’s side but not their side.  Not only would this piss off my neighbors, but it would be against the Golden Rule and HOA rules.

Regarding a peaceful transition of power, European parliamentary states have us beat in that arena.  The day after a European head of state is voted out of office, a new head of state takes office with minimal fanfare and without months going by.  Of course Europe had bad experiences in the 1930s with mass rallies to honor inspiring and charismatic leaders.  Still, hundreds of thousands of Berliners turned out in 2008 to cheer Senator Barack Obama when he spoke in Berlin as a candidate for the U.S. presidency, near the site of the former Reich Chancellery.  Leader worship apparently still lurks in the DNA of Germans.

Let’s break for a pop quiz.

Which of the following two perspectives of political leaders would have resulted in less pain and misery throughout human history?

  1. seeing politicians as superiors deserving of adulation, salutes, “Hail to the Chief,” and brass bands; or
  2. seeing them as any other worker who fills a disgusting but necessary job that someone has to do given the human condition, similar to such disgusting but necessary jobs as undertakers, garbage truck drivers, port-a-potty cleaners, and the highway workers who remove dead animals from the roadside.

Correct Answer:  b

In this vein, I’d rather stand on the sidewalk and salute the guy who picks up my garbage than salute my U.S. senator, John McCain.  At least my garbage man isn’t a charlatan, doesn’t lie to me, doesn’t have a big ego, and doesn’t want to send my son to die in an unnecessary war.

Of course it’s only human nature (or chimpanzee nature if you believe in evolution) to get shivers up one’s leg from patriotic music, marching bands, stirring speeches, fighter jet flyovers, and the sight of an alpha male or alpha female.

Being only human (or maybe not), I got the shivers quite frequently in my younger days before wisdom began replacing testosterone, especially when I was a Distinguished Military Student in college and later when I was a new gung-ho officer being trained to kill gooks (hey, that’s what the Vietcong were called) with phosphorous rounds, proximity rounds, high-explosive rounds, and fleshette rounds filled with tiny darts, which would nail supposed enemies of the USA to trees while shredding their skin like a cheese grater shreds cheese.

No one in his right mind would have come up with the idea on his own of doing this to scrawny peasants in pants that looked like diapers, in a far-off country that he couldn’t find on a map and that didn’t have the means to attack Guam, let alone Seattle.

The world would be a better place if people saved their shivers for their spouse, or for their kid’s first recital, or for the theater, or for a good movie, or for a hero who risks his life saving another, or for an accomplished scientist or author, or for a superhuman athlete.

The dangerous kind of shivers should be avoided at all cost.  At the first sign of them, one should run away as fast as possible from the source of the shiver, whether the source is a charismatic politician, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a Marine color guard, or Inaugural pomp and ceremony.  The shivers can only lead to trouble—to emotions taking over reason.

You might ask how patriotism and the defense of the country can happen without citizens being inspired by leaders and by symbolism.   The answer is that it can happen the same way it happens with loyalty to family and defense of family—that is, spontaneously and naturally.

Loving mothers and fathers don’t need pomp and ceremony to love their spouse and children.  The same with true patriots.

Likewise, parents don’t need to be exhorted by a president to protect their family from bad guys.  They’ll open an upstairs window and dump boiling oil on a bad guy if necessary to save their loved ones.  The same with Americans when the country is seriously threatened.  They don’t need exhortations from leaders when the threat is real and the cause is just.  They only need exhortations with the opposite situation.

A provocative and sobering book on this point is The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, by Walter A. McDougall.  It details the many examples throughout American history of Americans being led to believe that it was a civic religion to spread U.S. hegemony throughout the world, regardless of the cost in lives, money, international reputation, or blowback.

Maybe none of this would have happened if every inauguration had been like Calvin Coolidge’s first inauguration, which took place in his family’s living room in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, where the Oath of Office was administered by a justice of the peace and notary.

Come to think of it, it would be in keeping with American values for future inaugurations to be held in Plymouth Notch, out of sight of little children, instead of being held in the Imperial City.

The thought of this is sending shivers up my leg.

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