The inaugural address given by Barack Obama expressed a vitality perfectly at odds with the impenetrable diction, severely limited instrumental skills and the out-of-tune, overstated pop music put on disappointing display at the Lincoln Memorial a few days before the swearing-in ritual. That was proof that we should expect little from our new president along the lines of high but unpretentious culture, primarily because he, apparently like too many Americans, seems to believe that energy and vitality are the same thing. Exactly the reverse is true.
That was proven just recently when that 29-year veteran pilot brought a passenger plane down safely into the Hudson River after it had been seriously disabled perhaps by two flocks of birds. As Obama himself observed, that pilot did not consider himself a hero; he had only done what he thought was the best job that he could do.
If Barack Obama can free our society of its protracted adolescence, he will have done one of the greatest things of the last 50 years.
Profound use of wisdom is the most impressive form of vitality and that was Obama's message after he had been sworn in as the 44th president of these United States. While he may cater to—or pretend to like or perhaps even actually like—the mechanized pop drivel that is proof of our country's sliding down further and further into decadent approval of musical automation, the new president is still a man of rare importance.
Though he is known as one of the donkeys, Obama showed himself to be fully an elephant in his massive mind because he so well understands the importance of memory. Unlike God and his angels or the Devil and his demons—or any other invisible forces to which we allude in order to explain the perpetual momentum of the present—human beings always have to be reminded of whom they are and what they have done in their finest moments, days, weeks, months, and years. That is the task that Barack Obama has set for himself.
He has chosen to become the flesh-and-blood library of inspiring national optimism. Optimism is not for those who suffer from the heart disease that threatens their lives when the heat in the kitchen rises and the walls seem to slide close enough to crush them or melt their bones past jelly into liquid.
If we are lucky, what is good and resilient—even when threatened by the spiritual rust of decadence—lasts and is loved and treasured by high and low, rich and poor, famous and unknown. In our society, which grew to its first plane of adulthood during the Industrial Revolution and began the shift from the rural to the urban, innovation has so often punched out older understandings that we far too frequently assume that something which is new, or claims to be, is automatically better than what we already know. That is the technological model and its scientific twin. Both are good where they are but are very dangerous when applied to other things. Later is not always better.
Obama made that a strong point in his address when he observed that the tools may change and the tasks that demand to be met might be new, but those virtues needed to bring our goals and values alive remain timeless. This sense of history and the feeling of adulthood that comes with this man could provide a turning point in the evolution of American culture that we should not be afraid to imagine. The adolescent impulses that have overwhelmed our society through increasing influence since the arrival of Elvis Presley may now find it is time to sleep the big sleep, to take a powder, to get lost.
If Barack Obama is actually able to free our society of the protracted adolescence that has been wrongly misinterpreted as a key to its vitality, he will have done one of the greatest things ever done over the last 50 years. Obama will have helped the nation to combine what that pilot showed about mature vitality facing up to the dangers of the moment and that unexpected quality of integrity and vision that star college-football player Myron Rolle showed when he, unlike those who measure everything by money, chose to take a scholarship to Oxford rather than be a part of the meat rack that is the NFL draft.
These are things that happen in the real world and that make it clear to us that, even when surrounded on every side by the loud, the narcissistic, the corrupt, and the crudest versions of materialism, choices arriving from integrity, courage, and compassion can still be made.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.