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American Trilogy Part 2 New Dawn, New Flame

by Dakshina Gammanpila

Sitting down to write on 21 21 21 at 21:21 – 21 minutes after 9 on the evening of the 21st year of the 21st century, the day following the inauguration of Joseph Biden Jnr. 46th President of the United States, seemed the right moment to contemplate the first three weeks of an already eventful 2021.

 ‘What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours’, a song to croon and savour, resonant with the sincere and hope-filled ceremony in Washington DC. Warmth radiated from presidents past and present, reflected by the sun-drenched skies, the light bouncing off the Capitol Building like a veritable wedding cake, belying the chill of a January day, as the world watched a celebration with bated breath. The event may have been scaled down but the message boomed loud and clear.

Three extraordinary Wednesdays to ponder: an insurrection, an impeachment and an inauguration. How the world turns. The 6th saw what appeared to be the last rites for Western democracy; the 13th the reading of the will as legacy for an unprecedented 4-year term and then, beyond all hope, on the 20th, a civil partnership of an entirely different kind.  A few days before I had penned a somewhat trepidatious pre-inauguration article focusing on our shared responsibility as global citizens to positively engage and benefit others, not just our selfish selves. The ceremony gave many cause to believe that better days will come.

The inauguration was a time to bear witness to the power of words translated into action, and leading, not by preaching (or incitement to sedition), but by example. From the outset of my column, written across three continents for over a decade, and specifically in my ‘Letters to America’ series on language and literature, the power of words to heal, to wound, to disenfranchise, to comfort and praise, has been stressed.

Biden’s predecessor flung words about with disregard, but he also knew how to harness them to tap into people’s fears, bigotry and mistrust, tuning into the basest and most raw of human instincts. Hurling weapons of mass destruction was both sport and mission. Joe Biden does the opposite; providing balm where others throw kerosene and rub salt. His words were music (and lyrics) to the ears of millions. But the message was not sugar-coated: the road ahead is rough and long and we will stumble, but if we travel together and pick each other up eventually we all rise.

For years I have written about our relationship with light and the two pre-inauguration articles were ostensibly about moving towards the light, whilst recognizing that darkness is essential to that process. Seeds germinate in the dark. Perhaps we had to reach rock bottom in order to know the precious nature of values, the integrity of calm leadership and humility. The last four years have been devoid of that, characterised by a coarseness in politics, parts of the media and general discourse that we have endured and perhaps bought into.

Leading up to the inauguration and on the day itself, I spoke to many US friends living overseas and in the States. The overriding word used was ‘relief’. In a mere 21 days we have travelled from disbelief to grief and relief. A collective sigh was breathed: at last a grown-up.

Biden recognized that in order ‘to heal we must remember’. Laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at Arlington Cemetery, his first official duty as Commander in Chief was not merely symbolic.  Continuity and tradition yes, but moreover a reminder of the loss and grief of millions the world over. Joe Biden has suffered personal tragedy too and his resilience is a marker to all of us that this man gets knocked down, gets up again and resolves to resume, time and again. Despite his 79 years, he is undoubtedly the comeback kid.

As Major Beau Biden’s memory loomed large in his father’s mind, so too the ghosts of Presidents past, their spirit hovering over the proceedings: Lincoln and Kennedy, presidents who stood for others’ freedoms and paid the highest price. Biden quoted Lincoln in his speech; what Lincoln excelled at was plain speaking and an understanding of people. In Arlington JFK’s Eternal flame memorial burned. JFK was, like Biden, a Catholic of Irish descent, a man who strongly believed in words, and their power to move. The created myth of Camelot in the Kennedy clan administration, where knights engaged in doing righteous deeds, may yet be revisited. But in this 21st century Camelot the women will also take centre stage, as lead actors not simply supporting roles.

Together the Biden-Harris administration looks to relight the flame of democracy. Unlike flinging a grenade, this re-ignition might take time, nevertheless the will is palpable. Learning from history seems key –  walking into the future holding a piece of obsidian in front of them to take note of the past. In both my previous Delhi columns I have discussed the significance of history (almost to the point of bludgeoning the point home, dear reader). History enables us to walk with a wider appreciation of where we have come from, where we are going and why.

Biden acknowledges the need to tell the truth even if the truth is horrible to hear, regarding the electorate as right thinking, fair minded intelligent people. Treating others as you would wish to be treated: as equals, not tools or weapons to be indiscriminately wielded for your own ends. We have all been suffering from trauma: the pandemic, lockdowns and not seeing loved ones plus years of political misrepresentation and untruths. It has taken its toll, and our combat stress responses are heightened.

It may be easy to dismiss and demonise an old white guy and I’m writing as a brown, youngish (compared with dear Joe) woman.

However, Biden proved that he has something real to offer, and he believes in partnership. The previous incumbent would never share the stage. True Biden had a cleverly chosen running mate who looks very different (and let’s be honest a lot of people never see passed the packaging), yet the President and Vice President’s values appear to coincide, something sorely lacking with the outgoing administration. And just in case you are wondering next week’s article will focus (at last) on the women of the inauguration.

In my legal training the concept of intention held fast: what did the actor or perpetrator of the deed intend; what was in their mind to initiate and propel the action? Biden speaks with no guile, we can hear and feel the positive intent. And it is like a salve on an open wound disinfecting, soothing, healing. The world, not only the US, needs that – now. Intention and action writ and spoken large, the ministrations of a nation’s ‘Comforter in Chief’.

We are part of the partnership. Not just the audience; spectators, witnesses or grateful recipients. We too are participants and contributors, if we choose. What are our intentions? In a world obsessed with my tribe against your tribe, we are failing. Or rather there are a few doing very, very well at the expense of others. Joe Biden intends to include everyone, not just his tribe. That was refreshing and perhaps the only way to bring a divided nation together. The truth depends on your perspective, walking in the shoes of others to try and imagine their truth and what drives them.

Thoughts and words, a reference point turned into actions and deeds, changing the way we think and incrementally changing how we behave. Criticism of how bad things were and still stand are justified; simply reverting to the old ways would be wrong. Yet upheaval of the biased system of entrenched thought is not easy. Employing positive ways of thinking and speaking and acting towards one another may offer a foundation. Biden stated he would be a president for all people, even the ones who didn’t vote for him (and there were 74million of them – a million for every year of his losing opponent’s life).

The ceremony was moving and intense but as good as his word President Biden turned them into action on the very afternoon of his inauguration by signing Executive Orders to tackle the pandemic, race, the economy, and climate change. Such championing of democracy and its processes goes some way to restore our faith in governance, respect for institutions and common courtesy. Joe Biden, pushing 80, may just be our new flame.

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