I just got burned on social media for criticising the poem by Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration. Silly me: she was about to be carried to superstardom on a tsunami of adulation and it was not the time to be picky. But stupidly I said, “Very good – but needs to also learn the power of brevity”.
In return I was called, in summary, a mean-spirited misogynist with the attention span of a goldfish, who was pissing on their parade. When I made the further mistake of replying, I got a glimpse of the almost impossible task that Joe Biden faces in his quest to bridge the great divide.
The root problem is that we have reached a stage where very few people will listen to any point of view that does not exactly mirror their own. The thread I posted to was populated by Biden and Harris lovers, of whom I’m one. If they react that way to a dissenting voice from an ally, what chance is there of them finding any kind of agreement with their opponents?
I seem to be in a tiny minority of people who are actually interested in different views. I watch Fox and CNN; I read the Independent and the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the Sun; I listen to Hartley-Brewer and Laurence Fox (who I loathe) and to James O’Brien and Owen Jones, (who I quite like); and all of them at least occasionally make good points, even if I may hate to admit it.
Perhaps it’s because I spent my career in inter-governmental organisations, working with people of just about every nationality, race, creed, age and gender. At college I was taught to seek, analyse and critique different sources before reaching my own conclusions. I believe that the freedoms of one citizen end where those of the next begin; and I’m happy to live and let live up to that point.
Why is this so rare?
During Trump’s last days, I saw a very decent CNN anchor say disgustedly of a racist Trump supporter, “I have nothing in common with that man!’ I wanted to shout at the screen, ‘Yes you do! You are both human beings, you are both men of similar age, you are both Americans, you are both politically active and you both care about your country.’
A visiting alien would have struggled to understand why they couldn’t even imagine finding common ground. I also find it easier to forgive the Trumpite. He was ignorant, born to prejudice and misled. The CNN guy had none of those excuses but he was black, with centuries of oppression weighing on him.
Joe Biden said all the right things: the need to listen to opposing views and focus on what unites us instead of on what divides us; the importance of treating each other with respect and courtesy; the valuing of facts over lies; and the determination never to cease finding ways to improve democracy, always in pursuit of a more perfect union.
I received a weird brickbat about that last point, namely, “You have confirmed that you are mean-spirited by admitting that you prefer to focus on improving something good rather than celebrating it. That’s perfectionism. In my experience perfectionism is mean-spirited.”
Maybe she had a perfectionist boss who always found her work unsatisfactory. But you know who else is a perfectionist? Joe Biden. Famous for it. I thought about pointing this out but clearly it wouldn’t have gone down well.
In any case, perfectionism isn’t mean-spirited. It’s exactly what it says on the can: a determination to pursue perfection and not be satisfied merely with the good. That’s why the two are enemies. It’s also why Biden exhorted everyone to keep driving forwards, towards that more perfect union.
And Amanda Gorman? By rights she will shine for decades to come.
But I still think the poem was too long.