By Arab News
By Chandraha Choudhury*
For most of his political career of more than half a century, Joe Biden was seen as little more than a journeyman: The political equivalent of the office worker who joins a company at 18 and, through nothing more than the passing of time and the power of persistence, rises to the top rung of management by retirement.
But, last week, as he took office as the 46th president of the United States of America, and at 78 the oldest sitting president in history, there was the overwhelming sense that he more than deserved his honor. Rather, he was — 33 years after he first ran for president — exactly the right man for the time. He showed this with the civility, sagacity and force of the speech he made at his inauguration, which was no ordinary piece of political and presidential rhetoric.
Inaugural speeches by American presidents are always closely watched and minutely analyzed, and Biden’s was no different. However, because of the enormous violence wreaked upon language itself by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and the paranoid worldview, cynical lies and inflammatory charge of his messaging during his four years in power, words themselves had reached a state of crisis in America.
Of course, there is an array of demanding policy and administrative challenges — the mismanaged coronavirus pandemic response, an economy in tatters, a jobs crisis, right-wing conspiracies, the unresolved tensions of the Black Lives Matter movement, etc. — confronting Biden and, in the longer term, he will be judged by how well his administration deals with them. But, on his first day in office, Biden’s task was to take hold of words themselves, the one currency we use even more than money, and demonstrate again their power to reason, persuade, imagine, inspire, unite, and heal.
Without such possibilities being present in language, there can be no meaning in politics and no future for a society. Thankfully Biden rose to the occasion — as he had done since the outset of last year’s ferociously uncivil and anarchic election campaign — and reminded his shaken and divided countrymen the terms on which democracy really works.
“Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” he said. To the upward of 74 million Americans who voted for Trump, he added: “Let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our republic, is perhaps this nation’s greatest strength.”
With these words, he emphasized what every student of democracy had come to realize in the four years of the Trump era: That, without respect for norms and traditions and without a political discourse rooted in civility and empathy, any democracy, even one as old as that of the US, can be hollowed out and destroyed in just a few seasons of tumult and tawdriness.
Most importantly, Biden managed to sound tough and tender at the same time, like a grandfather speaking to his much-loved but errant family around the Christmas fire. He called out the “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat” and alerted Americans of their responsibility toward the unfinished, centuries-long project to establish racial justice in the country, while also reminding them of the mutually shared ideals and everyday acts of caring and solidarity that make a nation.
His speech was a call to arms, but of a peaceful kind. “Let us end this uncivil war” was exactly what the country needed to hear just two weeks after a deranged mob, incited by a president who refused to accept that he had lost the election, stormed the Capitol. Trump had always seemed to gain energy by sowing discord; Biden, by contrast, seemed to be saying and showing that he took no pleasure from the pursuit of polarization.
And, just as significantly for the health of language in politics, for the first time in many years there could be no answering verbal fire from Trump. Twitter’s decision to permanently shut down his account meant that the former president has now not only been removed from office, but also denied his most powerful weapon in his quest — which would have surely continued for the four years until he was able to run for president once more — to ridicule his opponents, and inflame his base.
This, too, is an important development in the fight to reclaim the values of reason, truth and respect for political discourse, which in the social media age have been twisted out of shape. For far too long, citizens, the media and political institutions have allowed demagogues and ideologues to set the agenda and vitiate the norms of political debate and discussion.
The way to change this is not by legal fiat, but the power of example. And if political rhetoric were a stock market index, the language of the American president would be the most heavily weighted stock on it. So the civility and generosity of Biden’s inaugural speech means that we begin this week, after more than four years of continuous backsliding, entertaining new prospects of hope and reconciliation, not division and discord. And that is no small matter. The times have found Biden. Now he must help America find itself again.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Twitter: @Hashestweets