Taking the long view

Barack Obama was privately officially sworn in yesterday, January 20th, as required by the constitution, but another public symbolic swearing in will take place today followed by the usual parade and other festivities.

Inaugural Swearing In Obama

Notice in the photo that Chief Justice John Roberts is reading the oath this time. Recall that in 2008 he trusted his memory and ended up botching the words, requiring a private re-swearing later, and gave fodder to the crazies who argued that Obama had not been properly sworn in and thus his presidency was invalid.

Although I have been a harsh critic of Obama on many issues, one has to concede that a black man becoming president at all and winning a second term in the face of some vicious and racist opposition, is a major advance for the US and I am glad that I lived to see it happen. The coincidence that the swearing in will take place on the day commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. adds a nice touch.

There are many things that as a young man I thought I would never see in my lifetime but have come to pass.

I never thought that I would see a black person elected as president of the US but I was wrong.

I thought that the apartheid regime of South Africa would never give up its hold without massive bloodshed and that Nelson Mandela would die in prison but I was badly wrong on both counts.

I thought the Cold War would be a permanent fixture with us constantly living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. That has largely gone away. (Thanks to machineintelligence in the comments for reminding me of this.)

Equal right for the LGBT community was not something that was even part of the discussion when I was young since that community was largely missing from public life in those days but now we are just a hairsbreadth away from seeing that happen.

When one sees the massive inequalities in society and the way that the rich control the system in such a way as to perpetuate their privileges, it is easy to become cynical and lose hope for meaningful change. The sad feeling that one cannot expect any real progress was echoed recently by actor Matt Damon who, like many, was disillusioned by Obama’s first term and thus does not expect much from the second Obama presidency, saying:

I assume there will be some Supreme Court appointments in this next term; that alone was reason to vote for him. I don’t think I said anything a lot of people weren’t thinking. It’s easier now more than ever in my life to feel the fix is in, the game is rigged and no matter how hard you work to change things, it just doesn’t matter.

But Damon is a lot younger than I am and while I share his sense that the fix is in, if one lives as long as I have, one sees enough change to realize that it can happen, albeit slowly and not the way one expects, as the examples I gave above indicate. When I find myself brooding along the lines of Damon, I cheer myself up by thinking of another quote from legendary radical journalist and muckraker I. F. Stone who lived to a ripe old age and who said:

The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.

I know that I will die before many of the things I have hoped and fought for come to pass. But the baton will get passed and some day my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and their peers will see the results. Just as I have benefited from the failures of my antecedents by seeing the attainment of the things they failed at in their lifetimes, so will future generations benefit from my failures.

And that is good enough for me.


  1. machintelligence says

    You missed the fall of the Soviet Union.Most people I knew thought that their problems with ethnicity would make the race relations problem in the USA look like a Sunday School picnic. Instead it quietly fell apart.

    I would also add the sequencing of the human genome. In fact the discovery of the structure of DNA to the entire sequencing all happened in my lifetime.

    This compares very favorably with my great grandfather, who was born in 1880, in the days of the horse and buggy when steam locomotives were high tech; who lived to watch men walk on the moon.

  2. says

    Nice closing thought. I often feel guilty about the world I will leave behind for my children. Reading this encourages me to teach them that the glass they received was half full (instead of half empty). BTW, you have a minor typo in this sentence: “I never thought that I would see a back person….”

  3. Corvus illustris says

    Your great-grandfather was a coæval of my grandfather. He did not live to see men walk on the moon, dying in 1954 from the long-term effects of rheumatic fever. But he wouldn’t have lived that long without a scientific advance that you didn’t mention: science-based (but not necessarily genetics-based) medicine including antibiotics, which also saved me from the natural consequence of a ruptured appendix at age 7. Another is serious public-health work, in all parts of the world: smallpox scarred my father’s face (b. 1911) but is extinct because of a vaccine so un-modern that it gave the name “cow” to all vaccines. I never got polio, and other major killers’ days are numbered. (Sometimes we manage to justify calling ourselves homo sapiens.)

    BTW, when your great-grandfather was a young man, the internal combustion engine was already displacing the steam engine as our major transporter-with-pollution. My grandfather disliked livestock and loathed horses, so he left the farm, moved to the city, and got himself a horseless carriage. Similar decisions by millions of people have had long-term effects too.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Actually, yes, that was one thing I did foresee. It helped that in Sri Lanka where I grew up, women had achieved major advances in equality going way way back to 1960 when we elected the world’s first woman prime minister. Starting around then, we also had a large number of women rising to the top in government and the professions, such as heading major institutions, and even now the chief justice is a woman.

    This does not mean that women are equal there. There are still barriers to full equality, especially in domestic arrangements and socially. But Sri Lanka was ahead of the US in many ways and so the advancement of women was not a surprise. On the contrary, I am disappointed that it has been so slow. I thought that we would be much farther along by now.

  5. DonDueed says

    Here’s another example, though much more trivial than most of yours.

    When I was in college in the very early 1970s I took a couple semesters of “computer programming” — punch cards, batch processing, no interactivity, pick up your output the next day.

    For my end-of-term project I wrote a primitive computer game.

    In class discussion I was actually ridiculed by fellow students for the notion that such a project could have practical applications. Computers were room-sized contraptions that sat in climate-controlled rooms and only special acolytes were even allowed near them. Who would think of using them for entertainment?

    Let’s see, just how many billions did the computer gaming sector represent last year?

    Too bad I didn’t pursue that area, though I do design and code microcomputer-based products professionally and haven’t done too badly by it.

  6. garnetstar says

    Wow. That’s really far ahead of where the US was then. Starting from where we were in the late sixties, I’m surprised the US came as far as it has. But, you’re right, fifty years to get where we are now, with room for lots of improvement still, is quite slow.

  7. Carlos Cabanita says

    Bravo! I’ve been been hammering these same ideas into the heads of my friends quite often. Even people of my own age and older (I make 60 this year) seem to have lost all memory of their lives.

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