NATIONS, no less than individuals, live by selected fictions. Both, in some measure, choose to see themselves in very particular ways, whatever the objective evidence may be. This phenomenon is more pronounced among children but is probably never completely outgrown even among adults.
There is, after all, some comfort to be found in ideas that are familiar or consoling even when, in varying degrees, they part company with reality.
What applies to individuals, certainly applies to people in the aggregate: they are often predisposed to think of their own nations as unusually cultured or civilized or moral, or as put upon, underappreciated or victimized.
These fictions, if mildly delusional, may normally be inconsequential, but in times of crisis, failure to grapple with realities can be a problem.
Something like this was clearly on Barack Obama’s mind in his inaugural address this week, when he said: "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." We need, in short, to become adults.
A complementary point was suggested elsewhere in a reference to Americans fighting and dying in historically significant battles — Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn.
The inclusion of Khe Sahn, symbolically significant in the Vietnam War, pointedly moved Vietnam from the realm of contemporary controversy to the realm of history. In so doing, Obama made a subtle but important point: not only adults, but a new generation of adults.
Obama’s overriding message: It’s time for America to face the facts straight on. The facts are of two kinds: those that speak to American idealism, imagination and creativity, openness, generosity and an ability and willingness to provide leadership; and there are those that speak to self-righteousness, short-sightedness, triumphalism, dishonesty and exceptionalism — the doctrine that exempts the U.S. from the rules that govern others.
The message, further, was that for the best of the American experience to flourish and ultimately prevail through a dangerously troubled time, Americans need to recognize where mistakes have been made, where greed has triumphed and where American ideals have been subverted.
This latter reflects his judgment on the Bush administration and, no less, his reading of the judgment pronounced by American voters, who in November elected him with 53 per cent of the vote — more than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964.
That, and some of his own current approval ratings in the 80 per cent-plus range suggest that the economic crisis, which has widened and deepened in the two months since the election, has also widened and deepened public understanding of the magnitude of the Bush administration’s failures.
Obama’s speech on Tuesday offered no pro forma praise for the excellence or achievements of his predecessor: He thanked Bush for his service to the country and for the many courtesies he had extended to the Obamas during the transition, full stop.
During the campaign, Obama often spoke of America’s need to recognize and respond to "the angels of our better nature" — an evocative phrase from Lincoln’s first inaugural address; and though Obama did not use the phrase in his own inaugural address, it was very much the subtext: America has made its share of mistakes in both domestic and foreign policy, especially during the last eight years but America can recover by rediscovering its own best self; and America can do that if Americans collectively are prepared to take responsibility for making and executing a series of tough but critical decisions.
And whether they are prepared to think anew: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."
Obama clearly believes that he has assembled an administration that can provide the creativity and leadership to steer the ship of state through very rough seas. Yet, he has what might be called a sound conservative understanding of government: It can lead and, one hopes, it can inspire, but its ability to do either is undermined if the public is not equally committed to the enterprise.
Overall, Obama’s speech, though sometimes eloquent, was not lofty; indeed, its tone was often pointed, tough, even hard. On a first listening or reading, no memorable catchphrase — Roosevelt’s "nothing to fear but fear itself" or Kennedy’s "ask not what your country can do for you" — pops out.
That may be a good thing, for its essence is not to be found in a single phrase and may encourage people to read and re-read it: It is the well-crafted product of a formidable mind. He may not succeed in what he aspires to do, but great will be the consequences for all of us if he does not.