What if the President of the United States gave a speech and all anybody could talk about the next day was the applause? That is not exactly where we find ourselves today, one day after Obama’s remarks at the University of Arizona last night; but it is hard not to talk about the raucousness of the crowd and wonder whether all that hooting and clapping and whistling and hollering was appropriate, and why the occasion wasn’t more serious and solemn.
Conservative commentator Tammy Bruce labeled it “massacre rally theater,” and thought the event outdid even the Paul Wellstone funeral in its cynical exploitation of tragedy. Others were appalled, or pretended to be appalled, by the “Together We Thrive” t-shirts distributed to the audience.
You can write most of that off as mere whining from the right. Of course the event was political; how could it not be? The conservatives protest too much, and they would have a better case if John Boehner had bothered to show up and shed some tears over someone other than himself. Still, I have to wonder how many people in that audience came expecting grief, prayer, or catharsis and left confused by the pep-rally atmosphere and the lousy t-shirt.
I was reminded less of the 2002 Wellstone memorial and more of the 2007 rally at Virginia Tech after Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting spree, inspiring Nikki Giovanni to write yet another very bad poem and raise her arms in triumph as the Hokies in the bleachers let out war whoops. I guess all this cheering and hollering and chanting is one way people have of coming together and lifting themselves up after something inexplicable and terrible happens; and maybe we can’t expect restraint or dignity from a big college crowd, used to gathering at football games and basketball tournaments.
I worry, though, that in the face of shooting rampages or worse, the rally atmosphere makes nuanced discussion nearly impossible, and gives false hope, asking us to pretend we are less divided than we really are, and tries to bring closure prematurely when we should be asking ourselves some very hard questions about where we go from here.
To put it another way, I am not at all sure that Together We Thrive. Dissent and dissonance matter, too; a democracy thrives through difference and division. The whole “Together” theme feels Orwellian, to use an overused word; it celebrates a hive mentality, and smacks of a Utopian fantasy — that we can retreat from history and take refuge in some Togetherness or Unity, or the City of God (as the President himself suggested in his reference to Psalm 46), or that we can escape from the work of politics with a group hug and big, rousing cheer.