Asking the questions others are too intelligent to ask

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I loved Obama's speech unreservedly. So there

Obama gave a well-written, brilliantly delivered, and - for the US - subversive inauguration speech. Why was the reaction of many UK progressive commentators so hysterically cynical?

President Obama on the platform in front of the Capitol Building
President Obama on the platform in front of the Capitol Building for his second inauguration. Photograph: Getty Images

I sometimes get the sense there is a widely-held belief that dissent is inherently more intelligent than approval. Twitter is a good demonstration of this. Say anything – make the most uncontroversial, most incontrovertible statement you can think of – and seconds later somebody will pop up with sophistry about why it is as terribly wrong as wrongetty wrongness can be. It is the currency of the world.

This is the only way I can explain the hysterically cynical reaction of UK progressive commentators to Obama’s inauguration speech, on Monday. While I joined hundreds of millions around the world watching one of the most important speeches of one of the most powerful people, my timeline was littered with “boos”.

The general tone was yeah, yeah, yeah words are cheap (not their words, mind you, only Obama’s words), this is only rhetoric – his actions are right-wing, tweeting articles about his terrible record in the Middle East, environmental issues, the use of drones. All valid criticisms. All setting the reality of his last presidency against the rhetoric of his speech. All raised at the wrong time. All ignoring what was happening right at that moment.

We would all be falling over ourselves to congratulate a Hollywood actor or Church of England archbishop for delivering the very same speech. Even though neither has real power to do anything about it. Even though their speech is likely to be heard by a tiny proportion of the people who heard Obama’s words yesterday. So, which is it? Do words make a difference or not?

Because the reality of that moment was that his brief was a rhetorical one. What is required of a President in his inauguration speech is – have you guessed it yet? – a speech. And it was a bloody well written, brilliantly delivered, historic speech. That is what passed these commentators by, while their own jeering was ringing in their ears. I applaud you for taking him to task over his policy failures. I do the same. But is it too much to ask we start on Tuesday and treat this seminal occasion with the joy it deserves?

If I had told you ten years ago that a black man would be standing on Capitol Hill delivering an address which spoke kindly and fairly about women, ethnic minorities, gay people, action on climate change and free healthcare, you would have laughed at me with the same cynical sneer that curls on your lip as you read this.

Rooted at the core of this discontent are fundamental misunderstandings about US politics. A failure to understand the task faced by a President with no majority in the legislature. You define Obama as right-wing, but fail to see that this is only according to arbitrary fictional standards. Within the reality of what is politically possible in the US, he is practically a subversive. If all he manages to leave behind is healthcare for hundreds of thousands who had no access to it before, marriage equality and a chink in the impenetrable armour which resists gun regulation, he will have been on balance a very good President indeed.

What would you rather? That he came out and made a speech about the dangers of immigration, shirkers versus strivers and drawn curtains? Only last week you were explaining how damaging this sort of language can be, when used by our PM. And yet, when one of the most important people in the world uses his most visible rhetorical platform to speak in the language of hope and fairness, you slate him nevertheless, because you predict he’ll do nothing.

But he already did something. His words set absolutely the right tone to his second term. His words will make it a tiny fraction more difficult to bully the gay or brown kid in schools everywhere. His words will make it a tiny fraction more difficult for our PM to continue using the language of fear. His words warmed the heart of this olive-skinned, immigrant poof.

Two weeks ago many of the same people were up in arms about three words used by a columnist in the New Statesman. We recognise the capacity of words to oppress and hurt. Why not their capacity to lift and heal? Which is it? Do words make a difference or not?

Actions speak louder than words, or so it goes. That doesn’t mean words don’t matter. Well-chosen, passionately spoken words have the power to change people’s hearts and minds. I may not always be on board with Obama the President. But Obama the Orator is a different matter. It saddens me that so many cannot tell the difference.