There is an annual festival in Sri Lanka known as the Esala Perahera. It has everything, including a parade of richly-decorated elephants, drummers and dancers, food and clothing stalls, and all sorts of entertainment for children. But above all, it has people–hundreds of thousands of them. The organizers told me it was a million, but people always inflate crowd numbers, don’t they?
I wandered, a sole Westerner through the throng, amazed at its security as much as its size. This, I thought, could never happen in America. If we had half as many people, there would be incidents. By incidents I mean stampedes, violent crime, tension between racial groups, and teenagers just behaving badly. Sri Lanka, I thought, even in the midst of its civil war with the Tamil Tigers in the north of the island, is a place of peace; a civil place, where you can be outnumbered by hundreds of thousands and still feel secure, respected and inviolate.
Tuesday made a liar of me.
The largest-ever gathering of Americans to descended on Washington came for many reasons, but above all to celebrate America. Nominally, the millions (is that an exaggeration?) came to inaugurate Barack Obama: this slight African-American, who has come to Washington from Chicago like some 21st-century Lochinvar, ready to unite the tribes and lead them away from their tribulations.
But it was not Sir Walter Scott’s percussive poem that flooded my mind as I was watching Obama’s inauguration, but the lines from the gloriously jingoistic speech that Shakespeare gave his Henry V to deliver on the eve of his great victory against the French at Agincourt: “…And gentlemen in England now- a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap…”
The outpouring of feeling on the Mall was spiritual; one of those outpourings that occasionally grips human beings collectively and transcends politics, race, religion, philosophy, and the other manifestations of our tribal rigidities. It was an outpouring of something deep in the human heart, that inner need to celebrate as well as to mourn. It was the happy side of the same thing as the sadness that gripped the world when Princess Diana died. Then it was a need to cry, to acknowledge the pain of the human condition. On the Mall it was the need to celebrate, to rise above our lesser selves and feel a oneness with possibility.
I was five years old when World War II ended in Europe. But I remember the parade in Cape Town, South Africa. I remember waving my little Union Jack (it got torn), my father looking so handsome in his Royal South African Navy uniform, and the mood. Oh, the mood. Blacks and whites, English and Afrikaners put aside all of their bitter history to hug, kiss and dance. They were jubilant.
All these years later, there was something of that feeling in Washington; not only because many had repudiated the excesses of George W. Bush, but also because collectively we had put aside the racism of our history for something very, very American: a new beginning.
The celebrants on the Mall knew they would look good in the eyes of the world and that made them feel even better. Who doesn’t want to be well thought of, even in “Old Europe”?
It was only one day, but what a grand American day. Bigger than a gigantic gathering in Sri Lanka, not quite as wonderful as the end of war, but a vaulting day for the spirit. American exceptionalism is a concept used more for nefarious purposes than honored when it is at hand. It was at hand on Tuesday.