I’m just going to hand you off for a moment to a person who is much smarter than I am: Professor Robert LaFleur, speaking here in lecture 16 of the Great Courses lectures on the Analects of Confucius.
Professor LaFleur has just gotten through describing the abuse of a sacred ritual. There is a mountain in eastern China named Mount Tai, which in ancient times was held to be holy. According to traditional ritual, the holy sacrifices could only be offered to Mount Tai by the Emperor or by the prince of the state where the mountain was situated. Well, the head of a powerful, arrogant family decided that he would make the sacrifice, contrary to ritual. Confucius was very scathing about this. Now I’ll hand you off to Professor LaFleur, who in turn will hand you off to Confucius.
Here he discusses a ritual intended to achieve the difficult task of uniting keen competitors. Analects 3.vii: “The Master said: Exemplary people do not compete with one another. The nearest exception is the Archery Ceremony. Greeting and accommodating each other, the archers mount the stairs of the hall. Descending after contesting, they share a drink together. Even when competing they remain exemplary people.”
So if you thought the idea of the two teams lining up to shake hands after a football game originated in the Victorian sporting ethos, or the manners of 19th-century WASP elites, you couldn’t be more wrong. It was going strong twenty-five centuries ago in China; and according to Confucius, the proper observance of rituals like this is the mark of the exemplary person, the 君子. [Junzi]
Thus, when watching the courteous handoff of power at the west front of the U.S. Capitol this morning, we were engaging with the deepest, most fundamental structures of civilized social life. If, like me, you found yourself moved, you were responding as humans have been responding for millennia to collective ritual properly performed for the larger good.
If Confucius was correct—if the proper observance of rituals like this is the mark of the exemplary person—there were some exemplary people out there at the Capitol. Everyone behaved themselves perfectly.
Away from the actual scene of the ceremony, Confucian rectitude was less abundant. When Mrs. Clinton appeared, some voices in the crowd called out: “Lock her up!” And a few blocks away, anti-Trump protestors broke windows and screamed abuse at police. The veneer of civilization is thin indeed.
The content of the ceremony was straightforward and direct in the good American manner, with a minimum of unnecessary wordage. The ceremonial deism was perhaps a little over the top for the quarter of us who are now unbelievers; but the new President seems sincere in his faith, and it was his show, so we shouldn’t complain. Besides, we got a smile out of it. The quick-witted Rev. Franklin Graham noted that it started to rain just as Donald Trump stepped to the podium. “In the Bible,” said Rev. Graham, “rain is the sign of God’s blessing.” That was very nicely done, whatever your metaphysics may be.
Trump’s speech was not too long, and was very Trumpish, very rumbustious. [Full Transcript Here] It sounded, in fact, like the kinds of things he said in the campaign. One of the Fox News commentators said it wasn’t poetic, and it wasn’t. Personally I’m fine with that. Trump is a businessman. I’d be surprised to learn that he has read any poetry since high school. In any case, after eight years of Barack Obama’s lame attempts at soaring oratory, I favor a moratorium on politicians’ attempts at poetry.
One of the blessings of this particular inauguration ceremony, in fact, was the absence of a poet. Five previous inaugural ceremonies—for incoming Democrats in every case—have featured a poet. Robert Frost in 1961 and Miller Williams in 1997 were at least real poets, though their inaugural poems were far from their best. The other three, which included both of Barack Obama’s, were all affirmative action mediocrities reciting meaningless drivel—meaningless and also, of course, meter-less and rhyme-less. My heartfelt personal thanks to the new President for not inviting any poets.
Back to the speech: Dana Perino, also at Fox News, said it was, quote, “very muscular.” I know what she means, and I agree. The speech sure wasn’t flabby or bony. It was mesomorphic. The best bits were the plain calls to nationalism. “A nation exists to serve its citizens.” When was the last time you heard a politician say that? “It is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” Of course it is! Why did that even need saying? But it did, and I was thrilled to hear my President saying it.
Some other commentators thought the speech too dark. Is the U.S.A. really a wasteland of shuttered factories and devastated inner cities? Are things really that bad? If they are, can Trump—or anyone—fix them?
I’ll make allowances; that was the kind of talk that got Trump elected, and I’m very happy he was elected. Those passages got to my own uneasiness about the speech, though: It was a bit too promissory.
Is he really going to be able to break all those “iron rice bowls” that keep the counties around Washington, D.C. the wealthiest in the nation? Ronald Reagan wanted to do that, too, and Reagan failed. Well, Trump is more energetic than Reagan, and I believe more canny and ruthless; perhaps he’ll pull it off.
I’m not even sure that the evils Trump identified, what he called the “carnage” of rusting factories and derelict inner cities, are today’s issues. The way automation is progressing, all those factories that were shipped abroad will be repatriated to the U.S.A. just in time for their workers to be totally replaced by robots. Likewise, those inner cities are being gentrified and spruced up by yuppies, while their populations are shunted out to Section Eight housing in suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri.
At the risk of having a mob with pitchforks and flaming brands showing up in my driveway, I have to say I think Jackie Evancho was a mistake for the national anthem. She was plainly nervous. Her voice came across as unsteady and rather small, the enunciation not very good. On the plus side though, I will thank her for sparing us the awful melismas we too often get—a single syllable stretched across many notes. She sang it straight and plain, as it should be sung.
Yes, yes, I know: there was a shortage of celebrities willing to perform at the ceremony. Confucius’ concept of the exemplary person does not have much of a market share among showbiz elites. Still, there are trained opera singers in America waiting tables—I actually know one.
I’m picking nits, of course—that’s my job. We are lucky, after 24 years of unrelieved liberalism, we are lucky to have a man in the White House who doesn’t think that America’s main problem is a shortage of public restrooms for people confused about their sex, or an insufficiently confrontational attitude towards Russia, or a public debt that’s too small, or a historic deficit of mulatto Attorneys General.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He’s had two books published by VDARE.com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and From the Dissident Right II: Essays 2013. His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.