Part 1—What one poet said: When Democratic presidents get sworn in, they normally throw in a poem.

In 1961, Robert Frost was the first such poet, at one of the coldest inaugurals ever. Last Monday, it was Richard Blanco, bringing a blast of warm air from Miami—and a vision of the nation that doesn’t quite seem to be so.

Somewhat oddly, Blanco’s poem seemed to have been written-to-order for this particular president in this particular year. In his address, Obama spoke of our need for collective action. As Blanco began, he began to picture a strongly unified national people—a nation which doesn’t exist.

On Saturday, several letters to the Washington Post complained about the Post’s failure to review Blanco’s poem. One letter included the poem’s full text.

Blanco began like this:
One Today

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes,
spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day...
Without any doubt, that was “one sun” which rose on the eastern shore, then charged across the Great Plains. But as he continued, Blanco kept describing a great unitary American people—a people which doesn’t exist:
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn,
every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath...
Andrew Sullivan noted the echo of Whitman, who famously heard American singing. But Sullivan failed to state the obvious—when Blanco pictures our nation in the manner which follows, he is picturing an American nation which doesn’t exactly exist:
Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy,
namaste or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.


We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
It’s true—there’s only one sky, and in that sense, that one sky is “our sky.” It’s true that the one ground is “our ground." In the literal sense, we are “one country.”

It’s certainly true, and it's a good thing, that we hold doors for each other all day. It’s true that a new constellation of hope is waiting for us to create it—together.

But the America which really exists produces a whole different set of sounds, as compared to the various sounds Blanco describes in one part of his poem. Every day, as part of “our day,” our various tribes insult and condemn one another, often in highly ridiculous ways. This keeps our various tribes very much apart—not together.

We were struck by the oddness of Obama’s address, in which he kept asserting that “we the people” hold various beliefs, even though large portions of we the people plainly don’t hold those beliefs. We were struck by the way the Blanco poem seemed designed to echo Obama’s address.

But we were hugely struck by the way the Blanco poem seemed to picture a sprawling unified nation—a nation which so plainly doesn’t exist at this juncture. As everyone knows, America is singing a great many highly discordant tunes at this particular time.

Why are we the people so polarized at this juncture? We’ll pursue that question all week. We'll start with some of the ways pseudo-conservative leaders have spread disinformation through the land—with the express permission of other tribal leaders.

A great deal of our polarization has come from Rush and Sean, and from those who enable their conduxct. But before the week is done, we will return to some of the ways our own tribe has been spreading the discord around.

It’s easy to hear the other guy singing off-key. It can be harder to hear the bad notes when they're produced by your own.

Say what you will about Blanco’s poem, it isn’t exactly a poem about the current state of the nation. How have we gotten so Balkanized?

Tomorrow, the latest from Sean.

Tomorrow: Garbage enabled

Frost and unification: Reciting a poem from memory, Frost described the process by which we mythically became one American people:
The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender...
“Until we found out that it was ourselves/We were withholding...”

The tribes are withholding themselves today! We’ll examine the process all week.


  1. Is American politics unusually polarized nowadays? Or are Bob and others who make this claim comparing to an era of unusually low partisanship and polarity? There are reasons to consider the latter.

    In the second half of the 20th century, southern social conservatives were migrating from the Democratic to the Republican party. This was because early in this era the leaders of the national Democratic party embraced equality for black people and came out more and more against white supremacy. This was hardly an instantaneous transition - it was only in the last couple of election cycles that Republicans finally gained control of the Tennessee state legislature and this was also the pattern in some other southern states. Conservatives are slow to embrace change. While this migration was going on the particular brand of extreme social conservatism was not fully represented by either party (we only have two which can win a national election), and national politics may have been unusually liberal. In the era when Great Society and Civil Rights programs were being passed, the southerners were wasting their votes on the likes of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Now these voters have finally been incorporated into the Republican party and we are seeing the effects, but the polarization they represent has been there in eras before the 1950's and 1960's (e.g. in 1861).

  2. Oh, lordy. Maybe we have tribes for a reason. For example, the ideological divide in the U.S. runs from medieval to post-modern. There is no splitting the difference between Eric Cantor and Bernie Sanders, even assuming both are honest brokers (which, of course, is not the case).

    Meanwhile, it's our unique American misfortune that Bernie Sanders is a moderate by Northern European standards, and Eric Cantor is far to the right of historical European fascism, with no counterpart at all today outside the U.S. But that's the corporate-promoted world we live in.

    What Bob doesn't get, or refuses to get, is that public discourse is all about turning out the base. Neither side has any expectation, nor should it, of converting the other, because we don't have a coherent culture. There is no way to reach anyone who hasn't pre-selected your channel. And the number susceptible to argument is tiny, anyway.

    Playing nice, as Bob counsels, is either a fool's, or a knave's, errand. But it sure makes us feel important! And it's a great way to lose elections, and then complain for 13+ years, about the press corps' treatment of your favored candidate.

    1. That "favored candidate" must be Al Gore, in your perennial whine, Anonymous.

      But has Somerby's "complaint" about the press corps' treatment of Gore been that the press wasn't "playing nice" enough?

      No, of course it wasn't. That's not even hyperbole on your part, just bullshit.

    2. Your favored narrative, Nona Nym (latest incarnation of whom? Horace Feathers? et al.?), has once again perverted your judgment.

      If you actually read the post, you'll see that it's not the press corps which is being derided for "playing nice" (or not) -- it's Al Gore, and the Democratic party generally, putting aside, for the sake the argument, that the Democratic party doesn't actually want to prevail on liberal ideals, and that Al Gore betrayed those ideals when he had to chance to promote them.

      It's also odd and telling that so many pro-Howler posts here can't avoid either profanity or personal attacks which don't actually engage the argument. Then again, that approach is so long-standing that one wouldn't even think to question it. It's simply assumed, among the Tribe of Bob.

    3. "Playing nice, as Bob counsels, is either a fool's, or a knave's, errand. But it sure makes us feel important! And it's a great way to lose elections, and then complain for 13+ years, about the press corps' treatment of your favored candidate."

      You imply Bob's counsel (supposedly, "playing nice") led to Al Gore's losing.

      It's what you wrote.

      If it makes no sense (and it doesn't) that's your fault and no one else's, regardless of what "tribe" you want to assign them.

    4. I am curious how you, Anonymous @ 1:43, discern a "favored narrative" on my part. As for being a member of the "tribe of Bob," yes I read here daily, and occasionally make a comment to those who frequent the site and who offer nothing but negativism regarding anything Bob writes; and to those who are seemingly myopic and have misconstrued what Bob has written.

      Horace Feathers

    5. Just for clarity, Anonymous, Horace and I are two different people.

      "latest incarnation of whom? Horace Feathers?"

      I can't speak for Horace, but for your further edification, Anonymous, before you begin another of your recurrent hallucinations, I'm not Bob Somerby either -- and I'll bet that goes for Horace too.

  3. Seems to me the point here is that we cannot be one people by just proclaiming that we are one people, as Blanco's poem and Obama's speech both do -- there is actual work to be done to achieve common purpose. Any negotiation (or conflict resolution or mediation) comes by rebuilding trust and finding commonalities. We are doing none of the things needed to accomplish that as a nation. The American revolution provided a common enemy that united disparate factions. Perhaps some large problem, such a global warming, will eventually unite us in a common cause. In the meantime, Obama is engaging in wishful thinking not consensus building -- againn -- while the left is enjoying being tribal or getting out the base, whatever you want to call it.