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An Inaugural Challenge for Binary Man

By Marc Fisher
Monday, January 19, 2009

This is the first in a series starring Binary Man, who has come to our struggling planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life better.

In most sports, especially football and politics, the plain if unfortunate truth is that television has improved upon reality. The strategy, brutality and beauty of the game play better on the home screen than in person.

Yet we still pack stadiums and jam into rallies where we know politicians will deliver precisely the same speech they've given countless times before.

Tomorrow on the Mall, on Pennsylvania Avenue and splayed out before the Capitol, an ocean of Americans will gather to see something they cannot actually see, to hear something that might well be inaudible, to be part of something we will remember forever. To go or to stay home: Which is the right move?

The scare stories have been omnipresent for months. Millions will come. All means of transportation will range from nightmarish to ghastly. You won't be able to eat, pee, move, breath.

And still we wonder: Should we watch it on TV or brave the elements and the masses?

That we even ask is a tribute to the power of the crowd, our innate fascination with bearing witness.

What should you do? Binary Man sees merit in both positions.

You'd have to be nuts to go downtown. If you're a Virginian, you've basically been told your options are to Velcro yourself to the side of an overstuffed Metrorail car or swim the Potomac (staying out of sight of Secret Service sharpshooters). A mind-bending army of law enforcement officers has turned the District into Inauguration Island, cut off by bridge and road closings. Even if you make it down there, you have barely better than zero chance of getting close enough to see the new president.

Whereas on television, you will receive the blessings of technology, as media outlets put aside financial woes and existential doubts to mount a collective commemoration of the opening of Volume II of America: The Experiment. On TV, you'll see the speech and the gestures, the majesty and the silliness. You'll see everything.

And you'll be a part of nothing.

Think about 9/11: If you live in Washington or New York, you know. Even if you weren't at Ground Zero or the Pentagon, you lived it. You saw. You reacted. Ever since, you have told the stories in a way that no one who watched it on TV ever can.

"You've always got the trump card in any conversation if you can say, 'I was there,' " says Toby Miller, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside. "You mightn't be able to say, 'Obama's tie was this color,' but you can say, 'There was this crazy dude next to me.' It's a quasi-holy moment, and what makes it is the people around you."

Binary Man gets itchy in gridlock, but on this one, he sees no real choice. TV will be dandy, especially if you switch channels anytime the professional bloviators speak on top of the events. But if you go, you will absorb into the marrow of your soul what Miller calls "the multitude paying tribute to the personification of the nation."

Australian by birth, Miller became fascinated with the American sports event and our enduring connection to the stadium, even in this time of flat-screen, HD, multi-camera TV splendor. Just as popcorn, beer and the seventh-inning stretch forge real unity at the ballpark, the inauguration is a uniquely American coming-together. The Brits have their coronations, we have this curious business of electing not only our head of government but also our head of state, then crowning him not in a palace but out on the street, before anyone and everyone.

"That's the populism of everyday life in America," Miller says, "and that's the difference between having an elected king and an inherited one. So you get this immense solemnity and the joy of the circus, and I don't mean that negatively. It's this remarkably American blend of hallowed moment and laughter and gaiety."

Hear the bands, smell the horses, stare at the faces, eavesdrop like there's no tomorrow. History is happening. And however far back in the crowd you may be, you are living it, but only if you go.

Each week on my blog, Raw Fisher, Binary Man will confront some issue, weigh arguments and present his verdict, bringing us that much closer to utopia. No need to send Binary Man your riches or offspring, but he's happy to entertain questions and ideas at BinaryMan@washpost.com.

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