In the comic strip Doonesbury, the White House is an iconic representation of all that is wrong with America and American power, the ironic home of presidents who, one way or another, come to represent the very evil they have sworn and affirmed their duty to defeat.
Candidate Obama ran his campaign on a platform of change, and every day the Obamas surprise and delight with the changes they are bringing, not just to American politics, not just to Washington, but to the White House itself. Earlier this week, the Obamas hosted what the Washington Post believes to be the first-ever poetry jam at the White House. Somewhere from his living room in Heaven, Langston Hughes is nodding in approval as many gather to sing a new song. It is a joy to see what happens when we have a President who is willing to let America be America again.
And so we have a President who is willing to listen to both rhyme and reason, to both the arts and science. And we have a First Lady who is willing to bring people with something to say, something to listen to. What a change!
And so for one night at least, the East Room has become a Salon.
Wikipedia teaches that a Salon is:
[A] gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings, often consciously following Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, “either to please or to educate” (“aut delectare aut prodesse est”). The salons, commonly associated with French literary and philosophical salons of the 17th century and 18th century, were carried on until quite recently in urban settings among like-minded people of a ‘set’: many 20th-century salons could be instanced.
This, too, is a welcome change from the one-way media formats, particularly television, which seems purposefully designed to support propoganda but not proper thought. According to the Wikipedia article, many believe that the Salon was integral to the process and progress of the Enlightenment. Yet in the 20th century, we saw the decline and near disappearance of the Salon, perhaps because Western culture believed that it was sufficiently enlightened and that no more improvement was needed, or perhaps because the new media of radio and television, which could captivate audiences by the millions (instead of by the dozens) made the Salon appear an anachronism.
But the Salon has been missed. The idea that no idea has any value unless it can be conveyed to a billion people in a 15-second sound bite or a ninety second video performance (with or without a wardrobe malfunction) has proved itself false. We want richness and depth. We want intimacy and authenticy. We want to be a part of an event, not merely consumers, seeing our energy being reflected and refracted by the invited genius before us.
That is not to say that the Salon is the only place where expression or experience is possible, any more than saying that a Church is the only place one can find God. But the Salon is a place where we can put our culture, our civilization back on the unending path of Enlightenment, and a place where we can make genius linger within us and among us just a little bit longer. And which is precisely the aim of the Miraverse (with the ability to record the event for posterity).