SUBHEAD: The price and the promise of citizenship.
By John Schettler on 20 January 20 2009 in The Writing Shop
There was something truly uplifting about waking up this morning and realizing Barak Obama, and not George Bush, was now the president of the United States. I think many had this feeling, all across the nation, along with a quiet pride in the system that produced this orderly and dignified transition of power. But even moreso, that we now had a man ascending to the office who would indeed hold fast to the truths and ideals this nation was founded on. And from the very first, President Obama’s inaugural address sounded this theme—that we are gathered here, this time, because we have rejected fear and embraced hope. It was this promise of hope that Obama ran on, and it was largely hope that carried him through the long difficult campaign to victory. We are in desperate need of such virtue, and the understanding that we can be more than we are just now as a nation and as a people, and yet prevail in the difficult times that are now before us.
image above: "Dick" by Mark Bryan from www.artofmarkbryan.com/Dick.html
In rejecting the fear that drove the Bush-Cheney administration, President Obama clearly embraced the higher virtues of the nation, “our better angels” as he put it. And the condemnation of the mania for “security” that characterized the Bush and Cheney years was apparent when he said: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.”
With these words we have the hope that the blight of places like Abu Ghuraib and Guantanamo will finally be erased. That the assumption our citizens are somehow to be guarded against and surveilled through sweeping clandestine intelligence programs is now as bankrupt as Wall Street, that the idea of “pre-emptive war” against an ever lengthening list of “our enemies” is no longer the guiding principle of American foreign policy. We will no longer be a nation that expresses its might with bunker busters and Abrams tanks. Obama reached out to the world, equally hopeful that he now brings a much needed change in our policies, with this statement: “And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
And as for the childish false sense of bravado that Bush and Cheney held to—that we do not speak with, or negotiate with, our enemies, Obama had this to say: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
With this we finally return to sanity and the prospect of progress in our relations with the world, and the hope that war will no longer be the means our influence is exerted. This alone is a vast spring of hope, and promise for better days ahead. It is fitting that Israel carried out its most recent spasm of violence against the Palestinians in the last days of the Bush administration, and deftly withdrew from Gaza on the eve of this inauguration.
Here at home, as millions gathered to watch the historic event on the national mall, and countless millions more watched across the nation and the world, President Obama made clear the challenge now before us: “That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”
This is the grave state of affairs he now inherits from the profound failure of the Bush-Cheney regime. But rather than wallowing in the despair that they have engendered in this nation, Obama reminded us that we are still the same people that made this nation the wonder and envy of the world: “We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
We may be surprised at just what this work will actually entail. In the next eight years we will face again the inevitable reality of energy depletion, in spite of the fact that de-leveraging and deep recession have driven the price of oil to new lows. This belies the fact that, given normal demand, we are now producing about all the oil we ever will in any given year, being at the very peak of production. Yet at the same time, the major oil fields we have relied on to fuel our economies the last 50 years are steadily depleting. So the years ahead will again bring us face to face with this reality—that we must find another way to fuel our economy, or otherwise scale our lives to live within the means we have at hand.
This means the way we travel about our towns and cities, and across the nation, will likely require a drastic change. While cars and trucks will be with us for many years still, the over-reliance on the personal automobile will diminish, and we will be forced to plan and build out new public transit systems and intercontinental rail systems powered by electricity from cheap, clean coal, which we still have in abundance. And this also means that the models we have relied on for decades, with large centralized distribution of products imported from China, and all our food, will have to give way to a newly regenerated manufacturing base, and a localized food production system in this country. These things alone will present massive challenges, first in the way we think about our lives, and then in the way we live them.
In the short run we will see much suffering, and dislocation as the recession, or depression, deepens. Government will again roll out massive spending programs in an effort to revitalize our sagging economy. But our prospect for success lies more in how we treat one another during what will most likely be a long and difficult transition to recovery. I can’t solve the banking crisis, or create a million jobs each month. None of us can. But somewhere in the years ahead each of us will be asked to make hard choices, and changes in the way we live. We will see others falter and fail around us, and also fear for our own well-being. To this President Obama reminded us that our greatness as a nation depends upon countless small acts of kindness, generosity, service, compassion and love—virtues that collectively make up our greatness as a people.
“For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
Obama therefore called upon us all to raise ourselves one small step at a time, and so start the journey that will take us forward. He defined the ideals of duty and service as essential to our citizenship. For our privileged status as American citizens is not simply about the rights, freedoms, and pleasures we enjoy here, while so many others suffer throughout the world. It will take much more from us if we are to change from a nation of “consumers” to a nation of “citizens.” President Obama framed the challenge this way: “Those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”
In the years ahead each of us will be asked, one way or another, to pay this price of citizenship in the greatest nation on earth. It is a cost that asks us to abandon the pursuit of selfish profit in order to benefit the common good. Hear that call Mr. Banker, Mr. Broker. The days of getting, spending, and idly doing what we want are over now. The days of “flip that house” are gone. Now let us see what we can join together and build from the ashes of the Bush-Cheney years. And may God speed us, and guide us, on the road ahead.