Random thoughts on reading President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.
This kind of finesses my thought that history demonstrates pretty conclusively that these rights do not exist outside of government and are most definitely alienable. Alienating individuals from their right to life and liberty has historically been the rule and not the exception. And, in the State of Nature, with no government, an individual has no rights; merely the temporary strength to enforce his preferences.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Skepticism of the invisible hand, it looks like. But those who, themselves, express skepticism of government rules always take for granted those rules of which they approve — restriction of liberty in order to recognize the existence of property, for example. (“In what manner is a right of property in land conferred on me? By imposing upon every body, except myself the obligation not to touch its produce.”) And, by taking such rules for granted, and only protesting when pressed that they are not advocating anarchy, they seek to minimize the acknowledged role of government in order to maximize the simplicity and emotional impact of their anti-government rhetoric.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.
Bleeding heart liberalism. All of society’s ills cannot be cured at all. To some, in fact, those ills are evidence that God’s favor is lacking; and absence of those ills in some are evidence that the individual is Elect. This is the economy-as-morality-play mentality. It is pretentious of us to attempt to mitigate the righteous punishment of the Lord. (And if it means that we get to keep our stuff and not worry about the poor who will always be among us, so much the better.)
But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.
Collective action, eh comrade? And that business about new responses sounds like so much “living document” claptrap. What’s next, penumbras?
We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
At some level, a lot of Americans don’t really trust this. To some extent, it’s that morality play thing. If you work hard and conform, you will not be in need. And, even if you work hard but you don’t also conform, you deserve what you get. Because there is also a tribal thing going on. You have to be one of Us before we will regard you as something other than a taker when you are receiving aid. What’s required to be “us” varies – sometimes immutable characteristics like race might be be reasons for exclusion. Other times, it might be something arbitrary like religion or language. And, yet other times, it might be your approach to economic issues — if you attempted to rise above your station by following a fulfilling job rather than taking the crappy, soul-deadening, but more or less stable job, you deserve what you get. The potential of grinding punishment from risks gone bad helps keep people in line.
We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.
Bah, latte-sipping, tofu-eating, hippie-loving nonsense. Real Americans drink bad coffee; eat meat; and love to burn oil. The President wants to emasculate us, condemning us to driving the electric car from the Simpsons’ as envisioned by the “Gasoline Producers of America.” [In a wimpy voice]: “Hello, I am an electric car. I can’t go very fast, or very far. And if you drive me, people with think you’re gay!”
And, speaking of being gay:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall[.]
. . .
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
Seneca Falls refers to gender equality. Selma refers to racial equality. And, Stonewall refers to gay equality. That’s a good rhetorical maneuver. You take two “givens” and then try to shoehorn in a more controversial third; putting the burden on the objecting listener to provide meaningful distinctions that separate the third from the first two.
You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
And, to me, this is the nut. “Citizens.” It’s a significant word. I didn’t use it in the tag line to my blog by accident. Being a citizen confers rights as well as responsibilities. It means that this country is ours; that this government is ours. I read and write about proposed legislation because I enjoy it, sure. But also because I feel like in a small way it’s a way in which I can fulfill my role as a citizen. To pay some attention to what our government is doing and to explain and spread that information to my fellow citizens.
We are the government, we are the country, and those things are us. Only us. Government is not a malevolent third party, abstracted from us. Rather, for good and bad, it is an extension of the citizenry. Government is often an unwieldy tool, but it is a tool all the same. It can be used for good and bad, but ultimately it is a reflection (albeit at times a fun-house mirror reflection) of its citizens.
Politics will continue to be small-bore, particular, and more than a little ugly. The daily grind will continue to demand most of our attention – the mortgage still needs paid, the kids still need to get to school, a customer will still have an emergency that’s going to be your problem, your sporting team will still have a big game coming up, there will be parties, weddings, graduations, deaths, births, holidays, illnesses, and all the rest of it. But, every once in awhile, it’s nice to step back and take the long view of what this country is and what your role in this country might be. And, then, take a deep breath before diving back down into the muck.