Some Thoughts on Obama’s Second Inaugural

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.

Comments

  1. Freedom says

    “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.”

    Your “thought” is a grotesque repudiation of morality.

    • says

      Any reasoning behind that word salad?

      Rights exist in the absence of government because you say so? Or because Thomas Jefferson strung together some pretty words?

      In the absence of government, there are no laws. In the state of nature you have what you’re strong enough to hold or what those stronger than you permit you to have. I mean, I guess you can say you have a right to life and property as the stronger guy is kicking you in the teeth, but you’re not going to have life or property.

    • Idran says

      …gah, I don’t know how I missed the reply button. Sorry about that; used to a different comment system, I guess. That post below was meant as a reply to this.

  2. Idran says

    @1: For a right to be unalienable, it would have to be literally impossible to remove the ability to exercise it. But every single right we have has certainly not been something that people have been able to exercise since the beginning of time. A right only exists so long as government is able to grant it. That isn’t saying that it is moral to not grant the right; it’s certainly immoral for a government to not grant freedoms to its citizens. But governments can and do commit immoral acts all the time.

    You only have certain rights so long as the government continues to grant them, and if the government stopped granting you some right, as immoral as that action might be, you still would no longer have that right.

  3. says

    “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.”

    I don’t want to be overly cynical, but I don’t know that we can say the first two are “givens” after the last 4 years. Maybe the Seneca Falls – Selma – Stonewall line is better read as an ever-broadening, ongoing struggle for human dignity and equal rights.

  4. Freedom says

    “Any reasoning behind that word salad?”

    Doug, you play at Economics without the requisite education, and you’re here doing the same in Ethics. Odd your comment, as a draft to your original post contained a complaint that you were affirming the consequent.

    “In the absence of government, there are no laws.”

    But there is law. Sneaky and deceptive argument you’re trying make, but we’ll stop it before it does too much damage.

    “In the state of nature…”

    Do spare us this sophomoric Hobbesian false dichotomy.

    “you have what you’re strong enough to hold or what those stronger than you permit you to have.” Now you’re contradicting yourself. That is law, and likely upwards of one third of Americans would agree that this statement accurately describes this country.

    You need to do much foundational reading on what a right is before you do more violence to the concept.

      • Freedom says

        It’s certainly a much quicker route than thinking or reading.

        I know: post a Supreme Court cite. That will surely carry the point.

        • Doug says

          So you are suggesting I am thinking and reading too little? I’m wide open to the possibility that I’m wrong; but it’s not for lack of reading and thinking.

          You’ll get no argument from me that the idea of natural rights is a legal fiction that underpins a lot of Supreme Court decisions. But, Jefferson declared that the existence of Creator-provided, unalienable rights was self-evident because there wasn’t evidence of them elsewhere. Rights are manufactured. They don’t exist outside of human consensus and a willingness to use some level of force to back that consensus up.

          I’d reconsider my position if I became aware of some manner in which these natural rights manifest themselves in the absence of human belief. Gravity works even when no one believes in it. The shortest distance between two points is a line regardless of human belief. (For that matter, I don’t know that even an omnipotent deity could create a universe in which this was untrue.) The earth rotates around the sun even when it’s self-evident and commonly believed that the sun rises and sets around a stationary earth. These are natural laws.

          The idea that I’m only alive and in possession of my stuff at the sufferance of other people is certainly unpleasant. But, the fact remains that there will inevitably be a level of force that a band of others could muster that will deprive me of those things.

  5. Freedom says

    “@1: For a right to be unalienable, it would have to be literally impossible to remove the ability to exercise it.”

    Shame on you. False premise.

    Terrifying this anti-rights hatred that consumes the Left. Civil rights advocates? I think not. Put not much trust in the battle fierceness of these unconverted knights.

    • Joe says

      @Freedom:

      I’m all for a debate. What you are doing here is not a debate. It’s snide remarks – something any fool can enter into a web page. Especially when they don’t put their name to their words.

  6. Interloper says

    @Freedom:

    Please get a life. I enjoyed this reasoned, timely and thoughtful piece of writing, whether or not I agree with it. Try writing something like this yourself so we can post snarky comments and disabuse you of your thoughts.

Leave a Reply