Friday, September 7, 2012

Citizenship

I wouldn't say its a pretty word. But it was a profound one for President Obama to embrace last night.
We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.
Before I get into the depth of how President Obama used that concept I want to say that from what I've read and seen so far, Melissa Harris-Perry was the only one to recognize why the use of that word would be especially important for this President. Last night in commenting on the speech at MSNBC she pointed out that what he was saying is that citizenship is about something more than birth certificates. KA-BOOM! Shoot and score.

And if it means something more than birth certificates, it also has a special meaning to the millions of young DREAMers in our country who might have been watching last night. It means that citizenship is about something more than where you were born.

So what does it mean?
We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.
Those who have listened to what President Obama has said over the years will recognize this theme. For a long time now his speeches almost always include an embrace not only of our individual responsibility but our collective responsibility to one another.

His emphasis on this idea of citizenship last night though went to a different level than it has before. As he talked about in the first part of his speech, this election is about a choice between two sets of values. At the very heart of that choice - beyond all the different policies - is this idea of whether or not we as Americans will maintain a commitment to "what can be done by us, together..."

That kind of talk is a direct hit to the theme of the Republican convention which was to suggest that success is only about what we do for ourselves on our own. Everyone - even Mitt Romney - knows that's a lie.

And so regardless of what particular policies we want to talk about, nothing gets solved until we get this one right. President Obama told us what happens if we abdicate our sense of collective responsibility by not engaging in "the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government."
If you turn away now — if you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible, well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void, the lobbyists and special interests, the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are trying to make it harder for you to vote, Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control health care choices that women should be making for themselves. Only you can make sure that doesn't happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
What is stunning to me is that this is a President who is actually trying to take himself out of the spotlight. He wasn't attempting to wow us with all the things he will do for us in a second term. Perhaps that's why some pundits are suggesting that his speech last night wasn't the kind of soaring rhetoric they expected.

He knows that if we're going to get there, it isn't going to be about one or two terms for President Barack Obama...
And while I'm proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, "I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go."
 ... Its going to be because we figure out the long game of what citizenship and self government are all about.
America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together.

We don't turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories. And we learn from our mistakes. But we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.
In other words, he's beginning the process of passing the torch to us.

9 comments:

  1. I was listening to a podcast yesterday about Hitchcock, and the speaker on the podcast repeated a line that Hitchcock, more than he directed his actors, directed his audiences. Little did I know that I would then see the same logic in the President's performace. I swear it, when he looked at the camera and said, "you," I got a charge like when Raymond Burr looked at us in "Rear Window."

    Maybe I'm punch drunk from all this.

    In any event, you're very right, the choice of words is huge. The difference between his speech and Clinton's was instructive. Clinton is to be sure on the team, but ultimately his speech was about how well he can make a speech. Obama really wants to see a country (and a world) where all people take an active role in manifesting themselves well. It is deeply out of step with the political culture we've developed since the 1970's. That's a good project.

    Also, the people who said he didn't reference the jobs crisis must have missed the bit about FDR's experimentation. That shouted to me, and Melissa Harris-Perry noted it, too.

    Really, she is a great asset on TV.

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    1. You know how much I admire and support this president.

      But from the beginning the one place I've often found that its hard for me to go with him is his complete faith and trust in the American people. That's where I find myself challenged by him once again this morning. I'm both struggling with that and appreciating the friction it creates.

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    2. Ms. Pants, this is why I come back to read you again and again. You express what's happening in our nation so eloquently.

      I think he has this faith in the American people because there is literally no where else to go. If we lose faith in the American people, we lose faith in America.

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    3. If we lose faith in the American people, we lose faith in America.

      Thanks for that Monala. Ultimately that's our only option, isn't it?

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    4. SP, in no way do I think he has complete faith in the American people, because he's not an idiot. On the contrary, I think he is rhetorically pushing people to feel that they CAN get off their asses because he knows that they don't, currently. Many or even most won't answer the call, but a lot will, and that's progress.

      I think I've mentioned before that in 2008 I did actually read Rules for Radicals, and that speech last night was convincing evidence of Michelle's point that Obama is the same man he was when he was a community organizer.

      Monala, I don't know that he has faith in the American people as an all or nothing proposition (nor do you say that's how he does). Rather, I think the calculation is, "what words can I use that will produce the greatest number of people getting actively involved?" If you say to 100% of the people, "you can do it," and 10% get up and do, that's actually a lot of people, certainly compared to where we are now or were in 2008.

      I guess I feel the "American people" are so mentally colonized by capital that I feel an effort like this, however explicitly naive the rhetoric, is likely to push things in a broadly positive direction.

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    5. Amazingly good point Bill.

      Thanks!!!!!!

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  2. It just occurred to me: you work with "at-risk," young, working class people. Do you have faith in every one of the kids you work with? The answer is probably both "of course not" and "at some level, yes." First, you know that you never know who among them is going to surprise you. Second, you know that if you tell someone who is struggling "it's pretty clear to me you're not going to cut it. I'd bet against you if this were a wager," then you know they will not do it. For someone who has lost faith in themselves, they need to hear from someone else--especially from someone they respect--that they can do it. If they don't hear that, they're done, because they are not telling that to themselves.

    At some level--and I haven't heard this mentioned--the speech was the most explicit rebuttal to Cheneyism from the President yet. Cheney encouraged people to not be involved. He truly does not believe in democracy, but rather accepts a representative system as a means for organizing consent. Obama wants people involved.

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  3. I'm so happy to see that someone else appreciates the President speaking about citizenship. I had a wonderful civics teacher in high school. After his speech I thought about her and I found the text of his speech so I could actually read the words. I'm not the same person I was four years ago either because this President has continued my civics education. I'm 68 years old. I've waited a long time for a President like this. We are so lucky to have him. We must work hard to make sure he is reelected.

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  4. The tone of the speech was deliberate. PBO is really the smartest guy in the room.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/07/why-obama-went-low-key-in-his-democratic-convention-speech.html

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