Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President Obama's Inaugural Address - A Lazy Disciple Gloss

My Gloss in Blue:

UPDATE: further comments in LD (color code):

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents. Here is the beginning of what Yuval Levin called the "implicit traditionalism" of the speech. I am not entirely sure this assessment will hold up to scrutiny.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

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.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met. Rhetorically, this is overkill. It could have read simply: "Fully cognizant of the challenges before us, we are here today to reaffirm our hopefulness and our unity of purpose..."

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. Good. We do need to put these things aside. Once we have put them off, however, there remain the original commitments of the nation, that cannot be "worn out" and that have, in our better moments as a nation and a people, directed and informed the conduct of our discourse. Our national conversation is precisely our way of managing the conflicts and tensions that legitimately and inevitably arise in our lives and in our common life. America exists entirely in the idea - proven in history - that people (this people, our people, We, the People) are capable of disagreeing over the most important of questions reasonably and in a spirit of civility. The president will quote the Apostle Paul to the effect that we must put off childish things - though we would never tolerate, even in our children, to disagree with civil tongues. Levin also talks about this on the corner.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. Mr. President, the precise language of our national commitment is as follows: "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." Our national commitment to the self-evident truth of every human being's equal creation is not without consequence; Mr. President, your answer to the question, "When does human life begin?" was not simply, "too glib," as you admitted - it was inconsistent with the plain sense of the authoritative expression of our national ethos.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. Excellent. Our society is sick with greed and drunk with dreams of fame and fortune. Our history teaches us that the real good is elsewhere.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh. What about Helmand and Fallujah? What about Pearl Harbor and the Pentagon? Quite apart from the impression of ingratitude, I was very surprised not to hear these places mentioned in this list, in light of the president's apparent striving not for mere traditionalism, but for the creation of a palpable sense of the American present's continuity with the American past.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. 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. This is disconsonant, and quite possibly inconsistent. Had he said, e.g., "and rededicate ourselves to the advancement of the noble project we have received," or even more simply, "and dedicate ourselves once more to realizing the dream that has guided America from her founding," or anything, really, except "remake America," it would have been alright. Up to this point, he has stressed continuity. Beginning and remaking are words of rupture.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, Until now, my comments have been with one important exception (and that exception will hardly surprise the readership of this blog) confined to the rhetoric, to speechifying successes and failures. This is the first point at which I really heard alarm bells. I agree, we do need to restore science to its rightful place; in light of the president's stated policy positions, however, we disagree basically about what the rightful place of science is. This is, therefore, one of those real differences. It is a policy difference that may be rooted in a more profound disagreement. and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. This is very well done.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. Not the stale ones, no. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good. The market does need regulation - but the rules need to be informed by a way of thinking about the world, and the freedom of the market is an integral part of, but not the guarantor of a free society - a society in which people are free not only to bring their material goods to market, but are free first to bring their intellectual and spiritual goods to the public square - where, incidenally, they will debate the rules by which to guide the market.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers ... 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. And so to all the 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.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you. Were this last more than mere repetition of the president's remarks in his victory speech, it would have been more effective. As it actually went, this sounded rather hackneyed. The president, after rightly calling us back to the Lincolnian idea that: "What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors." The president needed to say that our enemies, if they do not unclench their fist, if they do not sway from the path of violence, will feel the force of our arms, and our arms are mighty. Americans are not spoiling for a fight - but by God, we are not afraid of one, either.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. True, but what are the cultural commitments that make this possible?

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. Well done. No vague expression of good feeling, here. No vacuously chauvinistic platitude about Islam being a religion of peace: interest and respect. Now, the question becomes, "how do we go about determining the limits and legitimacy of the first, the terms and conditions of the latter?" These are answerable questions.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. Again, this is the right sentiment, the right idea, though it is rhetorically misplaced. Again, this is not a criticism of the contents: it is a criticism of the elocutio.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith faith, as in fides, ei, a Roman juridical term that was used as such by the Founding Fathers 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.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But 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. More continuity. 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. Liberty and duty are not mutually exclusive; they flow from the same source, though the duty we owe to the Authority that guarantees our freedom in time can never come before our duty to time's own Author, who is also the Author of our rights in time and our hope in eternity.

This is the price and the promise of American citizenship. American citizenship is a difficult business.

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. No. The source of our confidence is in our knowledge that God does not abandon those who call on Him - and listen with docility to his promptings. Our confidence is in the knowledge that He does not command what He has not already disposed. As a matter of speech-writing technique, this is the sort of turn that comes from the pen of one, who is not a true believer. Rhetorically, it sounds like the slightly stretched Latin maxim in the mouth of one, who is not master of the language.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath. V.s.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it)."

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations. This is perhaps hyperbolic - I am not convinced, as some conservative commentators seem to be, that our present circumstances are not as dire at those of the nation in 1929 or 1861 - though it certainly strikes me as effective. An excellent conclusion to a solid speech.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

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