Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Obama performed some imperative, long overdue work in bidding us “to choose our better history.”  In doing so, he recognized the complexity of our history, for if there is a better history, there is also a worse.  There is the George Washington who owned slaves and the George Washington who opposed torture.  The worse history, Obama didn’t dwell on—an Inaugural Address was not the place for that.  Rather, he invited a new beginning, though without amnesia or false innocence.  He invited us as a nation to perform a necessary twist on the seventeenth-century notion that we were divinely elected, “God’s new Israel,” entitled to establish dominion.  In Obama’s version, Americans get to choose—to choose perennially—from among multiple and intertangled strands.  We were, from the beginning (in fact, from before the beginning) a people of more than one history—freedom and slavery, cooperation and savagery, republic and empire—not easily disentangled.  That is why the choosing has to be intricate, deliberate, subtle, ongoing.

Is it possible to parse American virtues and values into distinct categories of “the religious” and “the secular”?  I think not, and am not particularly interested in trying.  Were Emerson, Whitman, and William James “religious” or “secular”?  Or, for that matter, Norman Thomas and Martin Luther King?  My exploration of eighteenth-century American history, as I work on a book about chosen peoples, teaches me how entangled these traditions already were as America was becoming a nation and a republic.  Even in 1776, there was more than one way to construe that certain truths were self-evident.  Indeed, at an early stage, the debate about what it meant to be an American was already an American tradition, even as there have often—usually—been Americans who claimed that Americans must, in Ari Fleischer’s notorious reduction, “watch what they say.”

“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”—I take this to presuppose that a gift that has to be “passed on” is not a solid object but a work in progress, something to be renewed and, in the process, its meaning fought over.  A “God-given promise” is one-half of a covenant, as Robert Bellah, among others, has taught us, but the other half is the free choice of a people to define itself.  Entailed in that ideal of a generation’s choice is Jefferson’s radical ideal of revolutionary renewals.  As he wrote his secret sharer John Adams in 1823:  “The generation which commences a revolution rarely complete it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides [referring to the Mexican royalist-loyalist of 1810] to defeat their own rights and purposes.”

The virtues Obama went on to mention—“honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—are both individual and collective.  They must be cultivated both in personal character and in institutions.  There is a crazy notion abroad that stand-alone individuals can do all this work on their own, that Americans are currently justly rewarded for their “hard work,” that society ought to stand aside and let the failures wither, that the janitor who comes up short of health insurance must not have worked hard enough.  When Obama beats the drums for national service, he reminds us that there are social and personal gains that matter more than capital gains, and deserve energy and reward.  He invites honest conservatives to recognize that infrastructure is not just a four-syllable word, but also an American tradition.  He invites honest liberals to claim patriotism, not renounce it, in the spirit of Mark Twain:  “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

In this spirit, it behooves us to honor an American lineage of opposition to conquest, which has frequently (not always) been a seedbed for the virtues of honesty, courage, fair play, curiosity, and, yes, loyalty.  This is a tradition!  One could do worse than beginning by acknowledging an honor roll including Lincoln on the Mexican War; James and Twain among others on the Spanish-American War; Debs and Bourne during World War I; many, many during the American war in Vietnam, and many too, including Obama himself, face to face with the misbegotten Iraq adventure.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]