In his Inaugural Address, President Barack Obama called upon Americans 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.” Analysts of various political stripes have noted that Obama’s speech sought to distill for the American people, and the world, a new set of civic virtues—rooted in an ethic of the common good—posed as guides to Americans in their daily lives as citizens. Some observers have gone further and proclaimed the dawn of a new American civil religion.
Consider these words from the President’s Inaugural Address:
Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
These are heady aspirations, and perhaps the kind of message a nation in crisis and in transition needs to hear. It would appear that this is a moment that is paradoxically imbued with a sense of clarity and ambiguity. And so it is that we at The Immanent Frame have chosen to honor and interrogate this moment—generated by the event of Obama’s presidency (and its corollaries “the Obama generation” and “the Obama era”)—by launching a new series: “These things are old.”
In a manner of speaking, Obama appears as both a question and an answer. As president, he poses an open invitation as well as a concrete proposal. He strongly makes the call to engage in the renewal and revival of a conversation about the common good. Yet while Obama used the civic space of the inauguration to dispatch the call to engage these values, he also offered a sanctification of “American” values and virtues as well as a particular historical narrative of American time and space.
We have invited an august group of scholars and public intellectuals to respond to Obama’s invocation of a tradition of common good and virtues. Asking our contributors to step back from the words, “these things are old…these things are true,” we have asked them consider the values Obama names— “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—and to situate these values within moral, philosophical, religious, and secular traditions. Further, we ask: Is it possible to parse these virtues and values into distinct categories of “the religious” and “the secular”? What intellectual genealogies serve as the moral sources for these virtues and values? What historical processes have led to their incorporation into the American political lexicon and possibly rendered them the bulwarks of “the American ethic”? While the inspiration for the series begins with Obama, we have encouraged our contributors to look beyond Obama’s words and to examine the traditions themselves as an opportunity to think through the meaning of this moment in American civic life.
Obama has been quite effective and persistent in his attempts to tell a meaningful public story about America and American virtues. He has proven to be a master of public rhetoric—a form of engagement understood by the ancients as the art of persuasion. As with the classical art of rhetoric, Obama enacts the basic principle that one needs not only well-reasoned argument but also a sufficiently deep and engaged understanding of an audience’s values. Why? In order to effectively persuade them of something like a sense of shared and elective affinities or a mission of common purpose. In this regard, Obama, as expert rhetorician, is also a master of the mythopoetic, an expert maker of myths: especially myths about the meaning of “America,” and of the values and institutions that constitute a common national tradition. With his combination of charisma and the attribution of elevated purpose to the work of politics, Obama has proven astonishingly effective in generating an enchantment about new possibilities, about a renewed American dream, and about the centrality of a public language of hope. To this end, an alluring quality of Obama’s rhetoric of common purpose and good is his invitation to participate in public service and to consider the possibilities of an expansive and engaged conception of citizenship.
Nonetheless, by casting certain values as “old” and as “true,” Obama has enjoined the American public in an affirmation of a tradition that may or may not be in fact be as “common” as he claims. For while he invites the American citizenry to think of ourselves as part of a common conversation that makes for a tradition, he presumes a common inheritance. And yet: there will no doubt be those who feel left out of this inheritance and from this invitation. They will feel so for a host of reasons: differences over political positions or moral points of view, or disputes about the master narratives that have rendered the lives of various people invisible or “insignificant.” This is one of the perils of making an appeal and a claim to “the common good” and to shared values. When a tradition aspires to be encompassing, if not universal, in its moral claims, it will inevitably leave many feeling excluded. If, as the philosopher of tradition Alasdair MacIntyre argues, a tradition requires, through shared narratives and stories, a sense of accountability to a historical community of past, present, and future, one might ask: what are the conditions for the possibility of rendering a plausible and animating “American” civic tradition?
MacIntyre famously elevates “tradition over genealogy” as a project of moral inquiry because of what he sees as inherent instability and contradictions found in the genealogist’s suspicion over truth claims. Nonetheless, as a proposition made to a democratic polity, critical engagements of traditions and contestations offered by genealogical inquiries seem not only apt but also necessary for this political and historical moment. The Obama era presents us with the hope for unity and commonality. By taking Obama’s own cue for the need for accountability through critical opposition, we have enlisted our contributors to explore both tradition and genealogy. Those who seek to uncover genealogies in the mode of Nietzsche and Foucault often come to traditions with an interpretive frame of suspicion. Which is to say, so the criticism goes, they are seeking to uncover historical and structural forces that have operated to generate systems and structures of value, not only of “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism,” but also the normative traditions of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and class conflict. In the end, MacIntyre eschews the genealogist’s mode of suspicion for the constructive purposes of tradition. Adapting the title of one of MacIntyre’s books, it seems quite reasonable to ask of claims about American common good and purpose, about common values and virtues: “whose values, which tradition?”
Obama lays claim to what sounds like the definitive core of values and civic virtues that are constitutive not only of an American political tradition, but also an American moral tradition. By asking our contributors to identify genealogies and traditions for Obama’s claims about American civic virtue, the common good, and the order of things, our new series begins a critical conversation about tradition in American public life. Indeed, we have conceived “These things are old” as a series that engages in an open and public inquiry over a contested social imaginary—one which asks not only “What is America?” but also about the meaning of “America.” As such, our hope is that the conversation will serve not only as one answer to Obama’s “question,” but also a questioning of his “answer.”
The place of trust (or distrust) must be part of this discussion of tradition. It is very true that “there will no doubt be those who feel left out of this inheritance and from this invitation. They will feel so for a host of reasons: differences over political positions or moral points of view, or disputes about the master narratives … .”
My father’s family were Italian immigrants who managed to become Americans under some severe circumstances. Much of my understanding of America comes informed by the stories my father told me about his family’s American experience. Even now, a half-century later, those stories form the grid guiding my thoughts about what it means to be an American.
My wife’s family escaped from East Germany right before the wall went up. Her stories feed my understanding about freedom and give me a perspective beyond American political rhetoric.
I trust my father and my wife. My trust in them helps me hear their stories with ears much more willing to listen to them and learn from them.
My point is that tradition is passed on in the context of relationship. Tradition apart from community can be a terrible thing in that one has not the proper context for understanding what tradition means. Perhaps this is why I found Gadamer appealing when first introduced to his hermeneutical philosophy.
I look forward to following this thread of discussion. I hope the conversation will indeed question the “answer” being proposed by our newly elected President.
A firm belief in the reality of human-transcending sacrality and truth, and its central place in cultural and political life, is an absolute prerequisite for any conversation aiming to rise above amoral, rhetorical power-plays. However, the moral and political values on which Obama would have us meditate are not publicly and politically permitted, whatever one is permitted “privately” to believe, to be grounded in anything higher than the “American tradition,” meaning that the sacred—which must be the ground of all political power as Thomas Molnar shows in his excellent Twin Powers, lest it become a self-sufficient idol with no limits but its own meaningless and anarchic force—collapses to the mundane, the human, the immanent, the profane; that is, it must never transcend the will of the American people, which is to say, whoever has been granted—or has usurped by rhetorical “brilliance”—the authority to interpret and execute that will.
Such a conversation based upon such a tradition is the complete antithesis of MacIntyre’s notion of tradition, which is by definition necessarily open to and dependent upon something higher than itself. Thus, to bring MacIntyre in here as some kind of intellectual comrade of Obama, and his thought as a plausible theoretical basis of Obama’s project, is problematic, to say the least. MacIntyre would be the first to insist that any political conversation not based ultimately upon and oriented to truth is doomed to failure, for it can only mask, by its prostitution of genuinely moral and traditional language and concepts, the bureaucratic will-to-power. See my post on this.
So, it would seem to me that the only voices that would be permitted any real sway in this kind of conversation are those which already accept immanentism, practical atheism, anthropocentric humanism, naturalism, etc., that is, those voices that implicitly or explicitly deny any political role for transcendent truth and goodness, and thus any basis for the wielding of political power other than pure, arbitrary force. There cannot be a “common good” in such an anti-conversational political order, only a parody of one. Consider also that MacIntyre rejects the nation-state as a possible locus of a genuine common good. How can one possibly think it valid to bring in MacIntyre to support something he has spent his lifetime in opposing?
Furthermore, Obama advocates that any potential conversation partner not wanted by those who should be their ultimate advocates, their mothers, can be murdered with impunity. And I don’t see Obama crying over the ruthless murder of adult women and born children in Afghanistan, quite the contrary. MacIntyre in his Dependent Rational Animals advocates that some of the political interlocutors must “stand in” for the needs of the most defenseless and least able to participate in the political conversation. Does anyone deny that baby humans, especially, need an advocate and a voice? Obama would silence their voice before it could ever be heard by permitting other conversation members to silence them in the womb. Thus, abortion, not religion, pace Rorty, is the great “conversation stopper.”
So, I respectfully decline Obama’s conversation, in solidarity with all the baby humans killed in the past and who will be in the future due to a political climate exacerbated by the anti-conversational nihilism Obama represents wherein the weakest and most defenseless are given the silent treatment in the most brutal way possible. If innocent baby-human life is not sacred, then nothing is sacred.
The day after the inauguration of President Obama, political theorist Michael Sandel remarked that times of crisis provide presidents with the opportunity to remake the social contract and to reshape the meaning of citizenship. In his address, Obama sought to accomplish many rhetorical goals, not the least of which was an articulation of his vision of that all-important compact. Obama’s ambitions are breathtaking. He has in mind nothing less than forging a new understanding of citizenship nationally and internationally—new relationships among citizens, between citizens and their governments and between the United States and other lands. If President Obama’s goals are realized—even in part—they would remake the social and political landscape.
In this time of crisis, citizens in President Obama’s America would not “go shopping,” as President Bush told us to do after 9/11, but would assume obligations and fulfill duties alongside exercises of rights. President Obama drew upon the American past to help shape the renewal of citizenship in the American present. He explained “the price and promise of citizenship,” which he described as the responsibility to fulfill obligations “to ourselves, our nation, and the world.” In so doing, he recovered an older world of civic virtue—where commitment to the common good transcended self-interest. Reminding us of Washington’s grim winter at Valley Forge, President Obama urged Americans, “With hope and virtue, [to] brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.” A citizen’s responsibility is not only to self but to others. The most admirable citizens were “workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job….” These are duties not foisted upon us, not tasks required of citizens that we “grudgingly accept,” but responsibilities that we “seize gladly.”
Unlike the last eight years, government in Obama’s America would both reflect and foster the fulfillment of this revitalized vision of republican citizenship. Government would succeed in transforming our educational system and our manufacturing system because “imagination” would be “joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.” The president believes that impending investments in transportation and communication infrastructure not only “feed our commerce” but also “bind us together.”
One of the keys to the Obama Administration’s relationship with the nation’s citizenry would be a new transparency that would “restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” In reestablishing trust in government, Obama would encourage a closer relationship between America’s citizens and “their government”—the kind of relationship that Americans sometimes have enjoyed in the past. Government in his Administration would not undermine and obstruct the destiny of America’s citizens, as Ronald Reagan contended, but would both express the common commitments of America’s citizens and foster responsible citizenship. America’s success thus depends upon “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 government’s responsibilities would extend to responsible global citizenship. President Obama recognizes the obligations assumed by a powerful nation within a larger community of nations and understands how the communications revolution is eliminating physical and, in some cases, cultural distance. Reaching back to America’s deep past (“we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve”) and looking forward to its future (“as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself”), President Obama envisions the United States as a leading citizen among citizens in realizing those aspirations (“America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace”). As citizens of the world, the United States would “work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet” and “work alongside” the people of poor nations as they seek to feed and educate themselves. The United States and other wealthy nations must recognize that they are citizens of a global community, with global responsibilities. They cannot “consume the world’s resources without regard to effect,” nor “ignore suffering outside of our borders.”
In the sober words invoking the beginning of a “new era of responsibility,” President Obama redefined American citizenship—commitment to the common good, to service, to “kindness” and “selflessness,” and to the well being of their communities, their nation, and their world. If the Age of Obama brings with it “a new era of responsibility,” it brings too a new era of belonging, not only at home, but abroad. In so doing, Obama tethers us to America’s experiences of citizenship in times even more difficult than our own, when rights co-existed, as they did for the Framers and for Abraham Lincoln, with weighty obligations and duties, the better a realize “a more perfect Union.”