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American Renaissance January 20, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

President Obama’s Inauguration Address was significant, in part, because of what was left out. Gone was the soaring rhetoric of hope and change that characterized his campaign speeches. There was little to induce excitement or move the crowd to ovations. He barely flashed his brillliant, ingratiating smile. And there was almost no policy talk or lists of agenda items to be accomplished in his first term. It was, instead, a dissertation on moral values or, more accurately, their absence, in recent years.

The conceptual core of his speech was this:

“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. 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.

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 short-cuts 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….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.”

These passages, and many others in the speech, imply a sharp and trenchant criticism of the Bush Administration. But not only the Bush Administration. The repeated reference to “we” in these paragraphs suggests complicity on the part of the American public for our travails, a lack of moral seriousness that enabled the duplicity and moral corruption that marred this regime, a moral bubble as disconnected from reality as the housing bubble, and even more fundamental to our current predicament.

For too long the American public allowed themselves the fantasy that excessive violence and excessive greed would have no moral consequences, that suffering was a sign of weakness rather than need, that listening to others showed a lack of discipline and will, that ignorance was a sign of virtue, that mouthing Christian and patriotic platitudes was sufficient for moral labor.

Set aside childish things indeed.

Obama called the American public to task today and the public getting that message is crucial to his success. He enters the Presidency with approval ratings approaching 70%. But it is disturbing that many of the same people who now shout “Yes We Can” voted twice for an impudent, arrogant, ignorant failure who was made President by his daddy’s friends on the Supreme Court.

The problem, as Obama knows, is that our problems are too much for one man to solve. It will take collective patience, resolve, and sacrifice to make progress on problems like global warming, war and peace, and a return to economic prosperity. It will be too much to ask that the plutocrats and power-brokers who got us into this mess, and still hold power in most of our institutions, have finished their 12-step program of moral renewal. The public will have to hold their feet to the fire. But this will require a moral seriousness that has not been much on display over the past 30 years. (The decline of moral seriousness did not begin with Bush–it has been a long time comin’.)

So Obama’s references to hope are now coupled with references to virtue.

“For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith 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… With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”

Perhaps, for a change, we now have a government sufficiently committed to moral renewal that it will inspire moral seriousness on the part of a formerly distracted public that now vaguely senses the existential threat when greed, violence, and ignorance become “virtuous”.

Shameless self-promotion department: For more on American Renaissance see Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America, due to be published in late February.



1. Tania Azevedo - January 22, 2009

he totally forgot Latin America and it was a speech that was good but not great.m it fulfilled its purpose. it was informational. however, I didn’t feel that it was an inaugural address that will go down in history as one of the greatest.

on a more banal matter, in my opinion Michelle Obama’s Inaugural ceremony dress was a bit exaggerated for the occasion.

I also think that the attitude that people are taking with our new president is unfair. Everyone expects something from him immediately. Immigration reform , new abortion laws, etc. What ever happen to ,” Don’t ask what your country can do for you , but what you can do for your country”

What people need to understand is that the guy is not some kind of new age messiah. he is just human. He needs time and we all have to do our part

Tania Azevedo

2. Speaking of Responsibility « Philosophy On The Mesa - January 27, 2009

[…] have been hard at work interpreting Obama’s Inauguration speech, which as I noted in an earlier post, emphasized moral values and responsibility rather than hope, change, or progressive policy […]

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