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Speaking of Responsibility January 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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Commentators 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 proposals. “Honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” “These things are old,” Obama declared. “These things are true.”Some on the left were disappointed, viewing such moral rhetoric as an example of Obama’s disturbing penchant for reaching out to a thoroughly discredited conservative movement. And indeed many conservatives have tried to claim the speech as their own, chortling that the themes of responsibility, hard work, and sacrifice are fundamental conservative themes. (See here and here)

I think this reading of Obama’s intent is mistaken. This speech marking the inauguration of a new administration was an inauguration of a new era in liberal politics as well-one that does not shy away from invoking moral values. The liberal public rhetoric of the past usually trumpeted specific policy proposals, while silently taking for granted the moral values that underlie these proposals. Liberals typically used the language of rights and benefits when advocating health care, welfare, or economic reform-what people can gain from their policies-without mentioning the sense of obligation and responsibility that provides the rationale for their policies. This has enabled Republicans to obscure their differences with liberals-after all they have policies too. But more importantly, when liberals abandon their moral vocabulary, conservatives fill the vacuum by claiming the mantle of moral virtue for their radical, reactionary views. Liberals will be successful in the long run, only if they regain the moral high ground. Obama has begun that process.

There is plenty of evidence that Obama was not parroting conservative talking points. He specifically referred to “the greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” as the source of our economic troubles, and he disparaged “the pleasures of riches and fame.” This is hardly a paean to conservatives who think riches are their birthright and greed their wellspring. He spoke of collective responsibility and our willingness to help others, themes that seldom cross conservative lips; and he unambiguously supported the role of government in the economy, the very antipode of conservative thought. Furthermore, when he spoke of “worn-out dogmas” and “setting aside childish things” it was in the context of imploring Americans 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.” With these remarks, he has the economic royalists in the Republican Party clearly in his crosshairs.

Of course, George Bush (remember him?) called for a new era of responsibility in his inaugural speech, but his meaning was utterly opposed to Obama’s. Conservatives often use the language of service, character, and personal responsibility. But that language is an accusation aimed at the disadvantaged whose lack of success is supposed to be evidence of their vices; an accusation never aimed at the business elites whose success ought never to be burdened with responsibility less they lose their incentive to produce.

There is a vast difference between calling for shared responsibility on the one hand and deceitfully accusing the disadvantaged of lacking responsibility on the other. The idea that “responsibility” belongs to conservatives is laughable. Bush and Cheney, in their exit from the stage, were utterly unrepentant for their sorry environmental record, legacy of economic collapse, and war crimes, seemingly oblivious to their role as architects of disaster.
It is to be hoped that the empty moral rhetoric of the conservative movement has not eviscerated a moral vocabulary that we now so desperately need and that Obama is attempting to recapture.

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