Tuesday, January 20, 2009

National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation

I want to start out this post by saying that today has been quite an historic day. Inauguration of the first black President of the United States is a good thing, a good milestone. It isn't said much, but there's even a further step than that - since Barack Obama is mixed-race. We've come far and fast as far as historical timeframes are concerned.

I've always been impressed with how Barack Obama has addressed race - which has been largely by not bringing it up. Through his actions he is basically saying - I'm not black, I'm not white, I'm American. I wouldn't be surprised if he actually has said essentially those words before.

I find that as a person I think Obama is admirable. Being a smoker is even a fine flaw, and makes him perhaps more human than the media and his image-handlers want to make him out to be.

Although Obama wants to put more emphasis on being pragmatic than ideological, there is no questioning that he has an ideology. And well he should. But that's where we part ways, as - from what I can tell - we come from different philosophical camps.

This being inauguration day and change-over of whitehouse.gov I figured I'd check it out and see what the makeover looked like (not that I spent much time checking out the old whitehouse.gov).

I saw they had a blog, so I figured I would check it out.

I can't fully explain why, but I found Obama's first Official Proclamation kind of creepy.

The meat of it is this:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 20, 2009, a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation, and call upon all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century.

I have a real problem with the "serve one another" concept. I am very willing to help other people, but calling it "serving" other people I think is really problematic. Serving implies that their priorities come first. Everyone putting everyone else's priorities first doesn't make sense - and it leads to those "in power" setting the priorities for you. I think your personal priorities *should* in fact come before those of others.

I also am uncomfortable with the "remaking the nation" concept. This seems like a way overly-broad statement. Maybe that just means it ends up meaning nothing - but it really makes it sound like there is an agenda for radical change *away* from the founding philosophical principles of the country, not *toward* them. As far as I'm concerned, we've already been moving away from them - and toward is where we should be headed.

I think also that it comes across to me as an act of great hubris to declare your own inauguration day as a "National Day of" something. Maybe other presidents have done this too, and I just haven't paid attention before.

All in all, a good day. Bush was in fact a disaster, and in many ways Obama will bring positive change. But I'm definitely looking out for the types of change that I don't think we need.


  1. I agree with Shearic that the proclamation is a bit disturbing, as is most of the rhetoric that comes from the Obama/Democrat Party camp. These folks seem to think that the federal government is a charitable organization and that the primary responsibility of government is to provide for the material well-being of its citizens (or those citizens it deems most worthy of their largesse).

    This is a long way from the vision of the founding fathers who saw government as the protector of individual liberty. They blew it, of course, when it came to slavery, but the principle is sound - all people have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and with it a concomitant responsibility to choose wisely and accept the consequences of one's choices.

    Does that mean we should only serve ourselves and not others? No - it only means we have the freedom to choose whether to serve only ourselves, only others, or some combination. No outside force can compel us to choose one way or the other.

    Does serving others put us on higher moral ground? Not necessarily. Shearic makes an outstanding point when he writes that "Serving implies that their priorities come first." In Christian circles you often hear the phrase "living for others." Many people feel this is the most virtuous path - to live and serve others selflessly - to die to self, to ignore one's own desires in the service of one's fellow man. Nonsense. To me, this is the height of arrogance, this notion that we can presume to know what is best for another person.

    Most of us spend a lifetime trying to figure out who we are and what we really want out of life - we spend a great deal of time growing and changing (presuming we're actively self-aware in the first place), and we make lots of mistakes along the way. We have direct access to the content of our brains and experiences and yet we still struggle because the project of self-knowledge is damn hard. Yet there are many who believe that they can figure out or know through some heightened awareness of the human condition what is in the best interests of another person without access to their thoughts and experiences.

    What is the natural outcome of this attitude? Imposing upon another one's own agenda(s) because that is all we can really know. In other words, regardless of what noble intentions we claim, our self-interest always prevails.

    And that is all the new administration can do (and seems bent on doing) - trample over individual liberty to impose their vision of the good and true upon the citizenry and then arrogantly call it virtue.


  2. Isn’t the police officer, nurse, doctor, teacher, trash collector, serving? Parsing the presedential proclaimation can unravel a demand for altruism as you say, but I don’t read it that way, that I must suffer while I feed my neighbor. It can also be interpreted as an appeal for us to apply the Golden Rule or to pull together in times of crisis.

    I am not sure if this is a new proclamation or a perennial that is issued from the president’s office. It might be new or at least tweaked. It sounds like a theme borrowed from parts of MLK’s Drum Major Instinct.

    Proclamations and National days of whatever are nothing new and are part of the pomp and circumstance of office.

    I, personally, don't feel trampled on. I have seen things. Things that set a benchmark. I have nothing worth complaining about.

  3. Ahva - I guess this could easily become some complicated linguistic analysis. For reference, the core of the statement boils down to just this:

    "...serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation..."

    I personally don't hear the Golden Rule in "serve one another". If that was the Golden Rule we'd probably say it that way - it's shorter! ;-)

    With the professions you mentioned I'd say that they provide a service, but I wouldn't want to say that they "serve us". I understand the point is that some of them get satisfaction out of the fact that they are helping in a direct way their fellow citizens, but of course they are paid for their work and don't take direct orders from us.

    I think military is probably the closest to being true service (no wonder they call it "the service"!). And when there is a draft in effect, it is in fact the most literal form of that.

    Police motto is of course "to Protect and to Serve". I've been around cops a lot growing up, so I have a sense for their world-view - and they may enter thinking of it as "service", but they become jaded real quick from what they have to deal with day in and day out and don't think of it that way for long.

    Interesting you bring up MLK. When I was listening to Obama's acceptance speech at the DNC convention in the summer I was dismayed by his saying that "I am my brothers keeper" should be front and center in determining how to govern. This is a fine sentiment for private life, but I think from a government official it is a problem. And at the time I thought - "that was a good speech for someone looking to be community leader". But, from someone who is going to lead government, I think it is the wrong governing philosophy.

    I think the problem for me might boil down to this: Government is an instrument of force (direct or threatened). What it does it does by force. We should only want the government to do things for which we can say to ourselves "I think it is proper that Government should do 'X' by force".

    With that in mind, it's interesting to think about what things we think 'X' should or shouldn't be.

    Good example for 'X': national defense against attack.

    Bad example for 'X': educate our children.

    But back to "serve". If it's to mean "be a teacher, Doctor, or cop" then I think it is too watered down to mean anything.

    I agree of course with Proclamations and such not being new and all. Maybe some of that "change" that Obama has vaguely promised could be doing away with some of that! :-)

    The "Remaking the Nation" thing - I so wish he would've chosen "Renewing the Nation". That would have had so much nicer connotations in my mind. In fact, "The Economist" mag for this week had Obama's picture and "Renewing America" as the cover title - so much nicer.

    I just hear something so different between "Renewing America" and "Remaking America".

    When it comes down to it - the meat of the proclamation was 11 words. I can only imagine they must have been chosen with very careful attention to what meaning they convey. So that makes me really sit up and pay attention when words like "serve" and "remake" are used. But the real big question here is - why has it even become his job to proclaim such a thing?

    Final aside - I can't imagine how small a percentage of the American public even know about the proclamation, and even less that care. But I think it's main purpose is to set the stage in a way, if nothing else for posterity. He's saying: I'm going to push people to service, and I want to remake the nation.

  4. Again we can go into what it specifically means, but it can be interpreted to extremes. There's the common Christian usage of Serve which when applied here could perhaps spook non-believers. But I don't interpret it that way or do I take a cynical view that this means we are called to take orders from our peers. I believe it is more closer to what you refer to as the 'watered' down version.

    The language used in these archaic proclaimations is always uncomfortable. I proclaim it is National Smoke Alarms day and you are hereby called to check that your smoke alarms are working. It can appear to be a nanny state.

    Here I think this is fundamental, basic, the services we give to those around us because we care. Small things. Giving the old chinese guy a seat even though he'll get off at the next stop, but he'll smile and wave. This might seem outwardly trivial but I feel it's deeply postive and supportive. This might fit into rjs comment about arrogance, but inconsiderate acts of kindness are not always telling the person that you know what's good for them, it's showing them empathy.

    But the problem raised in your post is not only be the definition of what it means to serve, but also being asked to do something. Again the hear-ye format of the language doesn't help and it can be interpreted as a forceful, "I'm going to push people to service." I don't see it that way. Like the Russian language to me always sounds harsh serious and angry, this proclaimation format can give a tone that is not there.

    In times of trouble the tendency among most individuals is to look for leadership, the person who will cordinate and motivate and say we'll stick together, help each other, and get through this. In the current environment where so many are going through despair, and suffering, however you parse this proclaimantion doesn't strike me as pompous righteousness, it's comforting and positive.

  5. I also meant to post this. The rest of the proclaimation which puts the 11 words in the original context:

    'As I take the sacred oath of the highest office in the land, I am humbled by the responsibility placed upon my shoulders, renewed by the courage and decency of the American people, and fortified by my faith in an awesome God.

    We are in the midst of a season of trial. Our Nation is being tested, and our people know great uncertainty. Yet the story of America is one of renewal in the face of adversity, reconciliation in a time of discord, and we know that there is a purpose for everything under heaven.

    On this Inauguration Day, we are reminded that we are heirs to over two centuries of American democracy, and that this legacy is not simply a birthright -- it is a glorious burden. Now it falls to us to come together as a people to carry it forward once more.

    So in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, let us remember that: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

  6. Ahva -

    I completely agree that the little things we do in our daily interactions are very important and would agree we should act in the ways you describe in your examples. But I don't think a government channel is needed to convey this. It seems arrogant of government to think that it needs to in fact.

    I also know that I am reading into the use of "serve", but I think I do so with good reason.

    What's in the back of my mind here are the things that "both sides of the aisle" have said about "calling people into service". Some want to make it mandatory for people of a certain age to provide X hours of community service for example. Others want the same but tie it to things like money for college.

    Now, I think that helping in your community is important. And I've done that in my life without the government telling me that I should. And I think a healthy society is one in which it isn't mandatory that you help, but people do so willingly.

    On the surface it can sound like a fine idea to offer college money to kids to provide community service. But two things come to mind associated with this. The first is that it creates a mindset that you need to be incented to do such things. The second is that doing so will make college education universally (even) more expensive. Which, as a result, means more and more kids will be compelled to this service in order to afford college. So it becomes more and more de facto standard. In fact, it could result in thinking like: "Only the poor kids are forced to do community service to get these funds, so we should compel the rich kids to do it too".

    So, while the proclamation in question might refer to things like "get up to let the old man have the seat on the bus" - the next step is "attach financial incentives to youth to do community service" (of course, government will then be in the business of defining/sanctioning what constitutes "community service").

    As government gets more and more involved with aspects of society that I think should be handled by private entities (individuals or organizations) I think it is problematic. Especially for a society that was supposed to have individual liberty as its core principle.

    Anyway, maybe the problem here is that I'm reacting more to this upcoming debate on service that I see the proclamation as a prelude to.

    If they had used "help" instead of "serve" I might be less cynical (read with "help" it still fits your interpretation I think). I keep in mind that these are all lawyers that are very deliberate about language, and anything official they will have chosen their words very specifically I think (e.g. Clinton and definition of "is"). So, I think they were very deliberate in serve vs. help and remake vs. renew.

  7. One thing that self proclaimed libertarians are often accused of (implicitly and explicitly) is that we espouse a belief in hyper-individualism that manifests itself in an "every man for himself" dynamic, an all against all, to the strong go the spoils mentality. One can be libertarian and extol the virtues of community and productive social interchange.


    One thing that is often missing in discussions of free societies and free markets is that for both to work effectively they must be populated by people who possess deep integrity and who are willing to act humanely and compassionately while they pursue their self-interest; and their self-interest, by the way, is not necessarily dominated by greed and envy, but can just as easily be guided by altruistic values.

    A business can only exist if it effectively serves the wishes and/or needs of consumers. Governments exist by fiat and force. A business cannot coerce customers to cross its threshold nor can it force the customer to purchase its goods. A government, of course, can force its citizens to adhere to its whims and the institutional values created by democratic majorities because it possesses a monopoly on violence given to it by the founders, but wisely constrained to be used to protect the individual rights of its citizens.

    The line has been crossed, however, and now the government, while maintaining its monopoly on violence (or coercive force if you prefer a slightly softer language) has also become the largest corporation in America and, if the current rhetoric is to be believed, well on its way to becoming the largest religion in America (or moral arbiter if you prefer that language instead). Imagine a corporation with guns and a state religion with guns - both entities seeing themselves as infallible in their respective domains of economics and virtue.

    I have always been cynical, but now I am alarmed.We may not be there quite yet, but the new government's rhetoric and action are rapidly converging to create a monster.

    I agree with Avha-Rahn in that we must act out of kindness and the Golden Rule is a fine rule of thumb to guide our actions. I applaud all those who serve, not just in their official capacities but who devote their spare hours to volunteer work or acts of charity. We all should do more in this regard. But I agree with shearic in that the rhetoric of this administration is likely a prelude to future coercive acts. The rationalization for these acts will be dressed up in noble words and phrases, but alas, peer underneath and you will see them wrapped tightly in the all too familiar robes of tyranny.