Less than 48 hours after President Obama’s second inauguration speech, the front pages of America are filled with this burning question: did Beyonce or didn’t she? Lipsync? Whether the famous singer — or the Marine Corps Band for that matter — actually performed the National Anthem or simply appeared to sing/play to a pre-recorded version is the talk of Washington? Lipsyncgate is a convenient way to avoid hard thinking about the profoundly serious issues the presidential address presented. Our national conscience would rather wrestle with the pseudo hardships of the stars than the genuine hardships of people relegated to the margins of the wealthiest nation on earth.
President Obama’s serious, straightforward inaugural address on Monday challenges “We the People” to think about all of the hard issues we face as a nation. I loved his rhetorical use of “We, the People” and references to the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence as well as the U.S. Constitution. I use those devices quite often in writing about government and political issues. We must never forget that “We, the People” are the real decision-makers in this democracy. How the United States chooses to address our major social, economic, educational, healthcare and national security issues over time depends heavily on the will of the people both nationally and across all 50 states.
President Obama’s speech, hailed as progressive by some and partisan by others, was, to my reading, a remarkable summary of social justice issues in the public square. The fact that the President of the United States would dare to articulate a broadly pragmatic list of social justice challenges during his inauguration is, itself, an act of genuine leadership. We citizens might disagree vigorously with the specific shape of the solutions for these issues in law and policy. But we must first name the issues, and Obama did just that.
The president called for a unified national determination to address the issues of poverty, economic recovery, climate change, education and human rights. Some critics leapt upon his inclusion of climate change in this address as somehow inappropriate. In fact, environmental stewardship is one of the fundamental themes of social justice, and in a nation that has borne the tragedies of recent massively destructive storms, the president’s sense of urgency is not at all misplaced. In fact, some might ask why it’s taken our national leadership so long to call out this issue as essential to ensuring security and economic prosperity for our future.
President Obama’s vigorous defense of the social safety net — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — underscored his view that a great nation can take care of people in need while still meeting its economic obligations to the world. This is a central debate in the current Congressional fight over the debt ceiling and federal budget deficit. Rather than demonizing opposing points of view — or substituting “spectacle for politics” in the president’s words — legislators and political leaders must find a way to ensure continued protection for people in need while also addressing the long-term economic challenges of the nation. This is hard work, and there are no easy answers. President Obama has staked out a moral position that he must now fulfill with smart and effective political leadership, including the necessary use of compromise which is the real art of governing.
The president had his most eloquent moment in addressing the nation’s long struggle to achieve genuine equal opportunity for all people: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.” (President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address)
We will surely continue to have large debates about the political solutions to issues of civil rights, women’s rights, and the rights of people who are gay, or disabled, or impoverished, or immigrants, or different in ways the mainstream may not know or understand. The most fundamental idea of this nation, the idea of human equality, is that every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, that every person should have equal opportunity to enjoy freedom, education, economic security regardless of personal characteristics. We are a nation of labelers, and we love to plaster labels on people as we sort each other through the sieves of rights: male, female, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Catholic, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight, 99%, 1%, Brooklyn accent, California Girl… the categories are endless and our sifting of each other is increasingly narrow and narrow-minded. Obama’s linking of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall is a call to stop the sifting, stop the sluicing of people through ever-narrow sieves of who’s-favored and who’s-not, and instead, recognize that civil and human rights belong to everybody across all categories and characteristics.
Is anybody listening? Our eyes and ears are overflowing with the noisy detritus of modern life, and a presidential speech runs the risk of having the lifespan of a Beyonce karaoke. One of the real purposes of the academic life we enjoy at Trinity and other universities is to turn off the extraneous noise, focus on the text, take a few minutes to THINK and reason through the meaning of words, to understand the debates surrounding those words, to raise our eyes up to the long span of history and its landmark moments that led to the day when an African American president could stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for the second time to take the oath of office. The moment has meaning well beyond the simple words of a speech, but those words aptly capture our history as a nation in continuous struggle to define the true meaning of our Founder’s declaration of “….truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (Declaration of Independence, quoted in President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address)
What did you think of President Obama’s Second Inaugural address? Offer your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post your comments on another blog…
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