In his second Inaugural speech, President Obama gestured back to other great and trying times in American history—“Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall”—and even further back, to the Civil War period and the War of Independence.
In all of these historical eras, freedom was the watchword, and first slavery, then inequality, the great evil that had to be eradicated in order for us to move forward as a nation.
Now we’re in a different period, unlike any we have yet lived through as Americans or as global citizens.
What we need now is not more freedom, but more connection. If there are battles to be fought today—and there are!—they must be in the name not of liberty, but of interdependence.
It is hard to make a stirring speech out of complex concepts like interconnection, collaboration and sustainability, and President Obama’s gestures in this direction were, at best, oblique.
He spent a lot of his time echoing many of the enduring pieties of American history, including the Declaration of Independence, those famous lines that every American schoolchild studies: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”
This is “our generation’s task,” Obama said; “to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.”
There is a fundamental dilemma built into this founding creed, because of course one person’s pursuit of happiness may very well impede or encroach upon another person’s life and liberty.
For instance, is it OK that corporate “persons,” in their single-minded pursuit of short-term gains, ie, financial happiness, cut short people’s lives by poisoning our air, water and food supply with toxic chemicals?
Is it OK that your friendly neighborhood billionaire pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, considering that fact that this makes him very, very happy?
President Obama made no secret of his progressive agenda for social equality, ticking off social issues such as equal pay for women, gay marriage, and a more generous immigration approach as “our generation’s task to carry on.”
It was a surprise to many to find him also taking up the hot-button issue of climate change in this speech.
Echoing the Preamble to the Constitution, he insisted that “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.
“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
In the days of Wilberforce and Lincoln, a political leader who dared to speak out against slavery risked the wrath of the richest, most powerful men on Earth.
Today, a politician who dares to speak out against climate change runs the same kind of risk.
We know that the pockets of the huge energy conglomerates like Exxon-Mobil, Shell, Chevron and the rest are way deeper than the puny resources of the American government.
Those guys can buy themselves the best lawyers, the best lobbyists, the best media workers, the best researchers and scientists…and if short-term profit is their only motive, then they have no incentive to desist from continuing their pell-mell push to extract every last ounce of usable oil, gas and coal from the Earth’s crust.
President Obama indicated in his speech that he understands the ethical and scientific implications of allowing the fossil fuel industry to ride roughshod over the possibility of a sustainable future for our children and future generations.
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” he said.
As a parent, I know that my responsibility to my children is greater than any claim I could make to personal freedom.
I cannot blindly pursue my own happiness at the expense of theirs.
No more can we as a nation and as a human civilization continue to pretend that we don’t understand how our permissiveness towards corporate freedom, with its myopic focus on next-quarter profits, is undermining our obligation to future generations—and not just future generations of humans, but of all the creatures and plants who grew up with us on this planet.
If the President truly believes what he said, that “our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” then he must act boldly to uphold a new creed for the 21st century, based not on freedom and liberty, but on responsibility and interdependence. And we need to be right by his side, giving him the courage to act on his best convictions.
President Obama ended his speech by affirming that “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.
“You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift,” he said, concluding:
“Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”
Wait! No, that’s not right! It’s not “that precious light of freedom” we need to embrace now; it’s “that precious recognition of interdependence.”
What he should have said in closing was this:
“With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and work together to create a sustainable, global socio-economic framework, manifested on the local level by caring, collaborative communities who understand that now is no longer the time of independence, or of freedom, but the dawn of a new era of responsibility and interdependence.”
In short, it’s time for us humans to grow up.
For a heartbreaking take on the urgency of our mission to shift to renewable energy and put a lid on global warming, watch Nikki Craft’s film RESIST DO NOT COMPLY, made with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith.
And then join your fellow grown-up citizens in doing the work that it is, as the president said, our generation’s greatest task.