The year is 2013. The world did not come to an end in the last month of 2012, as so many had feared. Cynicism and existential terror have not won the future. It is Martin Luther King Day, three weeks to the day after the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation—which declared in the gravest of moments in our national history that we will be a true democracy, one day. As Barack Obama is sworn in for his second term, the nation aches with a desire for forward motion.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, in what is perhaps the most effective, action-oriented treatise on democracy, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all [people] are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Near the start of his 2nd inaugural address, Pres. Obama said “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the reality of our time, for history tells us that while those truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.” He described the essence of the challenge we all face as that generational and never-ending effort “to keep safe our founding creed.”
The first truth of democracy is that all human beings are conscious spirits with a right to make decisions about their fate and the circumstances of the society in which they live. The second truth is that our life, our liberty and our pursuit of happiness, focus most intently on the intimate relationships that constitute the substance of our lived experience: family, chosen and cherished friendships, and romantic love.
The poet Marilyn Chin said in an interview in 2012 that “the bliss of eros must sooner or later be interrupted by the bad news of the world.” This, of course, is the cause of much rebellion, mistrust and conflict: I may find my corner of relative erotic, familial or community bliss, but degradations rooted elsewhere will, somehow, creep back in. We are challenged to address the failings of the social structures we inhabit.
It is then the work of our romantic, familial, community and individual selves, in the space of our democracy, to bring human souls together in a viable fabric of meaning, which can thrive and defy and make magic, even in the face of the hoax-math, illusion and tragedy, so active around the edges of the political sphere.
The fact is: that interference of the world in our affairs is also part of what it is to live in a democracy. The third truth of democracy is that it acts as a framework through which we can take a measure of collective or composite ethical conscience. What Chin calls “the cries of those less fortunate” are an existential summons to each of us.
That summons requires that we ask ourselves: Are we up to the ethical challenge of forging “a more perfect union”—an optimal commonwealth in which the benefits of democracy, however local or remote, accrue genuinely and irrevocably to all people? Are we free enough to do so? Can we be the democracy we seek, unafraid of any challenge, unwilling to cast aside any human being?
Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, cited the author of Roots, Alex Haley, who said he had lived his life by six simple words: “Find the good, and praise it.” He was speaking, in this case, of the peaceful transition of power, how we recognize and honor the inauguration of a democratically elected president, without mob violence, rebellion or political disintegration.
Alexander subtly hinted at the challenge his party now faces, after four years of relentless and nearly uniform attacks on Pres. Obama and his legislative agenda. It is necessary to recognize that the inauguration of Barack Obama for a second term, and the peaceful transition of power that comes with it, are in themselves a triumph for democracy and human liberty, and so his party will need to find the true heart of their commitment to public service, praise the good in our system and in the work of this president, and collaborate constructively for the benefit of the nation.
Merly Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers, asked God to bless “all those who contribute” to constructively serving the improvement and upkeep of our democracy. She added that “We ask you to grant our president the will to act courageously but cautiously when confronted by danger… to act prudently but deliberately when faced with adversity…” and to “strengthen us for the journey that lies ahead.”
Firm in his call for principled, pragmatic problem-solving that honors the dignity of all people, Pres. Obama revived his call for people in public life to see beyond the perceived boundaries of party or class, declaring that “Through blood born by lash and blood spilled by war, we have learned that no nation can survive half-slave and half-free.”
For a long time, Barack Obama’s warning that “a chorus of cynics” would tell us that achieving a “more perfect union”, rooted in the core truths of democracy, is not possible, rang all too true. For the years 2009-2012, cynics took this propaganda to a radical extreme, going as far as to suggest, at almost any opportunity, that efforts to provide for a more democratic, liberated and resilient American experience, must be an expression of “hatred” toward America, an attempt to “destroy” American families, or to “crush” the spirit of free enterprise.
Over that time, however, we have witnessed the persistence of humane imaginative patriotism, in the face of so much naked cynicism. Efforts to adjust problematic policy standards, to allow for a more democratic, liberated and resilient American experience, and to build that more perfect union, have proven to be expressions of love for America, for its history, its people and their future, attempts to empower families and breathe life into the collaborative creative spirit of enterprise that undergirds American democracy, the middle class, Main Street and the aspirations of hundreds of millions.
Pres. Obama specifically noted this element of his agenda and of American culture more broadly, saying “Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work … are constants in our character.” He added that public servants need to consider that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” a requirement that defines the meaning of their work in the sweep of American life.
The 2012 election seems to have been a national vote in favor of Robert Kennedy’s faithful admonition that “The American dream need not forever be deferred.” The people of the United States have voted for possibility, demanding that the Congress join the president in moving American democracy forward intelligently and with respect for life at the human scale.
The president’s voice nearly cracked when speaking of the “many who barely make it” in our economy. He sought to set the tone for how to address economic inequity and systematized community degradation, saying that “While the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the efforts and determination of every single citizen.”
The president promised: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” also noting that “The commitments we make to each other … do not sap our initiative … they free us” to be the society we hope to be. He added that we cannot afford to cede the clean energy transition to other nations, saying that achieving that position of world leadership will give meaning to our creed.
In two statements that received resounding applause, the president said that security does not require “perpetual war” and reminded members of Congress that “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics.”
Taking the long view of democracy, he sought to frame the nature of pro-active social policy reform, saying “We must act knowing our victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence,” to make good on the promise of our founding.
Richard Blanco’s solemn, generous and deliberative poem cast the moment in the light of a collective joy at having the opportunity that is a true democracy, if we can manifest it. A partial transcription:
A simple truth … charging across the Rockies … told by our silent gestures … millions of faces in morning’s mirrors … pencil-yellow school buses … apples and oranges, arranged like rainbows, begging our praise … on our way … to ring up groceries, as my mother did, for 20 years, so I could write this poem, for all of us … equations to solve, history confronted or atoms imagined … the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the tragedy of 20 children marked ‘absent’ today and every day … one ground, our ground, rooting us to ever stalk of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands … hands gleaning coal or planting windmills that keep us warm … one breath … breathe … hear it through the din … hear the doors we open each day for each other, saying Hello, Shalom, Buon Giorno … Namaste or Buenos Días, in the language my mother taught me … one wind … one sky … thank the work of our hands … stitching another wound … the last floor on the Freedom Tower, jutting toward the sky that yields to our resilience … sometimes giving thanks for a love that loves you back … forgiving … heading home … through the plum blush of dusk … always home … one sky, our sky, and always one moon … all of us, facing the stars, Hope: a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it, together…
Pres. Obama ended his address with an explicit recognition of that vital ethical summons: “Let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.” There is a mandate, now, for collaborative creative problem-solving and principled progress toward full democracy and genuinely open opportunity, at the human scale.
As Lucie Brock-Broido has written: “Make a fist for heart. That is the size of it.” Citizenship is about honoring the great strength of people honoring the dignity of human connections; democracy is about the fabric of informed conscience and shared interest citizens enact, to protect the liberties of each by opening liberty to all.