Nederlog        

 

21 januari 2009

 

President Obama's speech + my comments

crisis-economie



Normally, I write Dutch in Nederlog, but since President Obama delivered his inaugural address in English, and I wish to make some elucidatory comments, here it is, with numbers with links for notes included, and the notes following it, followed by a short general comment.


My fellow citizens: [1]

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition. [2]

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. [3]

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans. [4]

That we are in the midst of is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. [5]

These are the indicators of , subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights. [6]

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met. [7]

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. [8]

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. [9]

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; 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. [10]

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. [11]

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. [12]

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction. [13]

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. [14]

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do. [15]

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. [16]

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government. [17]

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good. [18]

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more. [19]

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. [20]

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you. [21]

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. [22]

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. [23]

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it. [24]

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. [25]

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate. [26]

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. [27]

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath. [28]

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]." [29]

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations. [30]


[1] I believe this is the standard opening phrase of American Presidents who address the people of their nation. One of the points behind it is that, according to the Constitution, "all are born equal" - that is, more precisely speaking: all adults count as the same in status and rights for the law.

[2] This is mostly the socalled "captatio benevolentiae" recommended by rhetoricians, but the humility probably is real or at least realistic in view of the enormous problems Obama faces.

The idea of being "mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors" will be taken up later, because Obama wants to return to a better understanding of what made the USA a promised land for so many, and of the moral, legal and philosophical notions these are based on, as e.g. enshrined in the Declaration of Indpendence, the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and other foundational ideas and texts of the United States of America.

[3] This mostly sets the scene and repeats the point of the intellectual and moral foundations of the USA: "because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents".

[4] This is to some extent both a true and a conservative point: Nations based on laws are nations based on traditions, ideas and ideals. That is, Obama wants change, but within the accepted foundational American traditions, ideas and ideals, and indeed part of his change is a return to these foundational ideas and values.

[5] A sum-up of reasons why the term "" is appropriate for the situation the US and the world are in, and also a list of main problems to (dis)solve: war, depression, health-care, school-system, climate.

[6] The is real and provable by objective evidence, but one should not be cowed by it.

[7] This is a promise and a - very vague - plan or ideal. The main content is that there are many serious problems that will not be solved easily or fast - which is a fair estimate.

[8] Indeed, and it is worth remarking that this idea is at the basis of a free human choice to form a society with others: Because cooperation and mutual help will be in the interest of all or most, and because these offer many advantages that without cooperation cannot be realized at all.

[9] This is critical of past American presidential policies, and is probably also meant to indicate that Obama intends to cooperate with the Republicans rather than keep them down (as is wise, if only because of the ).

[10] That "all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness" is, of course, part of the American Constitution and ideal - and it is both just and somewhat tragi-comical that the first (nominally) black President of the US should stress them.

[11] This probably is mostly intended to woe Republicans, but it is sound in this sense: Every society consists mostly of historically anonymous men and women - i.e. such as will not be recalled after they die, except by friends and family - who do most of the work done in society, that makes life for all or most in the society much better than it would be if they had lived without society.

[12] The last of these three sentences starting "For us" names some places of historical battles of the US, and the first two draw attention, in a somewhat shaded fashion, to two large groups who together make up the majority of the inhabitants of the US: Descendants of mostly white immigrants, looking for freedom, happiness, prosperitity; and descendants from black slaves.

Incidentally, "For us" is true, probably, for some or many of those who died young and in battle, but of course it is also true that at least the white immigrants immigrated also for the purpose of furthering their own interests, including those of their children.

[13] That a nation can be fairly said to be "bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions" is due to the fact that social cooperation multiplies the chances and possibilities of the individuals who cooperate. (Those who care for mathematics may consider the number of possible re-orderings of n things, that equals 1* ...*n, which is a formula that grows rapidly in size with increasing n.)

[14] In view of the economical indeed it is relevant and important that "Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished"  - for, in other words: The basic capacities for production, in terms of land, factories and people to work there are still there, and have hardly been touched by the that happened so far.

[15] This casts back to all but the first of the points mentioned at [5]: war, depression, health-care, school-system, climate. It seems Obama will want to create jobs by state-investments in "the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines" (and I may remark as an aside that the English government might invest a lot in drains, as these - presently! - mostly date back for a good part tot the Victorians).

He also seems to want to invest in ecological projects, renewable energy and the climate problem.

Personally, I am much pleased with "And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age", because it seems to me these do and have done a poor job, for the most part, for the last 40 years or so: All universities and polytechnics in the West, apart from the few best, have offered worse and less and less scientific education than the generations before them received, largely because of educational changes made since The Sixties, that consisted mostly in levelling and post-modernistic relativism.

[16] This is probably a somewhat diffused argument in favor of far greater state intervention in the coming years, in economical, educational and ecological affairs, than was common or perhaps even acceptable in the US so far.

And though some Republicans claim it is "socialism", this is not so: In fact it is at least a partial turn to how European capitalist states are run, that do and have relied far more on state intervention than the US.

[17] This continues what was said at [16] and also implicitly argues the case for considerably more state intervention than was common in the US for a long time - and indeed, even hard core Republicans should admit that if ever there was a time for more state intervenion in the US in things economical, educational and ecological, it must be during a time of as it is now.

Also, "to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government" no doubt is a rather restrained criticism of the economical policies of the Bush years.

[18] Here again Obama implicitly argues the case that more state intervention is not at all the same as state socialism. And indeed, his "this has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous" is little else than undiluted Keynes.

The second part of the paragraph reiterates the theme what human society is for, if it is a free and deliberate and rational and reasonable creation of its members: "our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good".

[19] The first statement is a denial of the Bush polici since 9/11: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

Indeed, that is correct in that one can not have a free state while divesting its citizens from many of their fundamental freedoms and rights in the name of "the fight against terrorism" - for the most likely result of that is a terrorist or at least authoritarian state, where the rule of law has been replaced by the rule of the state for "reasons of the state". (*)

Obama also reiterates his belief in the fundamental ideas and ideals expressed in the Constitution: "Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."

He also articulates - what may be called - the promise of the Statue of Liberty thus: "know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."

And indeed, it is at least somewhat disappointing that with the fall of the Soviet Union, there has not been a corresponding rise in the popularity of the ideas and ideals of the founding fathers of the US - who may be fairly said to have seen far deeper and far more truly into the human heart, mind and possibilities and incapacities than - for one example - the founding fathers of the USSR.

[20] This is true, and if you read Dutch my "Over terrorisme" (2005) is recommended here as is Over de "war on terror": eindelijk enig gezond verstand" (with quite a few links).

Also, in part Obama seems to be here - as elsewhere in his speech - the example of ancient Greek orators, and indeed it is true that the best human societies require a rationally planned society, in which the greater part of the population feels inspired by its foundational ideals.

[21] This reaffirms Obama's commitment to the ideals of the Constitution and suggests some of his plans as regards Iraq, Afghanistan and ecology.

I suppose that "We will not apologize for our way of life", is not so much an argument for more SUVs as an attempt to keep some Republicans on board: Under Obama, the US will remain a great consumer, even if more consumption will be state-directed, for the time being. And indeed, this seems realistic, also in the senses that having money to consume is what motivates most people to work, and that Obama cannot hope to change American economic habits and preferences in the course of his presidency.

[22] Although this is good rhetorics, it also contains three important points:

A. "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."

That is: A pluriform - "multi-cultural", if one can say and think this without a post-modern taste in the mouth or thought in the mind - society is normally a higher civilised, stronger, more interesting, richer society than a society which allows only one religion, doctrine, or race, and attempts to subject all to it.

Why is this so? Because in a pluriform society there are both the freedom to think, speak and live as one pleases (while respecting the laws) and a great number of diverse ideas, ideals, and values, that both check and stimulate each other.

B. "We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth"

This is very true of the US, and is one of its strengths (if it does succeed in giving its population in great majority what its founding fathers intended should be given to them).

C. "that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself"

Or indeed conversely, and far more bitterly: If our common humanity does not reveal itself, our common lack of it may kill all or most of us.

O yes - and being an atheist myself (that is, I believe the evidence is such that the existence of a God, especially one like described by any human religion, is quite improbable), I do appreciate it that at long last "non-believers" are mentioned by an American President.

[23] This is again a somewhat diffuse way of announcing new policies, that are more diplomatic than militaristic, and it contains two nice pieces of rhetoric: "know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy" and "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist".

[24] This seems to promise or announce new (economical?) policies related to "we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect", that is to world poverty and ecology - but it does not name them.

[25] This paragraph is especially for and about "brave Americans".

What is true in it is that no government that desires or finds a need to effect great changes in a small period can hope to do this without the enthusiasm and support of a great part of its population.

[26] Continuation of previous paragraph and specification: "it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies" - and it may be noteworthy that, historically speaking, this was, when the USA was founded, a radical and new idea: A society ruled by and for the people, rather than by and for an élite of a special caste, and in perpituity, as had been the case then in Europe for centuries.

[27] In considerable part, this is moral exhortation, but is well to comment on "But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. "

These things are "true" in that they are tested through many generations, indeed at least since the Ancient Greeks, and were shown to be the best human ways, apart from chance, great talent, or great handicaps, to prosper and be moral in Chamfort's sense:

"Enjoy and give pleasure, without doing harm to yourself or to anyone else - that, I think, is the whole of morality."
   (Chamfort)

For more, see Aristotle's Ethics with my notes, and Hume's Enquiries into Morals with my notes.

And note that "What is demanded then is a return to these truths" is both a statement of Obama's trust in the Constitution and a sharp criticism of his predecessor(s), who can be said to have been led by other principles, also memorable expressed:

Stupidity and egoism are the roots of all vice.
   (Buddha)

[28] These three paragraphs spin out part of the suggestions of the two before them. Note also that "why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath" is both positive and negative:

Positive in that it is possible for a - nominally - black man to become President of the United States, and that it has happened; negative in that it took some sixty years at least; positive again in that this is indeed a long time, but there have been times and places when generation after generation was and remained repressed.

[29] This is mostly for American patriots - which is OK with me, but I am not American. Let me note in passing, though, that the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution are rather amazing documents, that contain some very good and clear thinking and formulating, and are very well worth reading, also for non-Americans, and those who oppose the US without knowing much or anything about the moral and intellectual foundations it was surrrected upon.

[30] This seems to relate to the American traditions of "the home of the brave".

It is noteworthy that Obama speaks of "in this winter of our hardship", whereas that may not yet have really begun for most, and may last a considerable while, but indeed one never solves problems with hysteria and cowardice.


General comment on the inaugural addresss and my notes:

Not having a TV since 40 years and not being American, so far I had not heard any complete speech by Barack Obama, though I had heard it claimed that he is a great speaker.

The above is his inaugural address as President of the United States, which I have heard as it was made on the BBC-WorldService, and since found on several places on the internet, with thirty of my notes attached.

If you know more of my site, you may know that - being a philosopher and an invalid - this is my standard way of dealing with philosophical classics, that is, I quote the full texts, insert many numbers for notes, that are then usually made in one or more separate files.

Although I doubt that President Obama's inaugural address will be a philosophical classic, his presidency, his person, and the time in which he accepted the office of President, seemed important enough for me to consider the speech somewhat seriously, and to annotate it.

My main reason for this, apart from wanting to clarify my own mind, and apart from wanting to make my mind up on his abilities as a speaker (about which I had heard much, but which I had no opportunity to test so far), is that I believe that his presidency is particularly important both because of the great present problems of diverse kinds (war, economy, education, ecology, depression) and because of the considerable possibilities for fairly rapid change, especially in the US and Europe, if we are happy, mostly for the best and if we are not happy, certainly for the worst.

This does not quite explain yet why I made my 30 notes, but then two specific reasons apart from the ones just given are these:

First, I agreed with much that Obama said, but it turned out that most persons I heard comment on the speech, and try to analyse it, seemed to have missed much of it, and indeed Obama's speech was more in the tradition he may have gleaned from Thucydides, than that it was directed at the average understanding of his hearers.

That is, it seemed to be a speech that set out general ideals and an outline for new policies, that did so in a language of ideas, also spiced with some rhetorics, that - unfortunately - especially as regards political speeching in terms of ideas, is not very familiar to most of its listeners.

Second, I happen to be a philosopher, and I think I can rather easily pick up most of his references and suppositions, in sofar as these are related to having a bright mind and a good liberal scientific education.

Indeed, either Obama has been reading Nederlog (with the help of Babelfish, say) or else - and far more likely - those who have good minds, a good education, a good knowledge of historical and political classics, and an appreciation of the possibilities of modern science, will tend to come to similar conclusions from the same premisses dictated by the present times.

Therefore, I have added my own clarifications to the speech, and also quoted it in full.

I hope it may be useful to some, and all that remains to be said at present in this context are three things.

First, and indeed also since two days ago it was Martin Luther King Day in the US, it seems to me that Obama is a good speaker, but that Martin Luther King was a great speaker - and indeed, I do not believe that Obama will gainsay me, or that he should do so, or even want to do so.

Second, Obama clearly has a good mind, and I hope he will succeed in what he has set out to do, while it is a considerable re-assurance that, at long last, the United States has again a President who is at the very least intellectually competent, so much unlike his predecessor.

Third, it should also be said, in fairness also, that a considerable part of the problems that the US and the world have at present, are the direct result of the policies of his predecessor and his team, and indeed that if they had been more competent, intellectually and morally, the problems that plague the world at present would have been proportionally less.

crisis-economie

(*) "Reasons of state" - "raisons d'état" - tend to be those secret grounds that lead to torture, murder, repression and secrecy, and are the historical common diplomatic phrase for these activities: "We had Guantánamo and we did rendition for reasons of state, y'all understand".


Jan 23, 2013: I found that for some unfathomable reason some (parts) of the paragraphs of Obama's text had turned into links to the crisis series and corrected that today.

Maarten Maartensz

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