I’m a conservative who is not altogether thrilled that Obama is our new president. However, it is apparent to me that many on the conservative side simply don’t understand just how ambitious president Obama is or where he is trying to take us.
This became obvious on reading a recent column (see here) on Obama’s inaugural address by Dennis Prager. Now I’ve listened to Dennis for years, but recently I’ve tired of listening to him partly because he can’t seem to put himself in the Left-wing person’s perspective to see why they would say the things they do. I’m afraid Left of center people reading his column would simply think that Dennis just doesn’t get it. Thus his arguments, even if correct, largely miss the mark.
I often hear Dennis say, as he does once in his column on Obama’s address, that he’ll read something several times and still not understand what the writer was referring to. Now in some cases, maybe a given line is meaningless. But in a speech like Obama’s inaugural address, there are reasons each line exist, as the speech has been reworked and edited countless times. And while it may be the fault of the writer for not making his point clear, it still tells us something when we don’t understand what the point is. It should tell us that there is a larger context or perspective that we are missing, and by missing that larger context we are missing what is really being said by the speech.
For me, the larger context in this case is that Obama truly wants to transform America, and ultimately the world. He has a Left-wing utopian view of how America could be and his speech is laying the groundwork for that.
Thus, when he says, “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.” What he is saying is that we will never get to that utopia as long as we keep playing politics as usual. When you are planning the transformation of our country, many of the things that block the way begin to look “petty” and “worn out”. We simply don’t have time for grievances that are small when viewed from the perspective of how they are blocking our progress. We simply don’t have time for dogmas that indicate you aren’t willing to think of how to make this utopia work, nor do we have time for promises that everything will be better when things remain hard for so many.
You got to understand what Obama is trying to do here. In my view, Obama is the first “utopian realist”. He’s not just starry-eyed assuming that if we do a few Left-wing things, utopia will be upon us. No, he sees how difficult this will be, but he has the “audacity of hope” to believe we can figure it out and make it happen.
While certainly scary, because I well know how naïve Left-wing people are in these matters, it is also amazing to see this rarely rivaled level of ambition. He is attempting something few people in history have attempted. And the striking thing is how calm he is in doing this.
Look, we were all surprised at how moderate some of Obama’s cabinet choices were. But why is he moderate in some respects? Why did his speech contain a number of lines that even conservatives could applaud? Is it because he is trying to build a broad coalition to better help him push through his agenda? Is it because he is saving his political capital for the really Left-wing things he wants? Or is it because he is a Left-wing “realist” who isn’t as naïve about the world as we’ve long assume Left-wing people are?
Anyway, here’s how I took what Obama was saying – which is not at all to say that I agree with it (transcript of address is here)…
“We will restore science to its rightful place.” He is saying that Bush allowed politics to trump science, particularly when it came to global warming but also with embryonic stem cell research. I’m sure Obama would say that ethics need to trump science, but “morals” are more connected with religion and religion, at least for a person on the left, need to be kept separate.
“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This is where Obama is attempting to transcend the old left/right divide. Conservatives always want smaller government. Liberals always want larger government. Obama wants something more. He wants whatever will work. This means cutting things that don’t work and creating things that do. This means working with whoever has the ideas to make things work. This means leaving behind the old dogmas and left/right stereotypical positions that keep us from discovering what will work.
“(The market’s) power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis 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 left-wing perspective on the market is that it was not regulated enough. Lax regulations favor the prosperous, but eventually things spin out of control causing the entire nation to be harmed. Thus, while free markets do great good, we need a “watchful eye” that will reign them in and prevent them from harming us.
“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” When we strip prisoners of basic human rights, when we torture them, rendition them to secretive prisons, and hold them indefinitely; when we invade the privacy of citizens, engage in warrantless searches, and so on, we have diminished the ideals of our society and forfeited our moral standing in the world. But realism tells us that we do indeed live in a dangerous world where safety cannot be assumed. So once again, we simply have to transcend the way things have been done in the past and find solutions that will keep us safe while at the same time maintaining our moral standards. We reject the choice put before us because we have the audacity to hope for better.
“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.” America is a microcosm and our diversity dispels the notion that a divided world cannot live and prosper together. We have proven that hatreds can be overcome and we show how diversity can strengthen us. We are strengthened because we learn from each other, solve our common problems together and overcome our bigotries as we see how we are all humans together attempting to create a better place to live.
“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.” Martin Luther King had a dream – a dream that is being lived out today as I (Obama) take office. The old hatreds do pass and we can believe that more will pass as we see each other not as distinct tribes, categories and classes of people, but as fellow humans who dream not so unlike we do. The world we envision may be a dream, but we have the audacity to dream it and not to grow faint in working for it to come to pass. We cannot help but believe.
“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.” We are setting out to transform America. The world will see what we can do when we put our minds to the task and work together. They will see the ideals we live by and the decency by which we carry out our goals. And as people see what can be accomplished, they will begin to wonder why their leaders don’t do likewise. So, while you leaders can blame and destroy and sow conflict, consider how much better it will be to be hailed for transforming your country and building a great future for your people.
“Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” Free people living in free countries do not readily go to war. And yet people will not long for freedom if the example we show them is one of neglect for the poor, a tarnishing of our ideals, or of failing to prevent the prosperous from harming the economy. Our real security then is when people see that we are decent, just, humble and restrained. They will see that we are building and not destroying. They will see something to aspire to. They will see that we are creating a society that they would want. And little by little, people around the world will join our cause and work with us to transform this planet. By being just and fair, no one will ultimately have anything to quibble about and the ruthless will be marginalized. Which is not to say that force is not needed at times. We must be realistic. We do live in a dangerous world. But what must change is our arrogance to think we can do as we want, whenever we want, no matter how much it tarnishes our ideals, just because we tell ourselves our security demands it. No. Real security comes when we are true to our ideals. Real security comes when we are humble and restrained in exercising our power. Real security comes when we set an example of justness, not an example of arrogance and unrestraint.
Now we may not agree with Obama and we may rightfully fear where his agenda will take us, but we should at least be clear where he is coming from, where he is trying to take us and why he believes this is a good thing. Our arguments need to be more to the point, taking in to account his larger context and perspective, and then identifying where his thinking goes wrong. In my view, Prager’s column is so far off the mark that it helps neither the Right nor the Left. It doesn’t help the Right because he never catches the full breadth and audacity of what Obama is saying. In my view, Prager misses way too much. This is unhelpful because the Right is left to assume these were the worst things Prager could find with the speech. But it’s also unhelpful to the Left because he ends up making so many “strawman” arguments. As long as Prager doesn’t get what Obama is saying, his points will never carry weight with the Left.
The funny thing is, I don’t think many on the Left understand yet how ambitious Obama is either. Amazing.
Now I did like Charles Krauthammer’s column on Obama’s address (see here). Obama’s speech was “fascinating”, and Obama is “astonishingly self-contained”. It is striking just how calm he can be before millions. It belies an inner knowing in Obama that everything has aligned for such a time as this, and reveals the strength of his audacious belief that we can transform America. Amazing.
I suspect we are in for some very unexpected times. No one knows where this is going. We have boarded a train that is heading into unexplored territory – and no one knows what we will see.
What do you think?