“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. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”
But is it the price we’re willing to pay?
It’s hard to read these words and not feel moved by them. Even after the Tea Party, the 2010 midterm elections, and the rise of Mitt Romney, the eloquent vision of civic virtue Barack Obama articulated in his Inaugural Address still appears delicately within reach. Whether or not we approve of his policies, his rhetoric smacks of unassailable truth. And yet somehow we know it rests on a hollow foundation. When he speaks of a vision of America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, we smile faintly and assuredly, knowing he’s referring to an era other than our own. Like the good film critics and English professors we yearn to be, we quietly register his calls for humility and restraint as the polite gestures of a politician who must radiate confidence and idealism, regardless of their content, because this is what politicians do. (Half smile, opposite eyebrow raised.)
And so the real question is lost in translation, or rather in the transaction between Obama’s sentiments and our affections. Feeling sated, as many of us were on January 20, 2009, by his strong dose of heady inspiration, we can return to what we know to be true through experience rather than abstraction and skirt the issue of civic virtue altogether. Because our culture makes it easy for us to avoid the calculus of sacrifice in this among other social arenas, the affect of the contented consumer—of rhetoric, goods, and experiences—suffices as the price and the promise of citizenship for now.
This conclusion may not be as cynical as it sounds. Given the prevalence, and the evidence, of our culture of options, perhaps we no longer need civic virtue as a central organizing principle. Has it been rendered obsolete by present social and economic realities? Or do the Internet, the service economy, and other recent developments offer us opportunities to retain the concept but define it according to a broader range of possible meanings than Obama recognized in his First Inaugural? How pragmatic should we be? What degree of pessimism is warranted at this stage of history?
These are some of the questions facing Obama supporters on the eve of the 2012 election. No matter what the answers, the contemporary ideology of choice appears to be the root determinant. What we make of our (in some cases) hard-won autonomy will likely decide the future content of American citizenship. Yet our ability to use our autonomy well depends on our ability to see its effects clearly. Nearly all facets of the dominant culture celebrate the liberating power of choice, especially in the garb of consumer preferences, and one oft-unacknowledged consequence is the way in which this power leads us to devalue others as necessary, intrinsic parts of our lives.
In a 2011 Atlantic article on changing attitudes toward dating and marriage (“All the Single Ladies”), Kate Bolick highlights this dilemma at the same time she points to one of the high-water marks in the history of autonomy:
“Now that we can pursue our own status and security, and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?”
The situation, and the ambivalence, Bolick describes here gets to the heart of the paradox surrounding civic virtue in Barack Obama’s America. On the one hand, she recognizes that women’s emancipation from an earlier era of circumscribed gender roles represents moral and political progress. It is part of an enduring legacy in the American political tradition. But in the same breath Bolick also exhibits a peculiarly modern form of egotism, a soft inclination to view others as means of personal satisfaction because they (in this case, members of her opposite sex) happen to exist within a marketplace indistinguishable from others. Earlier in the article she makes this egotism plain in what appears as a casual aside:
“as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind. We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.”
If this passage gives us any indication of the current state of American social (not to mention gender) relations, we have more to fear than the prospect of overt political defeat this November. No matter whom it applies to, the assumption that others are non-essential parts within an anarchic void of inter-penetrable exchanges flouts every element of civic virtue traditionally understood. It espouses an opportunity-based vision of American citizenship and personhood entirely at odds with Obama’s rhetoric of the collective good; but perhaps it also confirms the extent to which the president really is out of touch.
Whatever his political fortunes turn out to be, he’ll be able to say fairly that he warned us.