Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Democracy Part XIV: “For Now We See Through A Glass, Darkly; But Then Face to Face”; On President Obama's Inauguration Speech

The Christian Bible’s New Testament remains a powerful source of guidance in times of trouble in the United States. Recourse to its insights, molded to the tastes of the speaker, have been a hallmark of political speech since the founding of the Republic, especially on the cusp of revolutionary times. And indeed, the manipulative symbolism that marked the event—the focus on Lincoln as multilayered mother to her offspring birthed by and now liberated from her emancipatory womb, and as great protector of the family in time of crisis threatening the foundation of the family (the American Republic)—was much in evidence, from the use of the Lincoln Bible to the rhetorical form of the construction of the speech. The parallels between 1861 and 2009, and the line from the mother of emancipation to the graduation ceremony of his offspring, now come to power, was inescapable.

And so it was with a great deal of interest that I awaited the selection of the Biblical insight that will serve to mark the initial phase of the presidency of its 44th holder. That selection was announced in the course of President Obama's inaugural address. See Barack H. Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009. President Lincoln had a preference for the Evangelists. President Obama chose that great Jewish architect of Christianity, Paul. And that insight—a reverie on the virtues of the charity and love of a man (and I mean to use this word in its fully gendered sense) for his family and of this nation for its global charge—suggest the character of an administration bent on unity and dominance within a values structures it, like its predecessor, will hold out to the world as the universal foundation of political, moral and social governance. Its essence is Platonic, and consciously so. For ideologues on the left and right, there is much that serves as a warning to a complacency grounded in misguided senses of victory or defeat.

The speech starts, as these sorts of things do, with a polite nod in the direction of the predecessor president and the obligatory expression of gratitude to the masses, but with a twist that serves to remind, from the moment of its commencement, the symbolically powerful representational character of this event and the character of fulfillment, apotheosis and culmination of a national process bound up in the body of the man making the speech. “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.” Id. Like medieval monarchs who simultaneously were understood to be person and state, this man reminds us of that connection between himself, his office, history and state—and the augmentation of legitimacy that that triple connection vests in him. A great bundle, indeed, the import of which is made quite clear in passages that follow.

From this multiple layered sources of legitimacy, the speech then sets the stage—“Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened.” Id. But more important still is the crisis of the decline of American global power and privileged place among the members of the community of nations. President Obama acknowledges “a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.” Id. And he provides the basis of solution—a return to original values—“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 forebearers, and true to our founding documents.” Id. But both concepts have been quite malleable in the hands of former holders of this office. What exactly does President have in mind?

Well, to start, he offers himself, as an individual corporeal manifestation, as well as a proxy for a certain apotheosis in American political governance. Through him, it is suggested, lies that path to a certain political grace. “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” Id. The old covenants are shattered, the temple is abandoned, and a new basis for universal unity is founded. “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.” Id. A new Jerusalem is risen, we are told, and the culmination of the production of the universal moral/political order, whose portents lie scattered throughout the documents and history of the Republic, has now moved closer to fulfillment. And thus to the heart of the teaching which the President means to convey:

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.

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 shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted -- 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 toward prosperity and freedom. Id.
As pundits noted, the essence of the speech is bound up in that passage from First Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:11). See, e.g., Arianna Huffington, Obama's Sober Sermon on the Steps, The Huffington Post, January 21, 2009; Terry Mancour, Put Away Childish Things, Guardian Commentary (U.K.), January 21, 2009. Some ignored the passage as ornament. See, e.g., Marc Ambinder, Obama's Speech Annotated, The Atlantic Blog, January 20, 2009. Others focused on it in their own way. See, e.g., , Obama's Inauguration Speech, Annotated, Chicago Tribune, January 20, 2009.

But the passage, carefully selected, was not meant to be read out of context in the style of certain contemporary commonplace preachers of the Gospel, or as an anachronistic bauble for the amusement of "culture vultures." Consciously or not, the reference was meant to underscore a world of meaning of some significance within and outside the United States. beyond the simplistic "time to grow up" referent (e.g., "There was something very powerful about watching this relatively young man, one of the youngest to ever hold the highest office in the land, telling the American people to grow up." Arianna Huffington, supra.). The reference was a gateway; it was meant to remind of us the themes Paul raises in this well known chapter: ἀγάπη (agape--love) and the move toward perfection beyond individual self knowledge. The context from which the trigger is derived is worth expanding:

8 Love never fails. Now if there are prophecies, they will be done away with. If there are languages, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 9 For what we know is incomplete and what we prophesy is incomplete. 10 But when what is complete[c] comes, then what is incomplete will be done away with.

11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways. 12 Now we see only an indistinct image in a mirror, but then we will be face to face. Now what I know is incomplete, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 Right now three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:8-13 International Standard Version).
The King James Version is always worth considering for the emphasis on the charity aspect of agape, a shade of meaning strongly implicit in the body of the speech:
8 Charity never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now stays faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” American King James Version), as is the Greek: (“8 ἡ ἀγάπη οὐδέποτε πίπτει· εἴτε δὲ προφητεῖαι καταργηθήσονται· εἴτε γλῶσσαι παύσονται· εἴτε γνῶσις καταργηθήσεται. 9 ἐκ μέρους γὰρ γινώσκομεν καὶ ἐκ μέρους προφητεύομεν· 10 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ τὸ τέλειον, τὸ ἐκ μέρους καταργηθήσεται. 11 ὅτε ἤμην νήπιος, ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου. 12 βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι' ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην. 13 νυνὶ δὲ μένει πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη, τὰ τρία ταῦτα· μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη” Greek New Testament base text is the Westcott-Hort edition of 1881).

Agape--love, charity, truth, completeness, perfection—is the foundation of American perfectibility. “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.” Id.

But this is not about the individual, but about the construction of a global community within the borders of the United States—the great laboratory for global values and governance. Thus this charity—love—is written on the backs of the many singular individuals who served as the most humble factors in the production of the American cultural and political scene, with the exception, perhaps of our indigenous semi-sovereign fellow citizens:

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. 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. Id.
Thus with the 44th President, the symbolic evolution of the United States from ethnos to universal community comes one step closer to realization. The United States is more than a state, it is instead the symbolic amalgamation of all of the people’s of the world. Its vision is not merely national, but global, and on account of its make up and history, and the realization of the truth of that history, it can stand legitimately for the world.
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 nonbelievers. 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. Id.
No other state can claim this representative legitimacy. But religion has. See Larry Catá Backer, Global Economic Collapse and the Search for Sources of Values in Economic Theory: The Role of Religion, a Catholic Perspective, Law at the End of the Day, January 7, 2009. It follows, that within the United States, the global laboratory now operates to generate a valid new truth for the world, a new global governance covenant. Within this forged new community, a new framework, a new truth—the fulfillment of the old covenant—can now be revealed and advanced for the betterment of the United States and the world. “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.” Obama Inaugural Speech, supra.

Thus it is, with respect to domestic policy we move from formalist to functionalist analysis—not law but love: “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.” Id. And the keepers of the old law will be held to account, in love. “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.” Id. Love matters, values matter, and those insights from Paul will seep into the relationship between state and economic activity in ways that echo much that has been produced within religious and socialist communities: “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.” Id. I have suggested the contours of this before, both in the search for animating values around which to structure economic governance, see, e.g., Larry Catá Backer, Values Economics and Theology: The Contribution of Catholic Social Thought and its Implications for Legal Regulatory Systems (December 4, 2008), Coalition for Peace & Ethics Working Paper No. 2008-1/1, but also political governance as well. See Larry Catá Backer, Theocratic Constitutionalism: An Introduction to a New Global Legal Ordering (July 28, 2008), Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2008; Islamic Law and Law of the Muslim World Paper No. 08-44.

Thus it is also with respect to America’s engagement with the world, the same: “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.” Obama Inauguration Speech, supra. And so we will offer love, the perfection of truth and the new global vision.

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. Id.
This is meant to be a kindly guidance—the essence of agape. Yet it is also one in which the legitimacy of neighbors is to be judged by the standards Americans set for themselves through the clarity of love arising from coming closer to the attainment of perfection. And not merely a passive judgment but one grounded in respect in the expectation of global embrace of the universal truths that emanate from a country that reflects the globe.

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. 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. Id.
The global duty of the United States is clear. “We are the keepers of this legacy. . . . 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.” Id.

And thus, just as love is the ultimate value for Paul, a political love is at the core of the universal values vision of the American people to be expressed by and used as an instrument of American domestic and global policy. “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.” Id.

And thus the new covenant, embedded in the representative body of the 44th American President, takes on a Pauline hue. President Obama is speaking not just about the covenants of citizenship within the United States but has suggested its contours within this country as a template for global governance, a template against which political, social, cultural and economic judgments may be made. “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 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Id.

President Obamna thus suggests a world of meaning in the invitation to “put away childish things.” The meaning is clear, though the challenge will likely keep him occupied for some time. He has suggested that the mirror through which Americans have viewed themselves, and the world has viewed them—dimly—must come away in the face of the perfection of the new covenant the symbolic appearance of which having been confirmed with his oath taking. The world might do well to consider Paul carefully over the next four years—it appears that a new house is being built on a hill. “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.” Id.

Ironically, the official spin stressed other things. “Obama aides have let it be known that a key theme will be restoring responsibility - both in terms of accountability in Washington and the responsibility of ordinary people to get involved. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, talks of a ‘culture of responsibility" that would "not just be asked of the American people; its leaders must also lead by example.’” Ed Pilkington, Obama inauguration: Words of History . . .crafted by a 27 year old in Starbucks, The Guardian U.K., January 20, 2009. And the the speech was criticized as the expression of children. Id. (“Jon Favreau, 27, is, as Obama himself puts it, the president's mind reader. He is the youngest chief speechwriter on record in the White House, and, despite such youth, was at the centre of discussions of the content of today's speech, one which has so much riding on it.”). Yet despite efforts to control its meaning or judge its makers, the words themselves suggest a reality now seen “face to face.” 1 Corinthians 13:12.

The campaign revealed only a part of the mind of the new President. But “Now what I know is incomplete, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12. And with this in mind, we are in a better position to understand the values and outlook that will mark much of what may originate in the White House over the next several years. To the mass of unbelievers, those who prefer the partial comfort of the self-reflection of the political glass, darkly, the speech rang hollow. “The New York Times assembled a panel of former speech writers to presidents Carter, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W Bush. They judged the address everything from mixed to marvellous. But in an editorial the paper declared that Mr Obama’s speech, though lacking the ‘soaring language’ of Presidents Franklin D Roosevelt or John F Kennedy, gave the crowd ‘the clarity and the respect for which all Americans have hungered.’” Catherine Elsworth, Barack Obama inauguration: Bloggers and analysts divided over speech, The Telegraph (U.K), January 21, 2009. But the discomfort might well reflect the message rather than the form of its delivery. It is to the substance of that message that the global community will have to adjust in the coming years.

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