Four years ago on this day, I was being fingerprinted by the USCIS, commonly known as U.S. customs, for my citizenship application. That day was not just the inauguration of a President, it was the inauguration of the first black President in American history.
Through centuries of slavery for so many souls, then the adversity and impediments imposed by Jim Crowe, black people have suffered the indignities of being unable to vote, to educate themselves, to achieve the dream of freedom.
The promised land of which Martin Luther King dreamed was long in coming for the vulnerable, and the less privileged imposed by White America. His leadership inspired many people in this country to take up his cause, just as similar causes were taken up in other nations.
Though King perished at the hands of an assassin, the events he put in motion produced greater freedom for the oppressed. The civil rights act conceived by Kennedy were put in place by Johnson, producing a freer, more perfect union, where black people can express themselves through the vote, attend schools and universities without worrying about whether they are for whites, or blacks.
The embodiment of King’s dream came in the form of Barack Obama, a mere forty years after his death. Obama is Harvard educated, well-spoken, intelligent, a man of the people, friend to the Middle Class and the poor. It was privilege indeed to witness his second inauguration, since I missed most of the first.
There is much that will be said about his speech at the inauguration, about his conduct during the day, clearly a man of stature, with a clear affinity for his country and its people, all its people, and not a small slither of the population that would have been the case had Romney won the presidency. SOmetimes the fates work in our favor, not often, but sometimes.
From the outset, Obama made clear that his vision for this country is of a nation in which anyone can succeed, regardless of skin color, religious affiliation, or national origin. This is a nation to which people can aspire, in which it should be possible for anyone willing to apply themselves to make a better life.
To Obama, what makes a real American is not the circumstance into which we are born, our origins, but the central ideas behind the republic, described variously in the Constitution, with some emphasis on the Bill of Rights.
The President quoted Lincoln at the beginning of his speech, those immortal concepts that ring across the intervening years, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Obama added his own take on Lincolns words, saying that “while these truths may be self evident, they are not self executing”. In other words, it is up to us to fulfill that destiny. Government needs to do whatever it can to assist people in their journey to that promised land.
What we inherited, in no small measure, is increasing privilege by the few, who have used the legislative process to present themselves with privilege they do not deserve. While democracy cannot be a thuggery imposed on the population by the majority, nor can it be used to seal privilege for the few behind the rules of law.
Democracy, the President intimated, is entrusted to the people, and must be renewed by each generation, cherished for the generations yet to come, to keep the central tenets of the Founding Fathers in place for the people.
The President was poetic at times, speaking of “blood drawn by lash and sword”, that freedom cannot survive when half the population is in slavery.
Obama made quite clear that to facilitate a modern economy, we need transport systems like railroads and highways, systems that are built by government. Government may hire private contractors to do the work, but the inception must come from the needs of the nation. Without those infrastructure projects, the nation cannot function.
Similarly, an educated population needs schools, universities, colleges to train its future engineers, scientists, teachers. No nation can remain a force to be reckoned with without providing the tools with which the nation can grow.
A point that the President made is crucial to the success or failure of the free market system, a system ironically in opposition to that of capitalism, which many often confuse. The two are not synonymous. In a free market system, as the President indicated, there are rules by which people need to play, and obey.
The split between that idea and capitalism is that those with capital believe that they should be able to write the rules, and that destroys the free market. A true free market allows any player to enter and compete without barriers that cannot be overcome.
Far too often capitalists buy the legislators, which is what has happened with the decision by the Supreme Court to allow unlimited funds into political campaigns. This perverts the rule making process and allows the capitalists to draft laws that favor themselves and not the free market. Lets hops that Obama puts a stop to that practise.
The President proposed an idea that I believe to be the most just, that we should “care for the vulnerable and protect people from lifes worst hazards and misfortunes”. There are few callings greater to a nation than to provide assistance to those that have little hope, to ensure a modicum of decency to even the poorest among us. It is clear that the President agrees on this point.
The President said that we “have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority”. There is no doubt, as the President continued, that government cannot solve all problems. This is true, that hard work and perseverance are important to success, but it is not all that we need.
In the slave-owning southern states before the Civil War, the slaves worked hard, long hours, living in dire poverty and privation, receiving no pay for their work. While today it is illegal to impose indentured servitude, still people work for wages that approach slave wages, for they cannot survive on those wages.
We need government to impose rules on corporations, to make sure that people are treated fairly and equitably. That is one of the central pillars of functional governance, that government act as protector, as defender of the freedom of the masses, not exclusively of the wealthy.
It is only when those rules are in place that we can then apply ourselves and reap the reward of hard work and personal responsibility. Without those rules, it is no better than any despotic regime with legislators beholden to wealthy interests guilty of nepotism.
In this Obama agreed, saying that “preserving personal freedoms ultimately requires collective action”. No man can create, no visionary see the possibilities inherent in society without guarantees of liberty, without rules to play by. If the rules are skewed to the wealthy and the powerful, the small business person, or the worker cannot succeed, and becomes only a tool of the mighty. In this instance, freedom dies.
The most powerful idea that Obama proposed was the idea that we cannot act alone, that together we must train the teachers of tomorrow, build the roads and do the necessary research to create the conditions for a better future. This is diametrically opposed to the irrational ideology proposed by conservatives that people can do things on their own. They can do nothing without the necessary society around them. As Obama said, it is only when we act together that we create the conditions for true liberty.
The Presidents speech epitomizes the values espoused by the French Revolution, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, (liberty, equality, brotherhood), all worthwhile ideas, and somewhat lost in the insane dash for personal aggrandisement and profit.
There was much of substance in the Presidents Speech, and I will continue to comment on what he said in further postings.
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