Every time Obama gives these appeals to “the better angels of our nature,” I’m right there back with him. My fellow Americans, he kept saying last night in his farewell address from Chicago. Someone recently pointed out that the incoming president seems to only tweet to his supporters, while Obama again and again addresses the whole country. I felt like he was keeping us honest, inspired and going when he said, “These conversations have kept me honest, they kept me inspired and they kept me going.”
The circumstances of Obama’s exit from office make him seem particularly concerned with encouraging the country not to give up hope. I don’t recall hearing any previous president who was handing over power to the opposing party speak with this kind of charge to the country with the praise for “The quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle.” I tend not to think that electoral politics is or should be the site of our political focus, but I’m concerned that this critique of electoral politics sometimes amounts to general withdrawal from the halls of power. I don’t think that nothing can be done to put pressure on elected officials. The Tea Party and #BlackLivesMatter are evidence to the contrary. And it seemed like the Obama who showed up for the Farewell Address was the community organizer Obama who was making this case to the American people.
Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.
These rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.
All of this depends on our participation, on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power swings.
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power–with our participation and with the choices we make and the alliances that we forge.
It falls to each of us to be those anxious jealous guardians of our democracy.
Look, there’s a lot that we could take issue with, like how Obama’s own policies contributed to some of the problems he called for vigilance against, like that “Stark inequality” that “is corrosive to democracy.” Or the various prosecutions like of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning that did not appear to “Guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.” Some might actually guffaw at Obama’s statement that we “reformed our laws to protect privacy and civil liberties.” Or at the way that the United States demands “respect for freedom and the rule of law” for the sake of global tranquility while enforcing its will through military might and allowing police officers to kill citizens with impunity.
We could also take issue with the obstacles to ordinary people having an effect on the government that are part of our system–from money in elections to the electoral college. Or with how the constitution and democracy might not feel to all parts of the community as things worth preserving. And yet still, Obama’s call makes me want to organize. I’m particularly struck by how he calls us to get together with other people.
I recently heard Jodi Dean on “This is Hell!” talking about how damaging the concept of individualism can be. One way I think it can be damaging is that it makes us feel overwhelmed by individual responsibility, and it makes it difficult for us to be creative about being a collective. Dean pointed how even Occupy Wall Street fostered an individual sense of choice where collective action depended on the individual assent for the sake of consensus of the whole gathered assembly. Dean encourages a way of thinking about collectives that doesn’t focus on individual assent and choice, but on actions that serve the collective that then present people with the opportunity to do something. I realize that this risks getting into a Lenin vs. Trotsky debate or something, which isn’t really my point. My point is that I want to be with Obama against cynicism. I do not want cynicism to produce inaction. I think it might because it operates on individuals, who feel helpless. But groups are not helpless and without effect. Even small and persistent groups can give the constitution meaning.
The best line in the address to my mind was about how rights that are self-evident are not self-executed. I’m wary of rights talk grounding political life, and I’m not sure that these rights are self-evident, but I appreciate Obama’s charge that they are not self-executed. Not self-executed I’m not sure really want it means to consider these rights individual rights, but civil rights in the sense of needing a community to get off the ground. We’ve long been considering the argument that rights have no force on their own without a power to give them force. Hannah Arendt suggests in The Origins of Totalitarianism that these kinds of rights, the ones we might call human rights, are without force unless there is a government who can recognize them. Jacques Rancière responds that these rights can be made evident by a certain activity that manifests the way they are being ignored or the injustice of their not being extended to those to whom they ought to extend. What might it mean for us to recognize that these rights are not self-executed, “but we the people through the instrument of our democracy can form a more perfect union”? I don’t think Obama meant through elections. We could form a more perfect union by forging alliances [this phrase was not in the distributed speech but added by Obama in the moment] wherein we treating as having rights those for whom these rights are not self-evident to others. This work is going to be the work of (at least) the next four years.
“Be vigilant but not afraid.”