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Presidential Language

Especially striking about President Obama’s inauguration speech was its inclusiveness, exemplified in the opening line: “I stand here today humbled by the task before us.” No sooner does the singular subject begin to speak than the pronoun shifts into the plural object of the preposition; the task is not his alone but all of ours. As he said in his election night speech, “Our stories are singular but our destiny is shared.” These lines disclose something important, it seems to me, about how he understands the world. He recognizes the singularity and relative independence of each life trajectory, but also how that singularity and independence make sense only in relation to the collective. However, this relationship does not call for a deadening comformity. Rather, what I hear him calling for is greater creativity, and therefore greater individulaity, in how we participate in the collective enterprise.

It has become a commonplace that Barack Obama is one of our more global presidents so far, and not merely because of the circumstances of his background and birth. His consciousness is global, which is crucial for us today. One hardly needs to be a maven of the Internet or other communications technologies to know that however devoted persons today may be devoted to citizenship of a given country, we are also citizens of the earth, and we must act accordingly. Faced with a world of global warming, international terrorism, global economies, and worldwide communications, we face a changing world, and we must be ready to change as well. As Barack Obama said in the election night speech, “That’s the genius of America, that America can change.”

Actually, I think that it’s the genius of humans generally that we can change. Compared to other species on the planet, we are endowed with precious little of anything recognizable as instinct; we are therefore deeply dependent on culture and training for our development, but the trade-off is that we humans are extremely flexible, meaning that we can readily change. But it also appears to be a widespread human characteristic to resist the change of which we are capable. Therefore, we also need a culture that encourages us to be able to change, and I believe that President Obama is quite correct that part of the genius of America is the extent to which our culture encourages flexibility, the ability to change–exemplified, for example, by the Constitutional provision for peaceful regime change on a regular basis.

So he calls upon us to serve in a changing world. As he said in yesterday’s speech, “We remain a young nation; but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” The allusion is to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (13:11): “When I was a child I used to talk like a child, think like a child, reason like a child. When I became a man I put childish things aside.” He is calling on us, it seems to me, to talk, think, and reason like global citizens. This means giving up ideas of American exceptionalism or isolation–not that a nation as powerful as ours should not be willing to lead, but that our leadership should be in the service of the world and the highest ideals. Again, here are President Obama’s words: “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.” However small or large a contribution each of us might make, this is indeed a great “task before us.”