Obama Presses Citizenship (Can It Be Revived?)
President’s Obama’s speech this evening to the Democratic Convention spun citizenship as a central theme:
We believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations. . . .
Because we understand that this democracy is ours.
We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change.
As Timesman Jonathan Weisman tweeted, “Certain shock of recognition with the word ‘citizenship.’ You just don’t hear it very often anymore.” Very true. The last major presidential address that played up citizenship was George W. Bush’s first inaugural speech (another point of continuity!).
It plays nicely as a rhetorical matter, but I don’t think it computes. It’s easy but empty to speak of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. They don’t really exist any more. The only distinctive responsibility of citizenship is jury duty. Rights . . . well, just ask Anwar al-Awlaki.
I get the message about thinking beyond oneself, about mutual obligation, an obviously worthy orientation. But that’s about “good citizenship” in some moral, universalist sense, not about membership in the state.