Obama Presses Citizenship (Can It Be Revived?)

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.

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Rhodri Williams

Interesting, I’d missed that. I’m getting a bit repetitive here, but as an American citizen abroad, I think I can still speak to some fairly pronounced responsibilities. The lifetime double-filing requirement is getting more, not less onerous, and we (US citizens) really appear to be the only ones that still have to put up with this kind of harassment when we are busy paying taxes in our places of legal residence (other than the Eritreans, which seems to involve an even crasser but at least far less bureaucratic shakedown).

That said, is Obama really trying to find a positive way of saying that we are at risk of becoming a low-trust society? I’ve lived in genuine low-trust (Bosnia) and genuine high-trust (Sweden), and I am continually struck at the low-trust rhetoric and high-trust local behavior whenever I am back in the US. However, the point about lack of commitment to others seems like a risk that has always been inherent in US rhetoric about strong individualists but has the potential for disaster where safety nets begin to be traded out for ‘points of light’.