Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Obama Doctrine

So.  President Obama has been sworn in, and given his speech.  The controversial Rick Warren invocation was unremarkable; Lowery's benediction was a curious combination of hymn texts and rhyming about race.

But for those who care about oratory, the inaugural address was the chief order of business.  Here, for our money, is one of the key points:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

A commentator called this "the Obama Doctrine," which is overly simplistic.  It's too vague for that.  We concur, of course, with what the new president said, although with a reservation.  If by "our way of life" you mean liberty and diversity, then absolutely no apologies are on offer, and to hell with anybody who thinks they should be.  But if by "our way of life" you mean a gluttonous overconsumption of finite resources, like water and oil, or if you mean the export of ruinous wars prosecuted with radioactive bullets and hidden torture chambers, then apologies ought to be forthcoming.

The other key point came toward the end of the speech, when he spoke of America's fundamental values, as he perceives them:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. ... This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

We are struck by tolerance, which Americans have historically displayed only in fits and starts, and by curiosity, a virtue which is widely lacking among many of our compatriots.  Lack of curiosity explains our notorious failure to learn languages or geography, not to mention an educational system that has become the joke of the developed world. More broadly, it might be argued that a lack of curiosity has been responsible for our astonishing intelligence failures, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11.

That's the main line of the booboisie.  But our best thinkers -- from Benjamin Franklin forward -- have always been distinguished by a gimlet-sharp curiosity about the world, unfettered by preconceptions or conventions.  They have been why "Yankee know-how" was a potent force even in colonial times, and in the modern era has become a force that dominates the world.  We have walked on the moon, and sent our robots to Mars, as no other nation has -- not because we are rich, but because we are curious.  Our prosperity, such as it is, has been the result of  this curiosity.

It is much to be praised, then, that the new president includes curiosity among the signal virtues of the American people.  May it be so.

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