The tempering qualities of humility and restraint

Like many people I woke this morning to the sound of USA president Obama’s inauguration speech. I’m not a big follower of US politics. I hardly ever watch the West Wing. So, I guess I don’t really have anything new or insightful to add.  But one thing stood out to me that I’m going to note.

While Obama’s speech soared across the crowd of two million people and drew loud cheers as he talked about peace, opportunity, justice and, yes, hope, there was one message that appeared from this side of the radio, to leave his audience quiet – pondering maybe.

I felt that Obama’s speech carried an implicit attack on the culture of excessive consumption, celebrity and shallow easy lifestyles, that many in the rest of the world associate primarily with America.

He consistently told Americans that they would need to work hard.  The easy times had come to an end:

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

He implied that America’s culture of consumption would have to end:

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

And most directly he invoked a set of values that stands in absolute contrast to the neo-capitalist values of consumption, celebrity and excess:

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. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

Normally I’m not a big fan of politicians telling other people that the solution is a change of lifestyle.  But there is something compelling about Obama’s call for a shift of culture.  Obama canot meet the expectations surrounding him with legislation and social programmes alone.  He needs to lead his people, and probably people from many other nations as well, to see the world in a different light if he is to succeed. Incredibly in this day and age, to succeed he must rely on people choosing sacrifice and hard work over consumption and short cuts.

And more incredibly, I think people do want to make that choice.  They/we have been waiting for a leader to show them/us ‘the tempering qualities of humility and restraint’. I, who specialise in cycnicism about US Democrats, am hoping that maybe Obama can lead the way and open the door for those of us who want to create a new culture of old values.


5 thoughts on “The tempering qualities of humility and restraint

  1. “create a new culture of old values” – well put, I’ve been thinking that. Someone who actually knows the value and accepts the challenge of attacking a difficult task is what’s needed for environmental issues especially.

    He’s a born leader and has a country that’s waiting to be led. Plus he didn’t use cue cards.

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