Sunday, February 01, 2009

A New Age of Responsibility

Post-inauguration, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the role of the blogosphere and the Internet in general in left political action.

I wrote a piece for Global Comment in which I said:

We’ve spent so long arguing that government doesn’t have to be the enemy, but the fact is that we’re used to government being the enemy. We’re used to disavowing the actions of our president loudly, to practically shouting “Not in our name,” to writing screeds of why we’re disappointed that this is our country.

No wonder we have a hard time believing that someone could get things right.

I was reading The Nation over breakfast this morning and came across this piece (which is excellent and should be read in its entirety) by Jonathan Schell.

Schell writes:
Yet in addition to being interconnected, the crises have striking features in common, suggesting shared roots. To begin with, all are self-created. They arise from pathologies of our own activity, or perhaps hyperactivity. The Greek tragedians understood well those disasters whose seeds lie above all in one's own actions. No storm or asteroid or external enemy is the cause. Today, the economic crash is the result of investment run amok: the "masters of the universe" are the authors of their own (and everyone's) downfall. The nuclear weapons that threaten to return in wrath to American cities were born in New Mexico. The oil is running short because we are driving too many cars to too many shopping malls. The global ecosphere is heading toward collapse because of the success, not the failure (until recently), of the modern economy. The invasion of Iraq was the American empire's self-inflicted wound--a disaster of choice, so to speak. All we had to do to escape it was not to do it. Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands rises up to strike us.

I was trying to find a quote this morning in which someone complained of Obama's call for a new age of responsibility and said that it wasn't their fault and they didn't want to take responsibility.

And I think about the liberal blogosphere and how much of it has been defined, as I wrote before, by disavowing the actions of our government. Like leaving the Kerry 2004 sticker on your car after the last election, it seems like a big "don't blame me" gesture, an argument like the one I made each time I left the country in the Bush years.

"I didn't vote for him! I couldn't help it!"

Now that the guy we (most of us) voted for IS in office, we feel like his call for responsibility is roping us back into being a part of Bush's America. But responsibility isn't just that.

Obama is in office because millions of people gave money, and thousands upon thousands of people took it upon themselves to volunteer for the campaign. Here in Philly there was a controversy because the Obama campaign didn't want to pay "street money" to the folks who worked on election day, but they didn't need to; volunteers were everywhere.

We took responsibility. We didn't say "It wasn't my fault, why should I have to work to fix it?"

Obama's presidency isn't a fun party where we punish the people who screwed up, because we all are complicit in the screwups. Like acknowledging and dealing with any other form of privilege, whether it be racial, gendered, heterosexual, cisgender, Western, middle-class, or educational, it's not about feeling guilty. It's about looking forward and doing something to change it.

No, it's not my fault that Bush was elected. But I'm not going to let it be my fault that Obama doesn't get to do all he can do.

Obama is redefining responsibility with that inaugural speech and its follow-up actions, just like he's redefining the center. He's taken the word away from conservatives who use it to gut welfare spending, and made it part of our vocabulary by coupling it with his famous quote from his keynote speech back in 2004, when his election to the Senate was a lone bright spot in a horrible election cycle, where Democrats were crouching defensively, letting the Right define the argument.

"It's that fundamental belief — I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper — that makes this country work."

That's responsibility. It's not covering your own ass and then crying out to punish the other guy. It's looking at your own involvement and seeing what else you can do.