At the moment, I feel as though I cannot in good conscience comment on the substantive content of President Obama’s second inaugural address. For someone who is typically a rapturous consumer of contemporary political news and critique, my attention uncharacteristically wavered over the past few weeks. I caught up on some reading I’d been meaning to do over the break, but I deliberately eschewed controversial, widely discussed nonfiction like “Coming Apart” or “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” Following the Newtown shooting, I experienced a steadily mounting sense of frustration with our systems of politics and policy, barely mitigated by the gun control proposals that the administration cobbled together.
This is a kind of malaise that comes and goes, and most often appears when my despair about our American experiment is greatest (on balance, I’m more or less always a pessimist about these sorts of things). We could change our behavior and our institutions. I can find it enjoyable making the arguments for why we should. But I still entertain a nagging doubt we ever will. At the very least, when we plug one leak in the ship, it seems like two or three more pop up elsewhere.
I typically recharge after a while, as I have by today, but getting back into it is a process. After unplugging myself for the duration of the debt crisis and only pledging to tune back in starting with this address, I’ll spare you remarks on issues like climate change and immigration reform. Instead, I’ll merely offer some slightly belated resolutions for the new year, centering on how to grapple with the address and politics more broadly.
It occurs to me that as a rule, we tend to be very passive consumers of political philosophy and policy argumentation. It’s quite easy for us to have some general notions we string together from eclectic sources: Economist editorials, New York Times reporting, The Colbert Report, what our friends convey to us. But do we do the legwork to know with a deep conviction what we want, and why precisely it would be best, or are we phoning it in? I know I find myself skimming countless articles these days from reputable sources. But often I wonder how much of what I read I actually retain, and what value lies in that habit, or in some of the less rigorous late-night sessions in dorm rooms. Platitudes lurk in familiar corners.
The Internet has destroyed our attention spans such that not only do we fail to act to preserve and promote ideas worth fighting for in any meaningful way, but we barely remember them. Television channels, political blogs and even coffee shops (ahem, Blue State) divided by political ideology help us avoid material that would compel us to struggle with ourselves and our preconceived notions.
One challenge from the inaugural that spoke to me personally is as follows: “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”
What language! To have an “obligation” is to shoulder a heavy burden, yet many of us, myself included, shirk these responsibilities flippantly. To properly remedy this, I think we need to undertake at least three resolutions.
Take the time to examine texts like the inaugural address with close readings, treating them as more than partisan fluff (even if that is all they are). What diction do they use? What historical events do they evoke? How do these fit in with the contemporary political sphere? When reading articles, read for quality, not quantity, and peruse, take your time. Resist the urge to open 50 browser tabs containing stories with interesting titles and glance at them all for a minute apiece. Take brief notes.
Keep a political journal with your own thoughts and reactions, both to major events in the life of the nation and the world, and to your interactions with friends, family members and peers. Understanding our own personal trajectories through the political world may help us come to understand the metamorphoses of others.
Finally, engage with the other side. A hackneyed suggestion, to be sure, but oft-repeated wisdom only loses its novelty, never its value. The dialectical method of ancient Greece, whereby truth is achieved via reasoned, respectful argumentation between political opponents, is and ought be the only acceptable method of governance in the modern era.
“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.” It requires us to act as well-informed, introspective and reasonable citizens.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .