Friday, March 13, 2009

Can We?

I recently spent some time in a children's hospital emergency room. While my four-year-old was getting stitches, we were introduced to Bob the Builder, a popular claymation children's show. The theme song is catchy, and within an hour of our coming home, even the two-year-old, who hadn't come to the emergency room, was singing along: "Bob the Builder -- Can We Fix It? -- Bob the Builder -- Yes We Can!" It's got that kind of pep that is both annoying and, from a child's perspective, sort of uplifting.

But I couldn't help notice the parallel to another pop-culture phenomenon. The night of Hillary Clinton's primary-election victory in New Hampshire, Barack Obama gave one of his more memorable speeches. The culmination is as follows:

when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can. (break for cheering) Yes we can. (break for cheering) Yes we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

I'm told that Obama was evoking the 1970's labor organizer Cesar Chavez. (There's an interesting commentary there on Obama's target demographic: people who recognize Cesar Chavez, but not Bob the Builder.) I have no idea how central this speech is to Obama's mystique, though I know LA made a fancy music video out of it, blending the very catchy with the utterly pretentious. So in critiquing this theme, I do not mean to criticize Obama as a whole -- I don't know enough about him to do that. I do mean to criticize what I take to be a central theme in modern liberalism.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes we can.
Except actually, it wasn't. The Declaration of Independence opens with questions of necessity: "it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands . . . decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires . . . ." These are matters, not of "yes we can," but of "yes we must." The necessity derives from "must nots." The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not, of course, "inalienable" in the sense that they cannot be taken away, but that they must not.

"Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." The fundamental theme of the Declaration is "no, you can't." No, government does not have the right to overstep its bounds; and the Declaration is a long list of abuses. The first of our "founding documents" has nothing of "hope" and everything of anger at governments doing what they must not. "A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people." What "we can" do is not yet even asked.

Eleven years later, our next founding document was published, the Constitution. (It took two more years for it to be ratified.) It would be delightfully ironic to describe the Constitution as a document of "yes we can." The Constitution is fundamentally an enumeration of powers. It says "yes we can" do x, y, and z, precisely to say "no, we cannot do anything else." There are several explicit "no you can't's" offered to the states:

No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility.

No state shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection laws: and the net produce of all duties and imposts, laid by any state on imports or exports, shall be for the use of the treasury of the United States; and all such laws shall be subject to the revision and control of the Congress.

No state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage, keep troops, or ships of war in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power, or engage in war, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.

And several direct "no you can't's" aimed at the Federal Government:

The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.

The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

No bill of attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.

No capitation, or other direct, tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken.

No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state.

No preference shall be given by any regulation of commerce or revenue to the ports of one state over those of another: nor shall vessels bound to, or from, one state, be obliged to enter, clear or pay duties in another.

No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law; and a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time.

No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

But more to the point, the Bill of Rights (which is, of course, nothing but a list of "no you can't's" for the federal government: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech," etc.; "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed;" etc.) is sealed with the Tenth Amendment:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
Anything not specifically listed as "yes we can" is thereby construed as "no we can't."

Of course, there is much hope in this document. But there is a difference between true "hope" and "yes we can": hope merely expresses a possibility. On leaving the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin is reputed to have responded to the question, "what have you given us?" with the answer "a republic, if you can keep it." True hope is always "if." Perhaps what so grates about Obama's invocation of hope is that it seems strong on the "yes we can" and weak on the "if." Does he ask anything of us, or just tell us we can do whatever we want?

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights.

Now, I do not deny that what I am describing as a fundamentally liberal attitude did exist among some of the more radical abolitionists. It is fair to put the unrestricted "yes we can" in their mouths, and indeed to root much of the rise of modern liberalism in the unrestrained desires of the radical Republicans in the years following Abraham Lincoln's death.

But I think it is pretty well understood, by those who actually study Lincoln, that his was an attitude of restraint. The one who actually freed the slaves, the one who brought the obscure Republican party to national strength, and maintained the Union so that their abolitionist ideas could apply to the slave states: Lincoln's attitude was hardly "yes we can."

In that marvelous Gettysburg Address, Lincoln describes the precarious situation of republican government:
Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. . . .
It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Yes, this is hope. But "yes we can"? No, I think Lincoln's attitude is, "perhaps we can." Perhaps, if we are righteous, there is a possibility. I am no expert on Barack Obama, but his hope feels a little cheap.

In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln proclaimed:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
"We hope -- if."

There are two fundamental weaknesses in the slogans "hope," and "yes we can." One is grammatical. These are transitive ideas. You have to hope in something. Even Bob the Builder knows this: "yes we can" is only a response to "can we fix it." "Yes we can" do this particular task. To proclaim hope and "yes we can" without proclaiming what we can is grammatically unintelligible. (Just as "change" is unintelligible without defining from what to what, and "choice" is unintelligible without saying what you're choosing: choose infanticide?)

The second weakness is metaphysical. Ability is limited. Our founding documents hope that maybe "yes we can" have a republican government, but only if we are clear what we cannot do. The Great Emancipator hopes that perhaps "we can" end the war and save the union, with its republican government: but he knows that we must ultimately submit to the judgments of the Lord of history.

It seems to me that this empty "can," "hope," "change," and "choice" are fundamental to Obama's philosophy. In any case, they define a particular liberal worldview, a view that refuses all limits, that defines its worldview by going to the moon: set any goal, and "just do it." The conservative is he who says, perhaps, but there are costs, in moral (and fiscal) discipline, there are limits to what can be achieved. A republic, like individuals, cannot stand by just "shooting for the moon." We must be careful to hope in what can be achieved, and take seriously what will be required of us to achieve it.