Live Well, Do Good

Citizenship Redefined

Brandon Sun, February 7, 2009 - David McConkey

“My fellow citizens,” begins the new U.S. President, Barack Obama. His inaugural address marks not only his new job, but also a new level of discourse about – in his words – “the price and promise of citizenship.”

Barack Obama’s ascendancy has been called “transformational.” Racial, of course, as well as generational. And technological – he is the first President to embrace the Internet.

His style embodies the new paradigm of what has been called the “we” or “net” generation: open, empowering, and participatory. Obama is energizing the “mass collaboration” ethic of the Internet to re-make political life – from the bottom up.    

In both the United States and Canada, we had been heading down a dangerous slope of declining public discussion and involvement.

In the last Canadian federal election, the main platform of the Conservatives was simply pooh-poohing Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion. Our voter turnout was an all-time low. The number of votes cast for every party (except the Greens) was lower than the election before.

But Obama changes everything by challenging everyone, especially young people, to get involved. Think, participate, vote. U.S. voter turnout was higher than any election since the 1960s.  

Obama invites Americans to go beyond the “petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

If he thinks the U.S. is bad, he should visit our House of Commons!

“The stale political arguments,” says Obama, “no longer apply.” He certainly has a point: the old right- and left-wing divide makes less and less sense in dealing with today’s global issues.

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

While Obama outlines a positive role for government, he also vividly describes a role for each ordinary citizen.   

“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.”

Obama says, for example, that the “greed and irresponsibility” of a few movers and shakers are only partly to blame for the current economic crisis. All share responsibility, in “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

Obama requests Americans, as well as those of us in countries like Canada, to recognize the impact of our consumption in a world of poverty and environmental degradation.

“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.”

In calling for a new understanding of citizenship, Obama recommends traditional values to the young generation, and relates time-honoured ideals to the demands of the 21st century.

“Hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true.”

As we Canadians reflect on Obama’s presidency, however, let’s remember how greatly the two countries differ. Not to be too smug, but Canada has a more developed civil society than the U.S. Even our “conservative” political parties are more “liberal” than Obama’s Democrats.

Many Obama goals have been largely achieved in Canada: like focusing on Afghanistan instead of Iraq, implementing a national Medicare program, stabilizing financial systems, making old age social security sustainable, and reducing restrictions on access to abortion.

And Canada is more progressive than Obama could ever dare to be. We have already banned many guns, ended the death penalty, and legalized gay marriage.  

But the two countries are diverging in the quality of leadership and sense of citizenship. As U.S. President, Barack Obama is inspiring the citizenry to take more responsibility. Do not rest on the laurels of past accomplishment, but engage as active citizens in meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Could we have that kind of leadership in Canada?  

“For the world has changed and we must change with it.”

* * * 

See also:

Religion and Values in the Public Square 

Canadian History Boring?  Not if You Know a Little 

A More Thoughtful Approach to Racial Issues is Required

Prime Minister Obama?

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