Al Gore's Inaugural Address: January 20, 2009
Fellow Americans, and Fellow Citizens of Our Shared Earth -
More than two hundred years ago, the shores upon which we stand were blessed to provide home to an unusual outcropping of men and women who contained within themselves remarkable quantities of wisdom, energy and courage. These are qualities that are alone rare in anyone, and spectacular when combined.
They did the impossible - not once or even twice - but at least three times in their lives. They imagined a better way to live - free and equal - in ways we take for granted today but were altogether foreign in their time. A mere cognitive act, one might say of this first heroic turn, but given their context in the middle of the eighteenth century a nevertheless powerful and brave thing that we can only begin to appreciate, and one which was a predicate for all to follow.
They did the impossible again, when they assembled a rag-tag scrabble of an army under an inexperienced commanding general and proceeded to defeat the world's greatest military power of the time in a long and arduous struggle against guns, weather, poverty and demoralization, for the prize of freedom and the opportunity to start anew.
And still they were not finished for, having won the war, they also won the peace by concocting a remarkable piece of governmental engineering that remains to this day our society's foundational contract, the Constitution of the United States.
This exceptional generation of thinkers and doers were leading lights in arguably the most important social movement of human history - the aptly named Enlightenment - which rescued humanity from the chains of irrationality, prejudice and immaturity, and called upon us instead to think for ourselves, to trust our observations and our analyses, and to share a spirit of discovery and honesty that has opened fantastic doors of well-being for succeeding generations in every domain of our experience as human beings.
We Americans were fortunate indeed to have these Founders as the creators of our society, for rarely do a collection of people possessing such a remarkable combination of attributes ever come together in one place and one time, to such a remarkable effect.
Our Founders did their best to leave us something very much better than what they themselves had inherited, and their success in doing so was dramatic. They left behind what they actually described as an experiment, so unsure were they that this radical set of new ideas could work. And they called upon succeeding generations not to perform miracles - let alone three miracles at a time - but rather just that each live up to its potential, that each fulfill its obligations and promise, and that each preserve the gift the Founders had left to us.
My fellow Americans - my fellow stewards of the Founders' gift - it is time for us to engage in an honesty of discourse which in this country has become sadly all too rare in our public sphere, to the point of near extinction. And that honest, frank dialogue must begin with an overt declaration that this generation - born into freedom, security and prosperity, truly the most fortunate humans ever to walk the planet - this generation has failed in its responsibility to honor and preserve the gift given us by America's Founders, and by the succeeding generations who kept that gift alive, nourished it and improved it.
We, instead, have lived off the achievement of those forebears. We have not only failed to contribute to its improvement, but we have depleted the investment principal handed to us. We are eating the seed corn.
And worse - for if we're to be truly honest with each other we'd admit that we have debased the precious gifts of freedom, democracy, prosperity and reason which it was our great fortune to inherit. Lulled to sleep by a combination of our own greed and indolence and the importunings of the worst amongst us who have encouraged ever more of such abrogation of responsibility - while often stooping to dressing their debasements in the ill-fitting suit of patriotism - we are the first generation of Americans to leave our children less enriched in any respect.
But, in fact, we have left them less enriched in every respect. Their material prospects look to be less rewarding than those of their parents. The freedoms which are the core of their American identities have been defiled and tattered beyond recognition. Our breathtaking arrogance has created an international ill-will which they are forced to inherit. And we have stood by, not only silently watching the environmental destruction of the only home we have, but in fact actively blocking the efforts of others on this shared planet to save it from our foolish depredations.
It could indeed rightly be asked of us now, not whether we've taken leave of our senses, but rather why.
Those are difficult words, but please understand that I did not come here today to lecture. I did not come here to assert my moral superiority, of which I claim none. I did not come to hector or humiliate. And least of all did I come here to wrap myself in the flag or the achievements of the great Americans who bequeathed this nation to us.
I came here, instead, to speak the truth, so that we might restore hope. I came here to remind us all of the potential for greatness which lives within each of us individually, and collectively as a nation. I came here to rally us to the purpose of meeting our responsibilities, like every generation before us has done when they were called. And I came here to implore us to do and to be more than that, to aspire to something better than that, to ask that we believe in ourselves again in ways that have become foreign to this generation of Americans.
We have enormous potential as a country to produce stunning achievements in education, in the arts, in science and engineering, in medicine and humanitarian relief, in human rights and in global political leadership for mutual peace and prosperity. We have enormous capacities unrivaled across the globe, and until recently, we had a wisdom and humility that often matched those, such that many people of good will in this world were not resentful or jealous of our capabilities, but rather happy and grateful to see us lead.
And so we did, but of late we have lost our confidence and we have lost our bearings. We have become lazy - there is no other word for it, and we will not renew ourselves if we cannot be honest about our malady - and at every turn have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the cheap and the easy alternative, which of course in the end is never any real alternative at all, anymore than the last players in a pyramid scheme can expect to see a return on their investment.
To save from paying taxes, we have funded our schools with lottery receipts - and hardly any of those either, if truth be told - and then we feign astonishment as our children receive a second-rate education. We have fought a protracted and expensive war without a selective service draft and without even a tax increase to pay for it, and then are shocked to see that our military is depleted and our revenues drained. We have harkened to the destructive tune of the Sirens appealing to our most selfish instincts with their endless calls for tax cuts, only to awaken to a surprise that is itself surprising, finding ourselves unable to fund our obligations ranging from healthcare to education to infrastructure to national security to retirement dignity for our seniors. We have failed to ask difficult questions of our leaders or to carefully examine their claims, only to find ourselves less secure, less safe, less well-regarded in the world, less prosperous and less free. We have paid the least attention imaginable to politics and government, with nearly half of us not even bothering to vote - that absolute minimalist contribution to sustaining democracy - only to wake up somehow astonished at the lies we've been told and the destruction that has been done by the liars.
My friends - my colleagues at our shared national project - America is not for free. It requires an investment of our time, our intellect, our energies, our concern and sometimes even our lives. For too long too many of us have been on autopilot, delegating our responsibilities as citizens to so-called leaders all too anxious to amass the unbridled powers our national indifference delivers into their hands. Now, well do I recognize that far too many Americans were not born to the lives of economic security which I have been fortunate enough to enjoy. And I know that means many have to work themselves to exhaustion, week in and week out, with not nearly enough time for their families, let alone for the seemingly remote concerns of politics. I understand that, and I appreciate that not every American will be able to participate in our experiment in self-governance to the same degree.
But far too many of us have the time to invest in our country, and don't. Too many of us watch that fourth or fifth ball game on television, or are lulled into mindless catatonic states by yet another empty-calorie sitcom, when we could and should be paying attention to our shared civic fate. The truth is that paying taxes is not enough. Half or even all of us voting every four years is not enough. Not if you want a government better than the one we've had, and not if you want a government that serves your interests rather than those of elite oligarchs who capture its power and resources while you're busy being seduced by that game or that sitcom. We would not be surprised if our child who failed to do his homework each night brought home failing marks on his report card. We should be equally clear with ourselves about what results from our failure to engage in the process of steering our own national destiny.
And when I call upon Americans to dramatically increase their investment in their country, I do not mean volunteering at soup kitchens or Teach for America or the Peace Corps, as wonderful and as necessary as all those programs are. I'm talking about politics, pure and simple. I'm talking about taking the time and investing the effort to raise our understanding about the great issues of our time, well above the bumper-sticker level that too many of us today find sufficient. For the truth is that the forces of darkness which have vastly multiplied in power over recent years are dependent on our mutual ignorance for their success. People who are informed and educated and invested in the issues that shape our national destiny would never swallow the blatant lies that too many of us have because we have allowed ourselves to become ill-informed, uneducated and uninvested in these great questions of our time. Those who would expect disengaged and uninformed Americans to prevail in shaping their government to make decisions serving their genuine interests might as well expect an army lacking bullets and guns to prevail in battle. They would be wrong on both counts, of course, with equally disastrous results.
For it is wrong to imagine for even a moment that such disengagement will have a happy ending. The Founders knew this above all. Anyone who understands the Constitution - from separation of powers to checks and balances to federalism to the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights - anyone who gets this masterpiece of institutional engineering gets that it is first and foremost an attempt to fashion a government which can be capable and efficient, but never, ever, too powerful. More than two centuries later, we would be well served today if we could even just remember the lessons our forebears had already figured out back in the eighteenth century, let alone what has been learned since.
Many of you hearing these words today may not be interested in government, but be assured that government is interested in you. It has the power to do wonderful things for your benefit, like protect you from foreign and domestic threats to your security, like educating your children, like building infrastructure to facilitate your prosperity, like preserving your liberties and your equality from those who would diminish them, and like making sure that you have access to quality healthcare and live in a sustainable environment. But government also has the power to do enormous damage if it is placed in the wrong hands, by taking away our resources, our liberties, our dignity and sometimes even our lives. The difference between which of these governments we get is simply the difference between an engaged versus a indolent body politic. No concerned owners of a property would ever let weeds grow wild on it, just as no properly tended government is likely to run badly awry.
Nor is this some theoretical proposition, untested by real world experience. Let us be honest. We have been led in recent years by a government dangerously divorced from the first principles of American government and of America itself - those of liberty, equality, dignity, respect, tolerance, honesty, humility, security, openness and compassion. I have seen astonishing things with my eyes these last years, things I could never have imagined seeing in the America I grew up in and in the America I love.
I have seen patriots destroyed for speaking the truth when that truth was inconvenient for those in power. I have career military men of the highest rank cashiered out of the Army for having the common sense and courage to say what is so painfully obvious to all of us today, that the invasion and occupation of another country cannot be done on the cheap with inadequate forces. I have seen a Vietnam War veteran - a man who gave three of his four limbs in service to his country - have his face morphed into the face of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, in campaign ads crafted by people who made sure that they themselves never went anywhere near Southeast Asia when it was their turn. And this all because he refused to vote for a bill once actually opposed by these armchair superpatriots, but then labeled critical to American national security after they loaded it up with union-busting language.
I have seen elections stolen in America. I have seen congressional staffers from one of America's two main political parties pretend to be local citizens and riot in the offices of election canvassers, intimidating them into stopping the counting of votes, the most fundamental essence of democracy. I have seen tens of thousands of Americans purged from the voting rolls and disenfranchised on the basis of their race, as if Jim Crow had never left us after all. I have seen a United States Supreme Court bring shame upon itself by actually terminating the counting of votes in an election, and by acting as a partisan tool of a political party, instead of as America's highest institution of justice. I have seen the party of Abraham Lincoln resort to racism and other forms of hatred and divisiveness, time and again, in order to seize and maintain power. I have seen the United States Department of Justice become an instrument of those so desperate for power that they would prosecute law-abiding Americans on the basis of their party affiliations. I have seen the cover of an American intelligence agent exposed in order to punish her husband for telling the truth about government lies, putting at risk national security and the lives of perhaps dozens of her contacts abroad.
I have seen America rushed to war on the basis of the brashest of lies. I have seen an American media and a so-called opposition party not only fail, when it mattered, to stand up to those lies, but too often actually abet in their dissemination and thereby enable a needless war which has claimed over a million innocent lives and displaced millions more. I have seen an America that traffics in torture, that has established gulags, that spies on its own citizens without court-ordered warrants, and that has ripped-up habeas corpus and other legal principles which have been a fundamental part of Western Civilization for centuries.
There is more, to be sure. I never thought I'd see the day when a major American city could drown, crying for help as the federal government did nothing to save it. I never thought it was possible that one administration could take the record surpluses it inherited and turn them into record deficits, borrowing more money in our names than all of its predecessors combined. I never thought I'd see the day when our long-time historical allies would be publicly mocked and derided from the highest levels of our government because they refused to sanction our own transparent lies, or to be a party to our national folly. I never expected that my government would fail to take leadership in addressing the greatest environmental threat ever to face the planet, other than, that is, to lead in blocking solutions more responsible governments were trying to implement. And I never thought I'd see the institutionalization of so much greed in America, the polarization of wealth now destroying our middle class, and the single-minded devotion of the United States government to transferring as much of our resources, as fast as possible, to the already fabulously wealthy and powerful amongst us.
This has been a dark hour for our country, of that there can be little question. And there is plenty of blame to go around. When the executive branch of American government broke every rule in the book and turned itself into a virtual monarchy, a rubber-stamp Congress failed in its task of checking and balancing that power grab, abdicating the primary function for which the Founders had created the body. When the leader of their party systematically dismantled the historic national and Constitutional values for which Lincoln and those before and after him have bravely stood, often at the cost of their very lives, the grandees and elder statesmen of that party stood by in silence, knowing full well the cost. When every principle of decency and honesty and good governance was cast aside like so many inconvenient shackles by those who arrogantly thought they alone knew best what the country needed, the so-called opposition party - charged during normal times with offering an alternative and during this last decade with saving a republic - far too often cowered in the corner, a profile in cravenness, not in courage. And when government told blatant and obscene lies with the most lethal of consequences, an all too obedient American media failed in its crucial responsibility of seeking and exposing the truth, forsaking that duty in favor of corporate greed and general timidity instead.
This list of abdications goes on yet further, and is altogether a lengthy reckoning of our collective national shame. On that list as well, it must be said, are the American people, who because of a fear which can be partly excused and an indolence which cannot at all, stood by through the least and the worst of these transgressions alike, oblivious and unconcerned. That is the bad news, and it is very bad indeed. At the same time, in the end, it was the American people who led - not their supposed leaders - bringing us back from the brink of complete disaster. It was the public who realized the danger and its magnitude - not Congress, not the opposition party, not the media - and led the rest away from the precipice upon which we were all standing, the world at our side.
These grand failures and this laggard success, such as it is and late is as it comes, remind us again of both the greatness which exists within us, and of the costs of ignoring those capacities and responding instead to our lesser angels. When Benjamin Franklin was asked in the summer of 1787 by a citizen outside Constitution Hall what sort of government the Founders had given America, he replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." Surely this charge has been challenged in more dramatic and overt ways in our past than has been the case in recent years, let us be clear. We have weathered civil war and domestic strife, and we and our form of government have survived. But the threat before us today is so grave precisely because of its very insidious nature. There have been no great pitched military battles amongst us, like Gettysburg or Antietam. There is no violent clash on our streets between those seeking change and those attempting to arrest it, such as the Haymarket or Birmingham.
But just the same, and perhaps all the more threateningly so because of its creeping, quiet incrementalism, our democracy is withering, and Mr. Franklin's republic is not, after all, being kept. I am moved therefore to call today for a new engagement of the American public in its own politics. I call for the owners of government to end the corrosive absentee landlordism that is so diminishing our polity. I call for each of us to invest the necessary efforts and resources to guarantee the health of this body politic, just as we must exercise or brush our teeth to keep our own bodies healthy. There is so much to be done in America today - and so much to be undone. But there are also greedy, amoral and unpatriotic forces among us who would rather personally prosper to gross proportions than leave our republic intact for our children. These traitors - and I choose my words carefully - have many assets whose assistance they have readily and meanly purchased these last years, but they depend more than anything on our collective ignorance and our daily detachment for their successes.
They also depend on good people in positions of leadership doing nothing. Let the forces of political darkness who have been ripping apart the fabric of American society for two decades now henceforth to be on notice. Your free pass is over. All Americans should be assured that the First Amendment will stay live and well as long as I am president. People may articulate whatever thoughts they see fit to have associated with their names and their honor. Like Voltaire, I will defend to the death their right to do so. But the bullies and the liars and the hypocrites pursuing the politics of personal destruction should be advised in the clearest terms. And the cowards who bring out the worst of us, dragging us down into their gutters, smearing good Americans to prevail in policy arguments they could never hope to win on the merits, should take notice. Your words will no longer go unanswered, and your attacks will never again be met by silence, quiet chagrin or even seething unexpressed anger. You should feel free to disagree with this government. I hope you will. Your well-intentioned alternative ideas are welcome, and your opposition to our initiatives will serve to keep us sharp and thoughtful in what we do. But if you cross the line - if you attack a president by branding his underage daughter as physically ugly on your national hate radio syndicate, if you smear a witness with personal lies because she tells the truth about a Supreme Court nominee's pornography obsession, if you challenge the patriotism of those who've served while you have hidden from danger, if you impeach a president for the lesser personal failings than the ones you are simultaneously committing yourselves - be advised that henceforth you will be called out and aggressively labeled for what you are. People may accuse my administration of many things, but I warn you that we will not be remembered as the timid patsies you've grown used to berating with impunity.
I am honored and flattered to have been chosen by you to lead this great country, and lead is what I intend to do. I will bring Americans home from a tragic war in Iraq and repair, to the best of our ability, the damage done there. I will fulfill the promises made to a forgotten Afghanistan, where real and completely neglected American national security concerns really are at stake. I will demand that Congress give all Americans the national healthcare guarantees they deserve, just as are found in every other industrialized democracy in the world, and not a few developing countries infinitely poorer than us as well. I will return fiscal sanity to our national ledger, restoring a fair tax structure of equitably shared burden and ending corrupt process of corporate welfare that has taken us to the edge of insolvency. I will bring the powers of government to bear on finally rescuing New Orleans, and I will deliver FEMA and every other agency across the American government out from the hands of political hacks and back into the control of competent professionals.
I will apologize to our neighbors on this planet, and not only for the arrogance of our foreign policy which, far too often, has been as egregious as it has been unwarranted. I know many Americans believe this country should never apologize for any of its behaviors. But that is as indecorous and boorish a trait of nations as it is of individuals. A grown-up and mature America can be proud of its achievements and contributions while also admitting its failings. Indeed, our best chance for a future filled with more of the former and less of the latter is the ability to distinguish between the two and the courage to admit those distinctions.
As a first sign of a newly mature America, let me make clear that no longer will five percent of the world's population generate twenty-five percent of its greenhouse gases while simultaneously actively blocking others from solving a mutual, planetary problem. And to those with whom we share this world I want to say, right here, right now, that this country is profoundly sorry for the many and flagrant transgressions we've indulged in these last years. We were afraid and we were foolish. We took your good will and we abused it. We now ask your forgiveness, and we ask your willingness to join us - as fully equal partners - in moving forward to repair the damage done and proactively creating a better world for all. In particular, America from this point forward will meet and exceed the commitments we have made to the UN Millennium Development Goals to assist those less fortunate than us. We will meet the obligations we have made to every treaty we have signed, and we will replace a high-handed arrogance, bullying and unilateralism at the United Nations and other institutions with a true spirit of cooperation, mutual respect and shared responsibility.
And we will go much further. Let me be clear, especially for those who by force of habit and lack of consequence will inevitably attempt in the coming days and weeks and years to obfuscate and lie: I will never compromise American security. There are and may always be threats to free and peaceful nations, and we must be fully prepared to rebuff them, and so we will. But there are other dangers, as well. There is the danger that we will over-react, there is the danger that we will create enemies where they don't otherwise exist, there is the danger that the profits of military procurement will drive our defense policy instead of the other way around, and there is the danger that we will neglect other forms of security and well-being - education, health, infrastructure and more - by succumbing to fears concerning external threats and draining our resources on unnecessary military expenditures.
Right now, America has no national enemy in the entire world. Not China, not Russia, not even North Korea. And yet the amount that we spend on the military in this country vastly exceeds that which is spent by every other country in the world - nearly 200 of them in total - combined. Surely, that is too much. Surely, what was once mere paranoia now flirts with outright insanity when it can be said of any country that it has no national enemies, that it spends more on security than all of the rest of the entire world combined, and yet that it simultaneously denies healthcare to its children because it claims such extravagances cannot be afforded. Dwight David Eisenhower, a five-star general, liberator of Western Europe, supreme commander of NATO, conservative Republican and former president - a man who therefore knew about as much as anybody ever will about the military, about national security, about war and about international relations - left us a warning about this very danger. Even at the height of the Cold War, Eisenhower saw looming large the internal threat of a military-industrial complex - a nexus of profits and politics and war - that would have a mind of its own, that would take control of our government, that could plunge us into unnecessary wars, and that at the very least would remove food from the mouths of our children, books from our schools, and medicines from our bedsides. Fifty years have come and gone since Eisenhower's farewell address to the nation. It is five decades past the time that we should have heeded his wise advice, but it is not too late to start, and I pledge that this new administration will do so now.
I will also call upon Congress and the nation to get serious about education at all levels, funding it fairly and generously, and spending unprecedented resources to send unprecedented numbers of students to college at low cost, just as America once did in wiser times. I will place the resources of the federal government behind a life-and-death effort to create alternative sources of energy - because that is truly what is at stake - just as America once pushed itself strenuously to defeat totalitarianism or to go to the moon. We will invigorate our economy with this energy project, with a national campaign to develop stem-cell solutions to killer diseases, and with a commitment to not only restoring our badly sagging infrastructure but also to enhancing it with 21st century technologies other countries have already adopted ahead of us. And while we are doing this, we will commit ourselves to returning to and surpassing the principles of economic justice at home and abroad which once created a robust middle class in this country, as well as hope for those struggling with less.
When I was a young man and America was, it seems to me, so much younger a country, much of the talk of our national political dialogue was about lifting people out of poverty. By the time I myself served in an administration, I'm ashamed to say that we had forgotten the poor altogether, and the supposed party of the people that I helped lead at the time spent its energies pandering to the middle class, and too often only pretending to do even that. By the time the other party came to power following us, even the middle class was now forgotten by those who spoke the rhetoric of national unity, but divided us every way imaginable, at every opportunity, for purposes of crass political gain and economic plunder of our commonweal. But let us today be as clear as we can be on this subject: We are all in this together, we Americans. If our government is failing the least affluent of us, it is failing all of us. If it is serving only the richest amongst us, it is not serving any of us. In the last three decades our country has returned to the Gilded Age of the 19th century, with yawning canyons opened up between an absurdly wealthy minority whose riches have been magnified enormously, and the rest of the country, who have stood still economically for more than a generation. This is inexcusable in the richest country in the world, and it will not be excused any longer. We must return to our ethical foundations and recall our national unity, we must reject a culture of greed which has corroded our moral fiber for decades now, and we must roll up our sleeves again and get back to work at guaranteeing prosperity and opportunity for all Americans, not just the privileged few. Corporations must understand that their existence is at base a licensed societal privilege, granted in return for demonstrated decency and the same restraints on self-serving behavior the rest of us apply every day. Americans - and others outside our borders equally - are workers and we are consumers, but we are humans first, and we demand to be treated with the requisite dignity and respect attendant to that status.
It is equally crucial that we become serious about political reform in this country. A senior figure in the Republican Party once said that "America has the best Congress money can buy", and he was uncomfortably accurate in claiming so. This is shameful for a country which likes to be seen as the world's greatest democracy, and it is grossly expensive in every sense of the word. The link between money and politics must be broken forever. I will ask Congress - and you hearing me today should demand of it - that we adopt fully publicly-funded election campaigns as the only form permissible across the country, and that we make voting upon any legislation in which any legislator has any personal interest whatsoever - including campaign contributions - a punishable crime. We also need to amend our Constitution to finally remove the Electoral College from our presidential election process, so that never again can the democratic will of the people be denied, and we need as well to end the stranglehold of two parties on our political process. It is obscene and counterproductive that not one other party has even a single seat's worth of representation in a Congress of 535 people. Adopting a proportional representation electoral system, or even a hybrid that includes proportional representation, will give voice to other ideas than those of two parties, and will inject needed vigor and health into our political dialogue. Equally crucial to maintaining our democracy, the corporate monopolies over our communication channels must be broken, and the fairness doctrine restored and expanded.
There is so much more to do, but this is a beginning, and represents an enormously challenging agenda of restoration and progress without yet contemplating our many other needs and shared aspirations. But we can do these things. We've done harder things in our past. Yet Americans should not lack clarity that it will take the efforts of all of us to make it happen. So much of our dream will be stillborn if we lack the effort and the will to bring it alive. So much of it - especially the political reforms that are the key to opening so many other doors - will be resisted by those who've long enriched themselves at the public trough, while we were looking the other way. But all of it is eminently possible if we will it.
I have stood by in recent decades watching the unraveling of something beautiful, destroyed by the worst amongst us, acting for the basest of motives. America was never a perfect country, but we were a global model for many of our achievements, and we should have been, for we had truly achieved much. It was therefore with surprise and grief that I watched as we turned our forward motion into a backward regression, and one which went further than imaginable. At first I thought that the effort, awful as that was, was only to unravel the last decades of our national history, destroying the social safety net, the civil rights, women's rights, environmental consciousness and labor peace we had built at such great cost and struggle. But then I saw that it went further, and there has also been a destruction of the principles of good governance we adopted a hundred years ago, returning our country to the cronyism and incompetence and government-for-hire of the nineteenth century. As time went on it was clear that the regression went even further back still, deeply assaulting the very notions of constitutional government, democracy and separation of church and state, and thus casting us back into the Dark Ages of monarchy, superstition and religious wars which our Founders so bravely fought to replace with something so much better. But even a regression of centuries does not do justice to the damage that has been done. As elemental foundations of Western Civilization such as the right to habeas corpus and limited governmental power have been unceremoniously shredded these last years, I have watched as we have stepped even further back in time, into the gray mists of eleventh century feudal England. Astonishingly, we have traveled backwards as a society this last generation, not just years or decades, and not even centuries, but rather a full millennium.
So many people have given so much - often including their lives - so that these liberties and achievements of a thousand years could be realized for the benefit of all of us. It is shameful enough that we have not sacrificed of ourselves to add to this exalted list. But it is infinitely worse still that we have unraveled the gifts given to us as such expense, foolishly neglecting their value. Let there be no mistake: An America with eleventh century values will not last long in the twenty-first century. History has been passing this great nation rapidly by these last decades, not least because of the speed at which we've been traveling in the other direction. I have many interests and passions as a person and as a president, but I can assure you that national suicide is not one of them. If there was a way that I could, I would say thank you today to every person who has ever sacrificed to make the lives of today's generation safer, easier, happier and better. I cannot, but what I can do instead is to honor those contributions by leading this country in their preservation and their enhancement, adding our share to these great works for the benefit of those who come after us. The least we can do to preserve our great fortune as the inheritors of Magna Carta, the Constitution, the New Deal and more is to keep them intact. If we're better than just that, we will also seek to deserve that good fortune as well, by adding our own contributions, borne of our own sacrifices.
Someone once said that people get the government they deserve. Today, I call on Americans to deserve more. I call on Americans to invest more. I call on each of us to recognize that the responsibility for good governance can never be delegated, any more than a parent who abdicates child-rearing duties has any right to expect a mature, responsible and happy adult to emerge twenty years later.
The forces of darkness in American society never fail to run down our government and never fail to diminish those who serve in it. Let us leave aside that this government they deride is the same one which defeated fascism and communism, which took humankind to the moon, which sent a generation of former GIs to college, and which brought Social Security and Medicare benefits to countless seniors in place of the abbreviated retirement years full of poverty and ill health they could otherwise have expected. And let us leave aside, also, the fact that when these same people who deride our government have gotten control of it, they have set new records for incompetence, cronyism, corruption, arrogance, mismanagement and failure. These are crimes egregious enough, but even if we forget all of that for a moment, remember this: We live in a democracy. When these agents of our moral decline berate the government you chose, they berate you. And so they have continually in our time, mocking, patronizing and degrading you with their cheap tactics of division, diversion and hate-mongering. You may think they care about racial strife or about hordes of immigrant invaders or about every aspect of everyone's sexuality, but they don't. Rather, they care that you not care about what is truly important, and they insult you with their patronizing diversions.
Government is not the answer to all problems any more than the market or any other mechanism is. But government can do incredible things. And government is the product of our choices and our collective will. I call upon all Americans, beginning today, to invest the time and energy necessary to make our government the best we can make it. As John Kennedy once reminded us, each of us needs to ask what we can do for our country, and we can begin that process by spending a few hours every week turning off our televisions and educating ourselves about our public issues, so that never again can those with sinister intentions prey upon a nation weak with indolence and vulnerable in its ignorance.
There is much greatness in our country and in our history and in our bones. There are tremendous challenges that demand from us the creativity and courage and determination we've generated in the past to leap equally daunting hurdles.
I ask of you today your participation in the task assigned to our generation, so that we may be worthy of the generations who've given us so much.
Lead me in this effort. Follow me. Walk beside me.
But join me somehow in working every day to live up to our potential and our responsibility, and in leaving a stronger, healthier and better country to our children, so that they might do the same in their time.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.