obama's inaugural speechPresident Barack Obama’s inauguration speech has much in it for British Greens to be happy about. Not only does it frame climate change, peace and global co-operation as urgent issues for “a new age”, it contains relatively little that is otherwise offputting. Most of all, it provides a sterling example of the kind of speeches that WE as Greens could and should be making, complete with a range of “reframed” strong takes on the climate crisis, and a clear underlying emotional appeal to common values, contextualising him in the story of America’s history.

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The following is a blow-by-blow analysis, ordered into numbered sections.

Section 1. Reasons to be happy… There are many parts of the speech for Greens to be directly relieved about and which can give us cause to celebrate this new president’s political judgement:

“Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age”.

Yes we can be satisfied with Obama making a vague anti-corporate point, but I don’t think it particularly does him much credit: I’m much more interested in the bold way he uses criticism of corporations to immediately slip-in an innate criticism of the way individuals’ lifestyles affect the economy and indeed the planet. By co-opting people in this way he is both sympathising with them and strongly challenging them to take up (as he hints repeatedly later) a collective agenda and shared sense of personal responsibility – actually a million miles away from the neo-liberal values of Bush and EXACTLY what will be needed for significant change in a green direction, and something that greens have always struggled with. I’m the opposite of a “blame people’s lifestyles” green, I much prefer to blame the government, but even so the truth is undeniable – people’s lifestyles WILL have to change – but only when people have and feel a collective reason to do so. Not through nagging them to turn their heating down… I think – and Obama knows – that change does not come through cajoling or criticising people – but by appealing to their better nature and inspiring solidarity in them and identification with you and your cause.

“…each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet”.

How radical (for a US President) that he admits to this. This is not only covering climate change and Peak Oil as issues, but also hints at the long-pressed “War for Oil” thesis oft-seen on socialist placards… but in a much more useful way.

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.”

Again, inspiring solidarity even as he strengthens people’s resolve and tells them how bad the situation is. We as Greens are going to have to get better and better at this as our society in the coming decades starts to unravel around us. We are going to have to be Churchillian leaders – no longer warning people of bad times to come, but actually dealing with bad times when things hit the fan. And that will require something that Obama introduces in the next section below (hard choices).

“For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.”

This is almost certainly a reference to the Green New Deal, a policy that Obama has – even in name – borrowed from us!

“Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.”

Nobody expected him to get in a nuclear disarmanent angle in there, but he did anyway. Hopefully he is setting-out his mandate. And of course good again to see the reference to climate change. The more he reminds people of it, the more it becomes a “real and present” issue in people’s minds. We need to be very grateful already to him, at least for that.

“as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace”.

Very good to hear, and not what you’d have heard from Bush. Obama will find it hard to take the US to war without contradicting this bold assertion.

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

Not only does this paragraph reassure in a way that Bush’s neo-liberal ideas of “development” never would have done, it shows – in the last sentence – Obama’s innate belief that we do indeed live in “a new age”, and the agenda of that new age is the Green agenda: peace, and global co-operation to tackle poverty and environmental threats.

So these are the reasons to be happy with the speech. But there is more we can learn.

Section 2. Interesting green concepts. Obama manages to include a number of traditional green concepts: the rights of future generations, gross domestic happiness, and the new-politics-Die-Gruenen assertion of “not right not left but in front”.

“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works”

“The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Some of these are extrapolations of traditional green ideas… and how much more we can learn from them…

Section 3. Ideas that challenge us, but that we should probably learn from and use ourselves
Some greens will find the below statements problematic, but I believe we should be moving towards using and owning some of these concepts and values, and certainly not shying away from them. The more foreign-feeling ones we can slightly repurpose and make our own…

The theme again and again of all of these paragraphs is hard-nosed choices, work – especially hard work – and heart-felt values. These are the kinds of things that greens tend in communications terms to have problems with.

“…we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom”.

Greens don’t like talking about work, especially hard work, but we need to recognise that it forms well over half of most people’s waking hours… and that people want, deserve and expect something from it. They also require it to be acknowledged and respected and I think Greens do themselves no favours if ever they seem to be saying “we don’t value your work because you work for BAe or stack shelves in Asda or sell sports cars”. The reason why you can’t say that, is that it’s still work, it still consumes people’s lives, almost all people don’t have a choice to work, and people look to the government to frame and provide other alternatives, they don’t expect it to have to be all down to them, and the last thing they need is a load of whinging middle class policy wonks bleating from the sidelines that they should quit their job and instead be selling vegan cruelty-free hand-knitted local felt hats dyed with organic cucumber juice. This is another reason why “The Green New Deal” as a selling point needs to be approached with caution. We want people to have green jobs, because we can see the economy requires it. But most people just want jobs. And of course most people already have a job anyway! We mustn’t concentrate on the jobs and forget the people…

“But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Again, visceral, physical imagery. Greens need this if we are to be a party of Doing.

“We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

Yes, this contains an uncomfortable reference that only Greens would even notice about bio-fuels. But the point about respecting science is very powerful indeed, and absolutely where greens want to position themselves. Stephen Fry excitedly Twittered/tweeted just about this phrase, because science has been neglected under Bush. Rationality has been neglected. The Renaissance had been rejected. The scientific evidence for climate change and resource depletion – let alone the wealth of guidance from social science – is a vast repository of arguments, facts and power for us Greens. We need to use this, and we need to embrace – yes I know you’re uncomfortable with that word – we need to EMBRACE science and technology because it IS through the geeks and nerds that we will save the world – because scientific research validates our arguments again and again. And this is aside from the fact that being pro-science has benefits of being pro all the other words that can easily be associated with it: innovation, intelligence, industry, business, progress etc etc.

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Important to be prepared to cut government funding as well as to grant it. Important to explain to people why they have lost faith in government because of its lack of accountability…

“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”

Now this really is a controversial point. Some greens will dismiss out of hand that the market has ever caused any good, but I believe it has. Mike Woodin and Caroline Lucas in their book ‘Green Alternatives to Globalisation – A Manifesto’ (Pluto Press, 2004) argue that markets per se are not inimical to green objectives, it is capitalism as an overidding (and literally all-consuming) force that stands in opposition to environmental protection. But I believe for the sake of this distinction greens need to more readily admit to the good that markets can do, if only to articulate in the same sentence how markets have sometimes failed us. Indeed, Obama’s criticism that the market has spun “out of control” is fairly unsparing, and we should learn from this formula of conceding-in-order-to-damn, which Obama uses below (with missles/tanks vs sturdy alliances/enduring convictions).

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

References to war and blood do not fit well in greens’ mouths, and we can forgego many of them, but the point is well-made: we need to contrast British history with British present, and evoke a sense of patriotism, yes, patriotism, for only this – not sceptiscism, agnosticism or republicanism – can unite British people with a shared sense of our heritage. And it doesn’t need to be gung-ho patriotism, but the real earnest values that can be found in Western history. In this example of course Obama is echoing Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”. How many British Prime Ministers can the average Green party activist quote…? Do we find nothing inspiring or worthy in Britain’s history? Better start leafing through those books.

“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

An excellent point, well made (almost Shakesperian in its prose in fact) but again if Greens were to say this it would involve the “hard choice” of us conceding that as a government we would be responsible for wiedling missles and tanks, even if we alternatively encouraged “sturdy alliances and enduring convinctions”. Do you see how advocating “sturdy alliances and enduring convinctions” ON THEIR OWN and instead of tanks and missles would be impotent, but advocating one while having the former in reserve actually allows rather than curtails the use of diplomacy? Again, conceding in order to criticise. Clever.

“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tough metaphors again, and doing the unfashionable thing of challenging non-Western cultures (when many greens themselves identify the West as being ‘bad’. We need to remember that whatever the strength of our critique, almost all of the people we need to convince think of their country – our country – as generally good, and are also quite right to point to barbaric practices in places further east, south, north or west. We need to be able to tread the fine line between legitimate criticism where criticsm is due, and activating racist mental networks, which I think is what we fear (too much) doing. We should not let that understandable fear paralyse us. Peter Tatchell for example is quite good at targetting anti-gay Islamist behaviour while on other occasions robustly defending muslims’ rights http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/25/iraq.humanrights This kind of subtely was anathema to Bush (“you’re either with us or against us”), and has become hard to articulate in Britain. But the man at the pub will agree with you that nobody deserves to be stoned to death just for being gay, even if he on another occassion goes along with his mates’ homophobic and anti-Islamist jokes. It’s all about catching people in the right mood, framing things right, getting them to buy into your argument, emphathising with them and inviting them to agree with you. Some greens seem to feel most alive when they’re disagreeing with people, but I think the trick is to get them to agree actually.

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. 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, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

I think the phrase: “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new.” is wonderful. It almost hints at flourescent light-bulbs as weapons against climate change. A new instrument indeed for many Americans! Obama is setting the stage for change; but of course he needs to validate the fact that Americans are unfamiliar with saving the planet, driving less, being green, buying organic, buying local… so he appeals to things that are “old” – values, because he needs to take people with him, wherever he’s going to go. And this connects us finally with Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, and shows that values are what everybody holds – and there are even values that trascend left and right, rich and poor. We Greens need to indeed recognise our common humanity and love not resent people with other political points of view. I don’t think we do that well enough at the moment. We need to ALWAYS seek commonality. Councillors and door-step activists have to do this, and that’s why we as Greens need to all make sure we serve our time doing that vital activity, because when that person opens their front door, you don’t know who you’re going to get, but you’ve got to connect with them anyway. And the best way to do that is through commonality of values. We as Greens need to get used to that being not our “special occassion” talk, but our everyday bread and butter.

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