What America Got Right

President Obama made a speech in Kenya that has received very little attention, and that’s a shame, for many reasons. As Amanda Taub wrote at Vox,

While his remarks focused on Kenya, they might as well have been about the United States. And this is what was so striking about the speech: the degree to which Obama seemed to articulate a worldview, and thus a foreign policy, rooted in the lessons of America’s history of racial discrimination. Obama was offering not just a prescription for one African country, but a diagnosis of how discrimination and hatred can endanger any society — one he seems to have drawn from his experiences engaging with America’s domestic struggles during his presidency.

The speech focused upon the structural nature of discrimination and the fact that social attitudes–about the proper role of women, to take just one example–shape systems that operate to perpetuate rules and actions based on those assumptions even after majorities of citizens no longer hold them.

As important as it is to examine and address these discriminatory structures, it was the President’s other point that really struck me.

He reminded the audience that Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream was not just of an America without segregation, but of a world in which people would be judged by the content of their character, without prejudice or bigotry. “In the same way, people should not be judged by their last name, or their religious faith, but by their content of their character and how they behave. Are they good citizens? Are they good people?”

As I tell my students, one of America’s most striking departures from prior systems of government was this focus on behavior rather than identity. The rights of citizens were not to depend upon caste, religion, ethnic identity, or the other categories that determined  civic status in the old world; the new American philosophy (if not always the reality) held that citizens should be judged and treated as individuals, on the basis of their behavior, and not as members of favored or disfavored groups.

We have not always lived up to that standard, but the trajectory of American jurisprudence has been in that direction.

Ours is a view of citizenship and equality that is still rejected by many countries around the world–not to mention a distressing number of citizens here at home. As the President forcefully pointed out, however, basing rights on who people are rather than how they behave isn’t just morally wrong; it inflicts real damage on a society.

“When we start making distinctions solely based on status and not what people do, then we’re taking the wrong path and we inevitably suffer in the end.”

This emphasis on government’s obligation to treat people based upon their actions–not their wealth, not their religion, skin color, sexual orientation or gender– is at the core of what it means to be an American.

That principle–not our wealth or military power–is what is “exceptional” about America.


  1. President Obama’s theme song should be John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance”; that seems to cover his goal on all issues – at home and world-wide. I am proud of him wherever he goes; may not always agree but always proud. The same is true about Michelle; she is always a leading example for the issues she is deeply involved in. They make me proud that I was part of America’s historical electionS of this fine man. His actions and his words and Michelle’s are leading examples of what it means to be an exceptional American wherever they go.

  2. You are so right about Obama’s message. It was so appropriate and powerful for the entire world, including all of us here at home. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the essential basics that undergird greatness. Obama captured those perfectly, courageously, and captivatingly. It’s a speech every American – young and old – should savor.

  3. I am wired to wander almost always in the direction of the big picture. Others I know towards details and specifics. Both of course are right and useful.

    Back in the day when evolving cultures started actually thinking about the institution of government an old thought was dusted off and reconsidered – what if those governing served at the pleasure of the governed – all of them? A radical idea for feudal cultures to consider. Political power was seen by most to be an entitlement of the royal born. Aristocracy. Could democracy actually work? What about stupid people? Wouldn’t they have too much influence and empower other stupid people to be in charge of smart people?

    Those that designed our government did so in baby steps. Thus their original thought was to address the stupid people question by dilute democracy – just for wealthy white male land owners. Country club government, feudalism, but it was a start.

    Over a few centuries the stupid people often raised the question – aren’t we as good as the country clubbers? Good point!

    So by the beginning of the 20th century (or later depending on perspective) we finally reached democracy, the promised land. Hallelujah!

    Way a minute though some asked. What about the stupid people? Aren’t they diluting the decisions of the smart people? The old question.

    I believe in freedom. I don’t believe in freedom for only smart people because that’s simply another power structure and power corrupts everybody.

    I believe in democracy and that average widom is as smart as we can get. Not that that simple prescription is fool proof. We are hopefully emerging from the shadow of technology that empowered smart people to disenfranchise those that belonged to other clubs beside the country club. But, hallelujah, democracy is proving its chops. We are emerging. We are fighting. We are winning.

    Let’s celebrate modernity by worshiping democracy. Nobody has yet demonstrated an alternative that works better.

  4. Another path that the enlightenment of human culture has defined is the trend towards bigger government. Family to tribe to region to nation to continent and ultimately to global.

    When the League of Nations was formed the world was not ready.

    When the UN was chartered the world seem interested but wondered but what will it actually do?

    Since then the problems that we rely on it to solve have grown in importance and complexity.

    I believe that the problem that only it can solve that is of critical importance here and now is climate change.

    So now global government has come of age. Of course much of the global population not yet.

    So like all human progress in governance we will waste many decades now acting like parents with little kids with appropriate attention deficit disorder.

    “Would you please stop playing with that ________ and keep up! You’re driving me crazy!

  5. Pete what are you talking about with your comments on Stupid People?? If you are talking about the lack of a voting a franchise for masses including woman, people of color, and Native Americans and poor white people than I would agree, the “Founding Fathers” did what they could to prevent us Proles from challenging their Supremacy. We may now have a much wider voting franchise now, but the Supremacy of the 1% is there for all to see. The 1% can pour millions of dollars into politics at all levels of Government. Who is viable Candidate and who will receive publicity is decided by the McMega-Media.

    How you can say We are Winning (Who is the WE?) is beyond me. The Republicans have a Super Majority in the House and Senate in Indiana, plus a Republican Governor. The Republicans have a Majority in Federal House and Senate. If “We” is the Democratic Party than since Obama has been President the following has happened –

    Year 2009–2011 Democrats – 257, Republicans – 178
    Year 2015–2017 Democrats – 188, Republicans – 247

    Year 2009-2011 58 Democrats, 40 Republicans and 2 independents.
    Year 2015–2017 44 Democrats, 54 Republicans and 2 independents.

    If you are a Republican than you are correct – We are Winning.

  6. Yesterday the topic was our failure to keep up with the need for education. Today our failure to keep up with the need for governance.

    It seems that our capabilities are always playing catchup with our needs.

    We made 7B of us because we thought that we solved where to obtain and manage the energy and matter required to support them. Ooops.

    Now we have to catch our capabilities up to our needs without cooking the golden goose.

    Progress seems to be driven by both our recklessness and our problem solving capabilities.

    Of course that’s what kids and teenagers excel at. Maybe adults too.

  7. Louie. I am a Republican but the red party left me decades ago.

    My sense that they’ve hit the end of their chain is not based on the details that you accurately report but on reading the mood of the nation. Unreliable I know, but intuition sometimes integrates details better than thoughtful rational reasoning can. Could I be wrong? Definitely.

    I believe that I’ve written here before that the bone that will choke the dog of the dark ages is climate change.

    It becomes increasingly undeniable every day and the silliness of the dogs of dark baying at the moon becomes more obvious too.

    Their failure to deliver plus their failure to even address real problems is becoming legend. How can that be sustainable?

    2016 is the critical inflection point.

  8. How can that be sustainable?

    2016 is the critical inflection point.

    Pete; it can be sustainable by keeping Republicans in office and that change needs to begin with November 4, 2015 as the critical inflection point. We must rebuild from the bottom up – at state and federal levels – not wait for the presidential election in 2016.

  9. Thanks Pete but – here in Indianapolis replacing Mayor Ballard is of utmost importance, not only to this city but to the state. Our education system is in a shambles, the number of shootings and murders are almost daily; being pissed at the primarily Democratic City-County Council for overriding his veto for funding to the police department, he arbitrarily removed $6.5 million from the police department budget and put it in an untouchable surplus fund. Removing as many Republicans from as many offices as possible in all elections is of utmost importance – especially in this Republican state. It is a preparatory step to the gubernatorial and presidential elections in November 2016. This country is in crisis; EVERY ELECTION IS VITAL, more now than ever before.

  10. I love our President. I hope he uses his empathy and intellect to be another Jimmy Carter after leaving office.

  11. Both Pete and JoAnn are absolutely right. 2016 is the critical inflection point and this can’t wait to start with the 2016 presidential election. As JoAnn mentioned, we need to rebuild our political system from the bottom up, starting at the local and state levels and then the federal congressional levels. The Republican Party as it’s currently constituted has given us numerous examples that show that they cannot effectively govern; locally, statewide, or nationally. The GOP is fracturing due to is inability to police itself and via its pandering to its ultra-conservative base. One doesn’t have to look very far at all for better indicators of this than the twenty Republican presidential contenders that will debate, at least those that Roger Ailes and Fox News deem worthy, next week or the misguided RFRA debacle earlier this year in this state.

    Play time has to end at some point. All the national aspirations that this blog post eludes to that reflect what the vast majority of the American people want their country to be will never be achieved if this country is allowed to continue to proceed down the road that these people, and their billionaire puppet masters, are so intent on taking us down. While I truly hope that the GOP can once again be a viable political party in this country as it has traditionally been and contribute in a positive way regarding the national agenda it isn’t capable of that now and we all need to wake up and face this fact, especially those that remain as members of the Grand Old Party.

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