July 3 2012
Americans Shouldn't Give Up on Lives As Usual
You’ve probably already seen it—but just in case you missed the most curious campaign fundraising pitch in the annals of American politics, here it is:
Got a birthday, anniversary, or wedding coming up?
Let your friends know how important this election is to you—register with Obama 2012, and ask for a donation in lieu of a gift. It’s a great way to support the president on your big day. Plus, it’s a gift we can all appreciate—and goes a lot further than a gravy bowl.
On a certain level, of course, this is a hoot and a half. He wants our gravy bowls? On another level, however, it is a not-so-funny reminder that the boundary between our private lives and what government and politics demand is eroding. Surely, this is the first time a president of the United States has asked you for your birthday presents.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by the sentiments enshrined in this Obama fundraising pitch. After all, First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled this view of the relationship of citizens to government while on the campaign trail in 2008. She said then:
Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.
There was a time, not so long ago, when this nation was dedicated to the ideal of having just enough government to ensure that ordinary citizens could live their lives as usual. One might even say that this was the nation of lives as usual.
Americans have always been willing to sacrifice in a national crisis, but, when the crisis has passed, Americans have traditionally gone back to lives as usual. This was part of the American DNA. Revolutionary soldiers hung up their arms and took hold of the plow when the fighting was over.
George Washington, one of history’s great generals, was known as the American Cincinnatus, after Cincinnatus, the Roman general. Cincinnatus was plowing in his fields when messengers arrived and informed him that Rome needed his services. Cincinnatus lay down his plow, took up arms, and defeated Rome’s enemy in a single day. Then he went back to life as usual, resuming his plowing. This model of civic virtue, not the strenuous model of perpetual sacrifice and striving on behalf of a government or political faction, set the tone for America.
Americans have always cherished the private sphere, the place of small and simple acts and milestones (weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries, for example) that mark our lives, nurture our spirits, and create ties that make us want the best for our fellow human beings. Out of this ordinary humanity grew the countless civic and charitable associations that de Tocqueville lauded as being important for a free society.
Right now there is a tug of war between the old American notion of lives as usual and the newer, governmental ideal of lives of struggle and sacrifice on behalf of state or faction. One sees the newer attitude in the administration’s attempt to force Catholic employers to violate their consciences, in the belief that bureaucrats can make our most intimate medical decisions, and in a president’s asking for your wedding presents. It might just be worth noting here that Julia, the fictional character in the Obama’s “Life of Julia,” an Obama campaign ad, seems to have no human ties and no sense of self-sufficiency. She seems to live in world without family or friends, only the government. No wedding presents, as far as I can tell, for Julia.
Much of this election is about whether the Obama view of an all-encompassing state or what might be called the de Tocqueville usual lives view prevails. Early citizens of the U.S. had very little contact with the federal government. We go to the polls in November to decide how much of our lives we want to keep for ourselves.
On the subject of wedding presents, I just watched a friend’s daughter opening some: it was a joyful and important moment, and I couldn’t but reflect that forty years hence the bride will be telling somebody, grand children most likely, who sent what and why this object in particular means so much and is a tie to a past and people loved in that past.
So, brides, take the gravy bowl. Whether it’s from Target or Tiffany’s, years from now, it will evoke fonder memories than a campaign contribution.