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Obamarama
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Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois last weekend. Man, this is some good rhetoric:

Now, no one can force you to meet these challenges. If you want, it will be pretty easy for you to leave here today and not give another thought to towns like Galesburg and the challenges they face. There is no community service requirement in the real world; no one is forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house, and the nice suits, and all the other things that our money culture says that you should want, that you should aspire to, that you can buy.

But I hope you don’t walk away from the challenge. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own. Not because you have a debt to those who helped you get here, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you do have that obligation. It’s primarily because you have an obligation to yourself. Because individual salvation has always depended on collective salvation. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.

Knox is a jewel of a liberal arts college. Founded by anti-slavery activists, it was the site of one the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It also has fun traditions.

June 11, 2005 / Uncategorized

3 comments

This idea of responsibility to the nation that raised you has been on my mind a lot recently. It’s not something I’ve spoken of often with my American friends, because very few of them are considering/have considered emigrating permanently. Sure, they’ll live abroad for a few years, maybe join the Peace Corps, but no one’s really shipping out of America.

I had never before seriously thought about leaving the United States. The thought just never struck me. Maybe one day I’d try for a graduate fellowship across the pond or something, but I’d be back, of course. Why would I need to leave the US?

But my frame has changed a bit in recent years, and more and more I’m beginning to ask myself, “Why would I limit myself to the US?” I’ve been musing over the concept of emigrating, wondering what it might be like to return to the country where I was born, where I haven’t lived since I was six years old.

I recently finished the fourth installment of Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries (a BBC series that began in 1969, when Apted interviewed 14 precocious 7-year-olds on subjects like race and class, then returned 7 years later to record how those children had progressed, and 7 years after that, etc.). At the age of 28, one of the documentary’s subjects left Britain to teach/research in America. He grapples with having contributed to Britain’s brain drain, but decides he wants to be wherever he can best contribute towards advancements and innovations in his field. After the documentary aired, he apparently suffered some criticism back at home. Other characters in the series tackle this question of emigrating and their allegiance to the UK as well. I was a product of the British schooling system, one fellow reasons at the age of 21, so I’m obligated to reinvest that intellectual capital into the system that created it.

Obama’s speech is a tribute to the idea of America. But many ideas that were forged and refined in America are no longer the exclusive domain of this country, right? Much of my education happened through money provided by this country, in institutions located in this country. But the intellectual resources that composed that education came from all over the world, right? Many of them pre-date America.

“You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own,” says Barack Obama. Do I? Could I apply myself to the challenges that we face as a civilization? Could I do it somewhere else? Would I be shirking my responsibility to “my country”?

Dude’s gonna be president one day.

The illusion fades when you get closer, but from any kind of distance at all, Will here looks exactly like my brother Sean. It’s really quite stunning.

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