VARIOUS TEXTS: Barack Obama on Values

At its most elemental level, we understand our liberty in a negative sense. As a general rule we believe in the right to be left alone, and are suspicious of those -whether Big Brother or nosy neighbors - who want to meddle in our business. But we understand our liberty in a more positive sense as well, in the idea of opportunity and the subsidiary1 values that help realize opportunity - all those homespun virtues that Benjamin Franklin first popularized in 'Poor Richard's Almanack' and that have continued to inspire our allegiance through successive generations. The values of self-reliance and self-improvement and risk-taking. The values of drive, discipline, temperance2, and hard work. The values of thrift and personal responsibility.

These values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will - a confidence that through pluck and sweat and smarts3, each of us can rise above the circumstances of our birth. But these values also express a broader confidence that so long as individual men and women are free to pursue their own interests, society as a whole will prosper. Our system of self-government and our free-market economy depend on the majority of individual Americans adhering to these values. The legitimacy of our government and our economy depend on the degree to which these values are rewarded, which is why the values of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination complement rather than impinge on our liberty.

If we Americans are individualistic at heart, if we instinctively chafe4 against a past of tribal allegiances, traditions, customs, and castes, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all we are. Our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends. We value the imperatives of family and the cross-generational obligations that family implies. We value community, the neighborliness that expresses itself through raising the barn or coaching the soccer team. We value patriotism and the obligations of citizenship, a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of our nation. We value a faith in something bigger than ourselves, whether that something expresses itself in formal religion or ethical precepts5 . And we value the constellation of behaviors that express our mutual regard for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.

In every society (and in every individual), these twin strands - the individualistic and the communal, autonomy and solidarity - are in tension, and it has been one of the blessings of America that the circumstances of our nation's birth allowed us to negotiate6 these tensions better than most. We did not have to go through any of the violent upheavals that Europe was forced to endure as it shed its feudal past. Our passage from an agricultural to an industrial society was eased by the sheer size of the continent, vast tracts of land and abundant resources that allowed new immigrants to continually remake themselves.

But we cannot avoid these tensions entirely. At times our values collide because in the hands of men each one is subject to distortion and excess. Self-reliance and independence can transform into selfishness and license7, ambition into greed and a frantic desire to succeed at any cost. More than once in our history we've seen patriotism slide into jingoism 10, xenophobia, the stifling8 of dissent; we've seen faith calcify9 into self-righteousness, closed-mindedness, and cruelty toward others. Even the impulse toward charity can drift into a stifling paternalism11 , an unwillingness to acknowledge the ability of others to do for themselves.

When this happens - when liberty is cited in the defense of a company's decision to dump toxins in our rivers, or when our collective interest in building an upscale new mall is used to justify the destruction of somebody's home - we depend on the strength of countervailing12 values to temper our judgment and hold such excesses in check.
c. 650 words

Source: Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, Vintage Books, New York, 2006, pp. 66-68

1. subsidiary - ergänzend, unterstützend
2. temperance - Mäßigung
3. pluck and sweat and smarts - like: Mut, Anstrengung und Cleverness
4. to chafe - sich aufreiben, sich aufregen
5. precepts - Regeln
6. to negotiate - fertig werden mit
7. license - here: Zügellosigkeit
8. to stifle - unterdrücken, ersticken
9. to calcify - verkalken
10. jingoism - Hurra-Patriotismus
11. paternalism - Bevormundung
12. to countervail - ausgleichen

1. What does B. Obama understand by liberty in a negative and positive sense, respectively?
2. Why according to Obama is individualism and a sense of community so closely connected with each other?
3. Why are individualistic and communal interests not always compatible and what is the result if these values collide?
4. Why does freedom not mean that one can do what one likes to do? Explain by examples.

amazon.de The Audacity of Hope
Barack Obama

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