Decades ago – long before I became gray and respectable – I was a big fan of the punk rock band Devo. I found myself remembering their second album just now; specifically, the title of the album: “Duty Now For The Future.” Today, that phrase seems to carry an unexpected weight; it seems pregnant with meaning and promise.
As I write these words, President Obama has just finished his inaugural address. It was an address for the ages, and yet one that was desperately needed at this particular time in our history. It pointed the way forward with resonant themes from a simpler and more honest time. The themes of duty, sacrifice, responsibility, obligation, and service.
To which I can only respond: it’s about time. Long past time, in fact. Long past time for Americans across the entire political spectrum (as well as those who consider themselves apolitical) to embody these ideas — ideas that have recently been misappropriated by the hard-right fringe of the body politic and used as blunt instruments of political demagoguery.
It’s a funny thing about America: almost no one talked about duties anymore. All we hear from Americans is the endless din about “rights.” The idea that our rights can exist in a social vacuum, without a corresponding set of duties, is a toxic idea that is poisoning America. We have come to believe that we are nothing more than individuals, and that as such all we need concern ourselves with is rights, and never with obligations.
Let’s talk about obligations for a change, and about duties. A philosophy that proclaims the idea that rights do not have their basis in duty and obligation must inevitably result in a sick, narcissistic citizenry, a citizenry from whom the endless, birds-nest cheeps of “Me! Me! Me! Me!” has reached deafening volume. It is time for less talk about our rights as citizens, and more talk about our duties as citizens.
Obama is not calling America to service because such service is “needed” in any practical sense. He is calling for service, and sacrifice, and a sense of obligation because these are the rhetorical clarion calls by which one inculcates a sense of shared duties and national solidarity, without which no healthy, committed society can be built or surv