Monday, November 2, 2009

A Unifying Narrative

As a respectful but often skeptical reader of Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times column, I wanted to cheer as I read the introduction to the piece he wrote for, yesterday's Times about President Obama's policies (More Poetry, Please, November 1 2009). He indicated that while Obama does not have a problem communicating his message clearly to various audiences, he does have a "narrative" problem in that he "has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education, and foreign policies." I agree with Friedman that if the President could find this unifying narrative, the support he already enjoys would grow stronger and he might win new constituencies that have been confused by what too often looks like an incoherent, piecemeal approach to policy making.

But once Mr. Friedman identifies the basis for the narrative - "nation building" - he loses me. For one thing, it smacks too much of the 20th century project to dominate and control other countries by focusing on strengthening our own nation, often at the expense of the rest of the world (for a stark contrast, read just about any column by Nicholas Kristof, but the one about solving the problem of obstetric fistulas from the same November 1 issue will do nicely). For another, it is in the end too vague to provide the inspiration we need.

What President Obama really cares about most and what all his policies have in common is a desire to promote human flourishing, to nurture human growth and development to such an extent that people from all around the world, not just in the United States, can get much closer to the goal of realizing themselves as human beings. I refer, of course, to the highest need on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but also to the Aristotelian ideal that in order for people to realize their full potential, there are certain goods that they must have, survival goods, yes, but also the goods of education, employment, and a project or projects that give their lives meaning. A modern day equivalent of this approach is philosopher Martha Nussbaum's notion of "capabilities," the things that everyone needs to achieve a life of dignity and fulfillment. I will have more to say about this in the next post, but let me add that a version of these capabilities was introduced as early as FDR's State of the Union Address of 1944 when he declared every American was entitled to a Second Bill of Rights that includes: "a useful and remunerative job; enough money for adequate food, clothing, and recreation; a decent living; a decent home; adequate medical care; adequate protection from economic fears of old age; and the right to a good education."

Of course, nothing like this ever came about, but the fact that these issues were seriously addressed some 65 years ago in a state paper of considerable importance is a small sign of how long these concerns have lingered in the public mind. I think it is possible that President Obama intends to make good on some of this agenda as he moves forward, however glacially, in the years to come to bring this country closer to this humane ideal that has been dreamed of for so long.

1 comment:

  1. Let's combine Friedman's notion and your sensibility. This one should go to the NYT Editor.