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Citizens, Not Americans

Linda Hirshman is a former professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at Brandeis University, and the author, most recently, of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.

My fellow citizens.

There are two kinds of participants in the American Republic: citizens and Americans. They parallel precisely Isaiah Berlin's powerful, defining essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty." Citizens achieve positive liberty, freedom to. Americans enjoy negative liberty, freedom from. Almost nothing Barack Obama says is accidental. He chose "citizens," not "Americans."

Citizens, not limited to those entitled to formal "citizenship," go all the way back to Greece. To be a citizen of the ancient cities that gave birth to the experience of democracy you had to have enough land to enable you to buy the arms the city-state required for its phalanx warfare. In its specifics, Greek citizenship was exclusionary by class, gender, and the accident of history (citizens were not slaves). But in its deep meaning, its metaphysics, citizenship meant an obligation to do your duty to your society, to use your capacities to make your society shine. Plato and Aristotle, the philosophers who gave birth to the ideas of democracy, thought that using your capacities to participate in running your democracy was the highest use a human could aspire to--the highest, in their language, virtue. (With the possible exception of philosophy, but we'll discount that on narcissism grounds.)

Americans were born of the eighteenth century--the time when classical liberalism saw people not in their collective citizenship, but in their individualism. The great classical philosophers--Thomas Hobbes and John Locke--asked us to imagine that men spring up like mushrooms after a rain, separate, self-seeking, making their countries as the alternative to anarchy. Much of the American tradition, beginning with the founding language of the pursuit of happiness, is individualism all the way down. The ideology of the conservative revival drew its life blood from that tradition and it flourished like a bay tree. If you own the metaphysics, you own the politics.

Now Barack Obama, no dummy, is offering not just political change, but metaphysical change. Like few others in the liberal revival, he has learned the lesson that if you're going to change the politics, you must change people's understandings of what it means to be human, to make them let go of the possessive individualism that has led to such disaster. We caught a glimpse of this in his debate with Joe the Plumber, in which he gently tried to lead Joe to see himself as related to someone, even if it was only Joe's younger, poorer self. In invoking the concept of citizenship, he has at his side a strand of American history often overlooked in the last, conservative years: that, as the prize-winning American historian Gordon Wood the American Republic was founded in classical virtue, most particularly the virtue and the service ethic of the Father, George Washington.

Commentary so far has missed that Obama's invocation of Washington's great speech to the troops is the intellectual and emotional center of his speech. Washington, the slave owner, is the only person Obama quoted unmodified. He must have had something awfully important to contribute. Obama reminded the nation what Washington said: "Let it be told to the future world... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

Obama has always offered hope. With this inaugural, he now demands virtue, citizenship in its ancient form, born in Greece and called up by George Washington in the coldest winter of the Republic.

--Linda Hirshman