Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall and Seattle

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On January 21, President Obama delivered an inspiring inaugural speech: he insisted that what was distinctive about the United States was its commitment to equality, quoting the Constitution: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and happiness." Conservatives in the U.S. tend to use the above phrase to trumpet equal opportunity -- the moderate republican David Brooks suggested that the President should have included examples of entrepreneurship such as Silicon Valley in his speech's central phrase "Seneca, Selma and Stonewall."

Obama instead framed the line in terms of the aspirations of social movements for equal rights. "Seneca Falls" referred to the first women's rights convention organized in the West which was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Selma referred to Selma, Alabama which became the locus of the civil rights movement in 1965; and Stonewall referred to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in which lesbians and gays, for the first time, protested as a group demanding equal rights before the law. Obama's support of the lesbian/gay community was unprecedented: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well." What was remarkable about the last reference was that Obama was not simply the first U.S. president to advocate same-sex marriage but also the first to state the word "gay" in reference to the social movement in an inaugural address. His speech was one of the strongest affirmations of American progressive values that he has ever given.

"Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall" revises the popular conception of U.S. progress; by linking the three, the President emphasized that the country is committed to steadily expanding equal rights and opportunities in terms of cultural and legal recognition to all Americans. The missing word of the slogan was "Seattle" that is the site of the country's first major demonstration in 1999 against the economic deprivation produced by neoliberal globalization. The "Battle of Seattle" halted the World Trade Organization's "Millennial Round" of meetings which had aimed at consolidating the spread of free-market policies. The Seattle protesters understood that neoliberalism was dis-embedding the economy from society and was therefore an attack on the public's economic rights. Since then the major financial institutions and governments have faced continuous protest -- with Occupy being the most recent -- in terms of mobilizations against the inequity that has been amplified by a deregulated capitalism.

In a recent article, "Inequality is holding back the recovery," the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz notes that economic disparity in the U.S. is at its highest level since the Great Depression, with one in five children living in poverty. Rather than interpret inequality primarily on ethical grounds, Stiglitz's article focuses on its implications in terms of overall prosperity: the middle class lacks the wealth to spend at a level that has historically propelled economic activity; much of the middle class has steadily lost the capacity to substantially invest in education or entrepreneurship; the middle class cannot provide the level of income tax that the country needs; and inequality -- embodied in high unemployment, wage stagnation and declining household wealth -- correlates with more dire boom-and-bust cycles. Stiglitz's point is that political leaders should address the problem of inequality not only to help the impoverished but to catalyze the overall wealth-producing capacity of the country.

Despite his periodically stirring rhetoric, President Obama has not delivered the audacious social-economic program that was expected when he was elected in 2008. Certainly there have been some steps that aid the struggle against inequality; for example, Obama's "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" signed in 2010 will provide considerable assistance to 45 million Americans and it will be financed by new taxes on the wealthiest one per cent. Yet there are many other areas that require a more far-sighted and politically adept leadership. The President's first speech of his new term was predictably inspired but he now needs to do something that he has not done outside of his electoral campaigns, that is, reach out first to the population -- not to political representatives -- and motivate the former to participate in social movements, civil society groups and other modes of collective mobilization in order to press the latter to support economic rights that can no longer be overlooked.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

Photo: Secretary of Defense/Flickr

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