Arts & Culture

From a Citizen, Humble Advice for the Leader of the Free World

I like to remind people of the link between Chicago and Washington, D.C. It extends beyond the newest president. The National Mall, what President Obama looked out upon after taking the oath of office, exists in its current gleaming form … Read More

By / January 23, 2009

I like to remind people of the link between Chicago and Washington, D.C. It extends beyond the newest president. The National Mall, what President Obama looked out upon after taking the oath of office, exists in its current gleaming form thanks to the McMillan Plan. This was an architectural development designed to turn the city of Washington from what it was, a bit of a tenement slum town, into something on the scale of a grand national capital.

Named for Senator James McMillan, the plan drew heavily from the ideas of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham as well as New York architect Charles McKim, both of whom were responsible for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. That affair took place on Chicago’s South Side and featured an architectural masterpiece known as “The White City.” These were too designers who made grand plans and saw them carried out.

I like to remind people of this not so much because it’s an interesting bit of trivia, which it is, but so I can bring up a dictum often attributed to Burnham: “Make no little plans.”

President Obama comes into office with the highest of hopes behind him and he must, of course, make no little plans. It’s a time of grandeur and nation-changing events, so I feel more than a little timid in penning a bit of advice for the leader of the free world. Nevertheless, I am a citizen of the country and a Jewish writer, so I will respond to the latest batch of advice posted on Jewcy with a bit of my own.

As a Jew I have a very distinct definition of freedom. I have argued this in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History, in front of the Jewish Funders Network, in various publications, and at more dinner parties than I can count. The Jewish concept of freedom is at times very much at odds with the popular American conception.

America is the land of liberty, of freedom from things. Freedom from the government, from the religious beliefs of others, and so on and so forth are the hallmarks of this American view. It’s essentially the freedom to be left alone, more or less, which explains the resistance so many in America across the political spectrum have to government actions and regulatory restrictions.

Judaism envisions a very different type of freedom. If you go back to the story of Exodus, you quickly realize the whole exercise has very little point until the congregation of Israel finds its way to the foot of Mount Sinai. There they receive their marching orders, but in order to fulfill the covenant they first had to be freed. They were free to act, which is an altogether different thing from American liberty, or its popular conception.

This is not uniquely Jewish. The dichotomy between American freedom from outside intrusion and the American conception of citizenship and its obligations has been discussed at length. Yet it is a Jewish idea, nonetheless, and one that Jews are uniquely suited to advocate for. At a time of such national crisis, when our faith in virtually every institution is challenged, and when a popular president has alighted into office, I offer this small morsel of advice.

Champion citizenship, Mr. President. Your inaugural address certainly leaned in this direction, but please go further and never let up from this theme. Advocate for an America oriented away from the freedom to be left alone and instead centered around the obligation to act with our freedom for the betterment of all. This is vague, perhaps. This is easy advice to administer and hard advice to carry out, yes. But there may not be any more important element to our national renewal than this. If every American felt an obligation to serve in some capacity, if their freedom was not an excuse to cheerlead for American exceptionalism but instead a burden that could only be lifted by proving America’s exceptional capacity for progress, then our horizons might extend forever.

Only in such circumstances would the American idea, the only thing that binds us together as a nation in all of our diversity, light tomorrow. Only then might America do something other than ride into the sunset. Let the Jewish voice be heard on this matter, and let your voice, Mr. President, join with ours. It is no small plan, but as with Chicago in 1893, and as with the city in which you now reside, the capital of the nation you now lead, no small plan is worth making.

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