Ask Ought: Some Notes on the Nobel Speech

There have been myriad memorable speeches, and memorable lines, from our current President, but perhaps today's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech will be remembered as his finest. Its lyricism was notable, as was its fierce, almost elegiac (and uniquely Obama-esque) choice to concentrate, in its final lines, on one word: "ought." This was a reference, as Obama reminded us, to Martin Luther King's own Nobel Lecture. Did it work? Did it make us feel?

Talking about the way the world "ought" to be is nothing new, after all; it's simply a riff on that old saw, "hope." But perhaps the word "hope" lost some of its luster after one too many repeats of Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow. Or perhaps it has simply been seen, and heard, too many times, including in the last Presidential campaign.  Hope is not an ideology. Hope is not something one can taste, or live on. Emily Dickinson knew best: hope is a feeling. And if that word cannot evoke that necessary feeling, one must find a new one word. Obama did.

Consider the final paragraphs:  

Like generations have before us, we must reject that future. As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him."

So let us reach for the world that ought to be – that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that – for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

There were other elegant formulations in the Nobel speech (explaining the reasons why force, at times, is the crux--or at least part of the process--of peace, was compelling), but the specific referencing of Dr. King's rhetorical framework of "hope" is one that former President Kennedy, also formally acknowledged today (so was Nixon) would have appreciated. We all recall Kennedy's "Ask not." Obama's echo is this: Ask ought.  And if you care to consider the definition of the word, it includes a subtle mandate, a mandate now ours: dream, serve, thank.

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