Legal Theory

Law Prof Examines Freedom and Obama’s Appeal in New Book


In Barack Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, the junior Illinois senator offered a vision of community and service that fascinated the Duke law professor who heard it.

In that speech, Obama said hardships experienced by others—such as the grandmother who can’t pay for prescriptions or the high school student who can’t afford college—“diminish me.”

“I was trying to figure out what was appealing to me about it,” the professor, Jedediah Purdy, now a visiting law professor at Yale, tells IndyWeek.com. “It seemed fresh and new and offered ideas about dignity and citizenship and what government does. I’d never heard anything like it in my lifetime.”

The 35-year-old Purdy has lived “in the ideological shadow of Ronald Reagan,” who endorsed individual freedom and a kind of sink-or-swim ideology, the story says. “Reagan seized the moment,” Purdy told the publication. “He said we are all free to dictate our own lives. As long as the idea works, it’s powerful.”

But now Obama seems is emphasizing the common good, telling Americans in his recent televised address to Congress that a high school dropout is not only quitting on himself but also “quitting on your country.”

“He’s expanding the moral imagination to give people a way of saying what they haven’t been able to say,” Purdy told IndyWeek. “But he’s not there yet.”

Purdy has written a new book, A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom. In it, he suggests that freedom is redefined by instability, according to the story. “Radical demands made in the name of freedom were met every time by a redefined community,” Purdy said. “The current question is, How will that happen now?”

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