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That President Barack Obama, a progeny of the civil "rights" movement, should have used his inaugural address to urge a "new era of responsibility" conveys a message to democratic societies everywhere.

We live in an era of "rights." In the U.S., there is a Bill of Rights, in Canada a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In political discourse, the assertion of "rights" is omnipresent, either of historic rights not properly acknowledged or present-day "rights" not adequately heeded.

In democratic debates that are often about jostling priorities for attention and spending, groups will clothe their demands in the garb of "rights" to elevate these claims over more pedestrian ones.

But there has been very little discussion in democratic societies lately of "responsibilities" that ought to be tied to "rights" and from which a different conception of government flows.

Said Mr. Obama: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility; a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

The linking of "duty" to "responsibility" is profoundly right but seldom remarked on. These days, "rights" talk is often about what the state owes us by way of protection against itself or in affirming obligations that the state must fulfill toward us; whereas talk of "responsibility" reminds us of what we owe each other, what we owe the society that incorporates us, what we owe the country of which we are a part, and the world of which we are a member.

Citizens, their political leaders and especially their courts prefer to speak publicly about "rights" but to leave responsibilities implicit and, therefore, silent. Those trained in the law understand the links between "rights" and "responsibilities," but it seems inappropriate to place the two on the same plane in public discourse.

What a different imagination would have been required of Canadians, for example, to conceive of a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, as opposed to a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. How different would have been the U.S. movement, or at least its pitch to conscience, had it been the "civil rights and responsibilities" movement, with the understanding that the U.S. Constitution required the "responsibility" to ensure that all men were created equal and, therefore, could enjoy their inalienable "rights."

Rights are fundamentally about me; responsibility is mostly about us. And we live in a "me" society, with the sense of "us" and responsibility and duty somewhat obscured by the "rights" talk all around us.

"Responsibility," as Mr. Obama conceives it, involves thinking beyond "me" to "us" and, as such, is an appeal to collective purpose that can be advanced in part by individuals contributing to their community and being engaged citizens, but also by the state being the intermediary and agent through which we discharge our obligations to other members of society.

It is a call for a more active, larger state, not for the sake of the state being larger, but for the sake of helping more of those who need it, since there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption that we are a stronger society when the needs of all are more fully accommodated.

In this sense, "responsibility" means something different from those conservatives who use the word in a punitive way: that someone must be held "responsible" for misdeeds or criminal acts. This is a narrow, stunted view of "responsibility," not wrong in and of itself but far too limited.

Obviously, no Canadian politician today has the command of language or the depth of thought to explore these ideas as Mr. Obama did in his sober, beautiful inaugural address. But the resonance of his ideas can be applied in Canada. Like all the best ideas, his were rooted in place but of wider application.

It has been appropriately noted how historic Mr. Obama's ascension to the presidency was in a country with a blighted racial history. It testifies to the intelligence of his mind and his vision for his country that he chose the moment of maximum exposure to speak, too, of the "responsibilities" that we owe each other.

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