(Swans - January 31, 2011) Watching our preacher in chief deliver his post-partisan platitudes on January 25, 2011, in front of Congress, the yearly champions assembled in the gallery around the First Lady and the C-SPAN cameras, reminded me of Peter Byrne, the Swans contributor who has been writing cultural columns for years, be they short stories; book, film, theatre reviews; travelogues; and occasional ironic essays about societal mores. Peter, a writer who can cite, Lewis Lapham-like, psalms from the bible (the New Testament, not the Old bloody one), Seneca, Thucydides, Shakespeare, and all the Classics -- how can one figure out the present and imagine the future without an understanding of the past? -- and, who, in a self-deprecating and humorous fashion, likes to quip that nobody reads him because nobody can read -- chides me occasionally, in an always amicable and genuine style, which he is entitled to do, being my elder by one generation. Why keep focusing on politics, which is nothing but a spectacle at best and always a circus? This is a reasonable take but for the fact that the State of the Union speech is a reflection of American culture -- a traditional tribute to American myth-making exceptionalism, and as such should be covered.
Mr. Obama's speech brought to mind the late Virginian senior senator and great orator, Robert C. Byrd, who once cited Titus Livius as he admonished the Bush administration and the Congress, who were marching inexorably toward war against Iraq: "All things will be clear and distinct to the man who does not hurry; haste is blind and improvident." "Blind and improvident," repeated the good senator through his formidable speech. Months later, in February 2003, Byrd added that we [were] "sleepwalking through history" and lamented that the nation would experience "the rudest of awakenings." Like his predecessor, Mr. Obama looked blind and improvident, sleepwalking through history that evening as he addressed the nation -- the only difference with his predecessor being that Obama is a decent rhetorician and can pronounce a sentence without mangling grammar. The message was almost identical in substance. "We do big things. ... The state of our union is strong," he concluded before the usual "god bless the USA" nonsense.
Keith Olbermann, recently fired by NBC, used to refer to Bush II as the "liar in chief." One has to wonder whether Mr. Obama is the "deceiver in chief." Take this segment:
... Remember -- for all the hits we've taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers -- no workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We're the home to the world's best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth.
"Factsayers" or fact checkers can point out that, indeed, it's the largest economy in terms of waste and rubbish, but it certainly is not the most prosperous economy in the world for 90 percent of the population. In terms of productivity, even the workers of the much-derided frog land are more productive than their American counterpart. The definition of "successful companies" was left conveniently undescribed, so no one could figure out whether the president talked in terms of financial profits for shareholders, which are at an all-time high, or the social well-being and employment of the work force, which are at an all-time low (excluding the Great Depression). His statement that "no country ... grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs" was "patently" false -- a fallacy I noted as early as 2004 in "America #1 -- Score Card 2004." Japan far outpaces the USA both in total gross and per capita grants. Actually, in 2009, Japan filed 357,338 patent applications, followed by the U.S. with 321,741, and China with 279,298. Indeed, according to Thomson Reuters, China is "poised to become [the] global innovation leader." The U.S. may have the world's best colleges and universities," but Mr. Obama ought to hear what Paul Achleitner, the chief financial officer of the huge insurance company Allianz ($600 billion in assets), has to say about the students: "The heads of leading American universities say that if they selected applicants based on grades alone, their student bodies would be 100 percent Asian." Facts apparently matter little.
There is much more comfort to be found with marketing and PR sound bites. It's all, in Mr. Obama's words, about "winning the future" (can anyone explain this incongruity?) or replacing "No Child Left Behind" with "The Race to the Top." "This is our generation's Sputnik moment." "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." "Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation." "We can't win the future with a government of the past." (Applause, applause, applause.)
Follows a long list of goals: We are going to "reinvent ourselves" and, first step, "encourage innovation" (like Facebook, an obnoxious example the president actually used!). "Over the next 10 years," second step, "we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math." (Applause.) "The third step in winning the future is rebuilding America ... from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet." (Applause.) Then, "we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015." (Applause.) A few lofty goals: "By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources." "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail." "Within the next five years, we'll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans ... [thus] connecting every part of America to the digital age." "We set a goal of doubling our exports by 2014." "We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business." "All these investments -- in innovation, education, and infrastructure -- will make America a better place to do business and create jobs."
Ronald Reagan's "shining city on a hill" was back in full play during Obama's speech. Look for tomorrow with insatiable hope. It will happen, though it won't be easy. "All of it will take time" (a favorite refrain from Obama).
What about today, the now, the present? Not much, except that, "thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans' paychecks are a little bigger today." (That is, the extension of the Bush tax cuts.) Message: Go and spend, and don't worry, tomorrow will be a better day; and more sublimely, keep things as they are as we, the happy few, know what's best for the country.
Amusingly, the morning after the speech, the Congressional Budget Office raised the US projected 2011 budget deficit from $1.1 trillion to almost $1.5 trillion (about 10 percent of US GDP), mostly due to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, a piece of information that should have made Obama pause and wonder how to pay for "winning the future."
An intelligent man Obama certainly is, and knowledgeable people obviously surround him. So how could he assert that biofuels can break our dependence on oil? Even if the entire US corn production were directed toward ethanol it would only produce about four percent of our transportation energy needs. One million electric cars by 2015? Sure, out of a 2008 total of 255,917,664 total highway registered vehicles of which 137,079,843 were passenger cars, one million, if the objective is obtained, is going to make a real difference! Right? How could he not ask us, the American polity, to cut down on transportation and drive higher mileage cars? After all, Volkswagen has just unveiled a concept car that can drive over 261 mpg. Without even being too greedy or optimistic, there are many cars in the world that get between 50 and 70 mpg. Could he not use the bully pulpit to alert the polity to the need to change our behavior? How could he advocate creating 100,000 new teacher positions and encourage young people to get into a teaching career when over 100,000 teachers have been laid off in the past years as the states are going broke? How could he fail to make a difference between educating (making people think) and training (making people robotized producers) the upcoming generation? How could he ignore that the Humanities -- and the teaching of foreign languages -- are being trimmed to bare bones in the institutions of higher learning? How could he not address the imperative need to change the way we do things? How could he neglect the notion that life is not all about business and profits? How could he not offer a wider dimension to the concept of justice? How?
And most upsetting of all, how could Mr. Obama not once and for all address the sacred cow, the obscene US military-industrial-congressional complex that is spending more than the entire world altogether as tens of millions of our fellow citizens are living in total destitution and over a billion of our brothers and sisters around the world have little or no access to food, clean water, hygiene, and a future?
Out of a 7,000-word speech, Mr. Obama dedicated 72 words to the Iraq War, 134 words to the Afghan catastrophe, 30 words on Pakistan -- not one word on Israel and Palestine, Egypt and the Middle East (except 51 words related to Tunisia), and 163 words to our gladiators who, of course, need be supported along with their families (and who factually are not supported the moment they leave the military).
Question: Does Mr. Obama have any moral sense, concept, and notion of "winning the future"?
Senator Byrd was possibly quite prescient. We are looking toward the rudest of awakenings. And Peter Byrne may have a point. Perhaps Swans ought to stick to cultural issues rather than trying to shape the politics over which we have absolutely no control because the military-industrial-congressional complex, including Mr. Obama, has it well under command. Although classical culture is dangerously ailing -- thanks to Obama and his ilk and predecessors, as well as the likes of moneyed interests -- people can nevertheless keep it alive and challenge the Facebooks of this world.
Still, can culture exist in a vacuum -- without politics and its delusions? Maybe we should ask Plato and the Classics.
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