In our home the State of the Union address was not followed by the Republican reply. We skipped Marco Rubio’s rebuttal in favor of watching a DVD of old “Homeland” episodes. We’re finally catching up on the first season of the “CIA versus terrorists” drama that everyone else has been watching and raving about for the past two years.
The incongruity of watching the SOTU and “Homeland” in the same evening was a stark reminder of how much has changed in America in just a few years. “Homeland” would have made a wholly congruous nightcap to any SOTU speech by George W. Bush.
That’s not to say Obama’s “war on terror” policies are very different from W.’s. The depressing similarities are all too obvious and well known. But the tone of American life has changed noticeably now that we have a “hope and change” president instead of a “war president.” And that does make a difference. In the long run it could make more difference than we now suspect.
“Homeland” takes us back to the dramatic world that W. invited us into: a world where evildoers lurk unseen beneath the surface of American life, a life that is constantly (if sometimes only slightly) on edge, because no one knows for sure where and when sudden death may strike again, as it did on September 11, 2001. W. fit easily as an actor in that world. Indeed he gave himself a leading role in the drama.
Americans may not have been happier in that world of so recent yesteryear. But “Homeland” reminds us why so many Americans found it gripping and exciting: It seemed like a matter of life and death. That’s the stuff great theater is made of.
Barack Obama’s SOTU, like every SOTU, was meant to be great theater too. Yet there was something less than satisfying about the show, judged purely as entertainment. Watching “Homeland” made it clear what was missing in Obama’s show: The death-dealing bad guys were nearly invisible. Obama mentioned the “terrorists” very briefly, mostly to assure us that the problem could be solved by technical means, like any other technical problem, without any compromise of our cherished American values.
The real bad guys lurking constantly between the lines of the speech were the Republicans. But they were never called out by name. And their evil -- the fact that their proposed policies would kill many more Americans than “terrorists” ever will -- was hidden so deeply between the lines, it was practically invisible. So they could hardly perform effectively as the villains in the piece.
The Republicans’ evil had to be hidden because the world that the president created in his address was such a utopian world, where everything wrong in American life is just a technical problem that can be fixed with relatively little effort. In the world of this year’s SOTU evil is simply a temporary error, a lapse in clear thinking, easily corrected under the guidance of a skillful tutor.
Obama took us back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, when all we had to do was to reason together. We would surely recognize the logic of his proffered solutions, he seemed to say with every breath. Then, with only the slightest application of good will, all our problems could be quickly resolved. He made it all sound so simple, so obvious.
The world of “Homeland” -- W.’s world -- is the world of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and Winston Churchill), where evil is far more than a mistake in logic. It is a permanent, intractable element of human life. We cannot reason together, because some of us are moved by an impulse to evil that defies all reason. So evil is not a problem to be solved. It is an enemy to be defeated by any means necessary -- perhaps even extra-constitutional means, though that remains a matter for debate.
Few Americans watched the SOTU and “Homeland” in the same evening. But all got a taste of this stark contrast in national narratives when they watched the evening news, where Obama had to share the headlines with an evildoer defeated in the mountains outside Los Angeles. Any TV news editor worth his or her professional salt would probably lead with the story of the dead LA ex-cop, not the SOTU. The battle of good against evil is the heart and soul of all television drama, even on the news.
Yet the utopian impulse can create great theater, too. After all, it rests on imagination and fantasy, which are the root not only of theater but of all entertainment. Utopia is only entertaining, though, if it offers a vision of a completely perfect world that can be attained some day, no matter how distant, without compromise.
Barack Obama would not give us that emotional satisfaction. Though the tone he set left an unmistakable sense of utopian aspiration, it remained nothing but a vague impression. Every time he approached the edge of utopia he backed away, as he always does, for the sake of “realistic” compromise with the GOP evildoers.
The question Obama's SOTU speech poses is whether the utopian impulse can be resurrected in a nation that has been gripped for so long by the drama of good against evil, a nation that has made the war against evildoers the essence of its national narrative.
Obama himself can never be the agent of utopia’s resurrection. When he leaves the rhetoric behind and actually has to make policy, he is too much of a pragmatic “realist.” But John F. Kennedy was certainly far from a true utopian either. And his rhetoric played a role -- a major role, some historians think -- in creating the brief era of the late 1960s, when the utopian impulse flourished throughout the land once again.
Of course JFK had MLK to do the heavy utopian rhetorical lifting. Dr. King echoed the faith of the Christian utopians of TR and Wilson’s day. Like them, he preached that some day evil will be overcome, not by war but by the reason and good will of humanity. No one can say how long it will take. The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice and the perfection of the beloved community.
Obama has no one with nearly the stature of MLK to offer such a message to America today. But his tantalizing hints of utopian visions and his insistence that they are very real possibilities -- indeed the only logical course any thoughtful person would pursue -- are now stamped with the presidential seal of approval.
When JFK set his presidential seal on similarly utopian words, no one could predict the radical effect his words would eventually have. It all depended on what millions of ordinary Americans -- especially young Americans -- made of those words. Will Obama’s words have a similar impact? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, to be written by we, the people.