David Hume wondered how it is that the many come to be governed by the few—it seems more logical that it should be the other way around. He came to the conclusion that it was elite opinion, disseminated by “the pulpit and the schoolroom” (he was writing in the eighteenth century, after all) that dictated the intellectual boundaries for acceptable political debate.
Today it’s the media, not the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has the ear, or more accurately the eye, of the masses. And the “media” is in large part controlled by corporations, who are in turn controlled by quasi-stateless bands of hypercapitalists—the same hypercapitalists who own our elected officials, in fact. And so political debate is inevitably constrained from both ends.
So, the details of the military budget can’t be discussed with any kind of transparency. The corporate economy is sacrosanct. Only recently has the entirely reasonable idea of reparations actually come to be taken seriously, thanks to the genius diplomacy journalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Instead, we the audience are usually asked to focus on emotionally hot issues like the outrageous behavior of celebrities, and the coolest newest gadgets for sale. Distractions to distract us from distractions, to paraphrase Eliot.
Such was the case Tuesday in President Obama’s performance of the State of the Union Address. He spoke with metaphors of our great “American family,” veneration for the “best of America” as represented by the military service academies, pleas for bipartisanship, promises of technological innovation, and of course, the folksy asides (the highlight of the night was the “shade in chief” moment) that have come to epitomize the very essence of American politicking.
When he wasn’t giving us fluff, he was serving up clichés. Obama emphasized education, calling for two years of free community college—as if an army of 100 million armed with associate degrees in Business Administration will be able to wrest control of the nation’s finances from the 1 percent who own it. Education (all of which should be free, at every level, for everyone) has always been a tired liberal tool to level the economic playing field. The G.I. Bill gets credited a lot in speeches and debates for creating the American middle class, but remember that servicemen returned from the Second World War with not only college funds, but vibrant unions that had already been fighting to build a middle class since the outset of industrialization.
The only real surprise to me was how often Obama talked about foreign policy. I expected him to pat himself on the back for (sort of) ending combat operations in Afghanistan. But no, he went even further, and praised military victories over ISIS, while simultaneously bragging about not being “hot-headed” or engaging the military in foreign adventurism. “The American people only expect us to go to war as a last result, and I intend to stay true to that principle,” he said.
Daniel Larison writing at The American Conservative responded by making the point that “The U.S. didn’t go to war in Libya as a last resort. Nor has the war against ISIS been waged as a last resort. Nor would airstrikes on Syria in 2013 have been launched as a last resort.” Obama likes to present himself as a noninterventionist, but he really only is when compared to the hegemon of hawks nesting in the District.
Merely taking Obama’s proposals as they are reveals that he still wants our military (and its drones) engaged in most places in the world, to posture proactively with Russia and China, and even to give future dictators military training. It is true that he wants to close GITMO, and to stop torturing people, so I’m inclined to say, “Well, at least there’s that.” But then I believe I’d be engaging in what W. called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
In his 1975 essay “State of the Union,” Gore Vidal wrote:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party…and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt…and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
President Obama seems perfectly well intentioned (he used the word “transgender” in his address, which was an historic first), but he still belongs to Vidal’s Property Party, and so we really can’t expect too much. He is constrained by the vagaries of circumstance, just like us, and no one person can radically alter business as usual in America—especially if that one person is already at the top.