Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The exceptional state of the union

Perhaps the President has been stung by Republican accusations that he does not believe in American exceptionalism: the belief that America is unlike, and superior to, every other nation on earth. Perhaps he was simply using good communication skills to keep his audience cheering at the nation's annual pep rally. Whatever his motivation, American exceptionalism was a recurring theme in last night's State-of-the-Union speech.

What helps to set us apart as a nation, according to Mr. Obama? Well, there's our remarkable diversity, and our willingness to fight for our beliefs, and our successful businesses and world-renowned universities, and our creativeness and eagerness to do big things. We are inspired by the American Dream: our belief that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny, that anything is possible no matter who we are or where we come from. And because we're so outstanding, we are a light to the world: we provide a moral example of freedom, justice, and dignity, and we influence other nations to move toward peace and prosperity. That's why, the President said, "there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth."

Not, of course, that we don't have problems. As Mr. Obama pointed out, our educational system continues to lag: many schools have low expectations and low performance, a quarter of our students drop out of high school; other nations surpass us in math and science and have a higher percentage of young people earning a college degree. Our infrastructure is crumbling: South Korea has better internet access than we do; Russia and many European countries invest more in roads and railways; China has faster trains and newer airports. Our finances are in trouble: we have a mountain of debt along with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world.

But we can get past these problems and stay Number One! We can, in Mr. Obama's words, "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world"! We did it 50 years ago when we thought the Russians might surpass us in space exploration. Let's do it again, this time by improving education, government, business, the infrastructure! (Oh, and by the way, sustaining the American Dream has always demanded sacrifice and struggle. We're going to have to take responsibility for the deficit. We'll need to make painful cuts to decrease debt. But enough with the gloom ... ) If we can dream it, we can do it!

I appreciate the President's faith in our country's traditional ideals. I am grateful that he appealed to Democrats and Republicans to work together to achieve them. I agree that the government needs to encourage innovation, reform education, and rebuild the infrastructure. I understand why he invoked American exceptionalism - national self-esteem - to motivate us.

But I am sorry he did not say more about the sacrifice and struggle we will all soon be facing.

By freezing spending, he told us, we can reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade. Good start, Mr. President, but our national debt is over $14 trillion - that's nearly $130,000 per taxpayer - and growing larger every second. Our exceptional country has already mismanaged its finances so badly that, no matter what the government does now, most of us are going to have to seriously trim our lifestyles in the coming years. Some of us will face real poverty. At nearly 10 percent, our unemployment rate already surpasses that of most European Union countries. Housing prices appear to be falling yet again. State governments are deeply in debt. Our largest generation is starting to apply for Medicare. Yet Mr. Obama spoke only passingly of  sacrifice, and his two Republican responders mentioned it not at all.

American exceptionalism is good when it increases our love for our country, when it reminds us of our founders' vision, when it drives us to increase opportunity and respect human dignity. It is dangerous when it allows us to ignore reality and hope for magical solutions where only sacrifice and hard work will do the job. Our world has seen many proud nations and empires; today most of them lie in ruins. In "Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind," American poet Carl Sandburg paints a bleak picture of those forgotten places, now overrun by rats, lizards, and crows. Once, like us, they were powerful and rich. Once, like us, they sang:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.


David Neff said...

Thanks for reminding us of those Sanburg lines. Not sure I've heard them since college. Still sobering, though.

dr. darrell a. harris said...

I've never read the Sanburg but will find and read immediately.

Sounds like you and Ben Stein assessed the speech in roughly the same ways, though your remarks were kinder and gentler. But same deadly serious message.

Lord, have mercy~

JohnM said...

The problem with Americans, the reason we have a 14 trillion dollar debt, is not so much owing to an exaggerated sense of greatness as an exaggerated sense of entitlement. The speech we heard last night, like any other political speech, was just playing to that.