State of the Union: Things Obama Did Not Have to Say — But Did Anyway

The president’s State of the Union Speech was – at long last – the one I wanted him to give. It went after the very poison that has so sickened the United States of America. His call for us to shake off the Cult of Future-Hatred, indulged in by both right and left, was about urging us to start looking forward again, instead of to some mythically better past.

Clearly, Barack Obama does not expect that to happen through a sudden coming-together in unity and courtesy.  (He did ask for those things, but we know that asking will not make them happen). For those those demanding accountability for the greedocracy of a looming oligarchy he had only incremental steps toward transparency. And, while the President pointed out the hypocrisy of Teaparty “deficit fighters,” who plunged the nation into tsunamis of red ink during their watch, in the name of disproved Voodoo Economics, he did so in fairly gentle terms. For one simple reason.

Because none of these side-skirmishes are where the real battle lies.

As I’ve said for months, for years, the real agenda of the neoconservative movement – its one consistent theme – has been to wage bitter war against nearly all centers of American expertise.

You may have only heard of one part of this campaign — the relentless and undeniable Republican War on Science, now so blatant that Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh have all taken to deriding “scientists” as a universally-damned caste, no longer even applying qualifiers or conditionals! It’s become so flagrant that – whereas twenty years ago thirty percent of U.S. scientists registered republican – now, according to the AAAS and the Pew Research Foundation, only 5% cling to their old political loyalties with the GOP. Many remain “conservative” over matters of fiscal or foreign policy, but none can any longer abide an all-out, Know Nothing campaign against fact-based reason.

Is this why I applauded, so heartily, the president’s repeated references to science, technological leadership, innovation, education and bold entrepreneurship, in his State of The Union address? To renew that post-Sputnik spirit — the fierce dedication-to-curiosity that forged the keel of our prosperity and success?  Of course it was.

It reminded me of the moment I liked best, back on election night in 2008, when Obama’s victory speech resonated in so many ways… but I kept aloof from the regular, ringing rhetoric, listening not for the words that he had to say, but those that he inserted wholly on his own account.

(Try to develop this habit. It can be illuminating!)

We expected him to endorse all the requisite motherhood and apple-pie phrases… some of them universal, or pan-american and some blandly liberal.  You know, likeunity, brotherhood, responsibility and – yes, hope. Yada. Good things. And totally expected.

But when he spoke of a nation propelled forward by curiosity… that was what I had been listening for.  It wasn’t a word on anybody’s requisite political litany or list of necessary catch phrases. It was not compelled by politics, polemic or audience expectations, nor by tradition or dire need. Nobody even commented on it, in all the speech postmortems. It was there simply because Barack Obama thought that it ought to be.

A nation propelled forward – in part – by curiosity.  In 2008, it was a drop-in hint.  Last night, it was the central theme!

Moreover, Make no mistake, it was militant. They were fighting words. For, I was watching closely, and every single time that Barack Obama referred glowingly to science, or innovation, or entrepreneurial boldness, you could see the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, grimace or frown a little deeper, making clear that this is precisely where our deepest battle will take place. Not across fictional gaps in a mythical and stupidly misleading so-called “left-right political axis.” But across a chasm between those dedicated to the past and those eager for the future.

Let’s be plain: I would have liked the speech even better, had President Obama directly challenged Congress to perform an act of good faith, by restoring the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), and other independent advisory boards that were wiped out during Republican control, when they decided to dispense with the inconvenience of reality checks from even the most studiously impartial and nonpartisan commissions.  Not having restored the OTA, when she had the chance, counts as my biggest grudge against former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama should have demanded this, and dared the GOP to justify its refusal.

Yet, this is about so much more than science and technology.  Last night’s speech hinted that the President at last understands; the “war on science” is only the most blatant, surface manifestation of a general campaign against all of our professional castes.

Name one that isn’t under fire from the new-right! Scientists, teachers, university professors, attorneys, civil servants, diplomats, journalists… heck even cops! And yes, if you have watched carefully, or know anything about the “miracle of 2006”– even the brilliant men and women of the United States Military Officer Corps have been under assault, for years.

Why? Why has such a broad campaign to discredit (almost) every highly skilled and educated expert class become the centerpiece of conservatism?  A hijacked version of conservatism that has Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave?  You have only to look at the few centers of elite expertise that have been left alone! Those that are spared this all-out onslaught. The financial industry, industry lobbyist associations, and the hyper-rich.

A select group who are spared attack by Fox News. Now why would these groupswant to fund propaganda aimed at undermining all other intellectual elites? Unless… in order to the power of those with the skill and fact-based knowledge to notice and point fingers at outright lies….?

Hm… well… maybe we can analyze that another time.  For now, let’s get back to the speech.

I had one proud moment when I heard the president drop in another of those “he did NOT have to say that!” lines. There was one sentence, while he discussed our need to improve American schools, when Obama mentioned something that our schools do better than any others on the planet. Do you recall what it was?  Did any of you catch it? Even briefly?

I doubt one pundit in a hundred  noticed.  But it is something that we do SO well that  Education Ministries in Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing send out hundreds of minions, every year, re-training teachers to instruct their classes in a more American manner!

Boldness, confidence, creativity, and unabashed willingness to question.  These are traits that American schools (and parents) encourage very well! They are not easily measured by standardized tests, so they do not get mentioned in the news, nor do they become the fodder for hand-wringing political diatribes. But, at last, I have seen one politician notice! Moreover, it is important. In order to improve, it is necessary to grasp what you are doing right, as well as what’s wrong.

Do I expect this speech to make much difference? Indeed, was it even worth the time I spent writing about it?

Not really.  Certain parties in high places, not just in America but in foreign lands, have already chosen to re-ignite Phase Three of the American Civil War. We are in it, right now, 150 years after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. (Which happened ten years after the Civil war actually began, in 1850. Ask me later.) When things have gone that bad, one doesn’t hold out much hope for transformation emerging out of a single speech.

But at a time when all forms of expertise and skill and knowledge are the chief victims and targets in a bilious civil war, and when science is the paramount enemy – openly declared – of a faction that wants us to turn our backs upon tomorrow… any talk of “winning the future” is welcome, indeed.

—-  FOLLOWUP —

“During an appearance with Greta Van Susterin on Fox News, Sarah Palin criticized Obama for referencing Sputnik during the State of the Union, because she believes that Sputnik brought down communism. She said, “Yeah, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time, that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.” Yep, Sarah confused the space race with the arms race.”

Please, go read the article.  See what she said. Does it get any plainer than this? Choose tomorrow.

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2 Comments

Filed under politics, science

2 responses to “State of the Union: Things Obama Did Not Have to Say — But Did Anyway

  1. What you endorse here is exactly what our educational system needs to promote–curiosity–but that, along with critical thinking, is hard work. The majority of my students have never read a book of their own choosing and get annoyed with me when I won’t give them a limited number of simple rules for receiving an A in my class. One recently dropped because I couldn’t promise her that grade, feeling that since everyone in the past had given her one, I ought to do so as well.

    When I was in elementary school, I felt a heavy pressure to silence my own curiosity. I don’t know that every person is born with an equal drive to learn, but certainly a school that squashes, rather than rewards, that drive, only a few will keep it. By the time that students reach me–college level composition and literature–they have been indoctrinated into fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice thinking.

    That approach is easier for teachers who have bulging classes and intrusive administrators to deal with. We can build conspiracy theories about an intentional program to mechanize and thereby destroy education, but the simpler answer is that we follow the path of least resistance. Doing a good job educating our citizens requires money and work.

    That being said, I’m with you in demanding it. We’ll get the educational system and the government that we deserve, and I hope that we make ourselves worthy of better.

  2. To students of history, it appears that we are watching the second coming of the Know-Nothing party. Just as was the case with the original party, they are concerned by technology-driven changes in society, are afraid of the power of new immigrants, and are not afraid to push the limits of civility as they push their populist agenda. Fundamentally, their base believes that an uninformed opinion is as good as a trained interpretation and better than any number of data sets.

    The last time that they were in power, the Know-Nothings stopped construction on the Washington Monument and tried to take over Congress and the Executive Branch. With any luck, this time they won’t even get that far.

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