Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
At the outset it is important to recognize that the State of the Union is more about theatrics than anything approximating the actual status of the country. The speech is mainly an opportunity for a President to give a highly publicized speech, and when the president is quite talented at delivering speeches (see: President Obama) it is an opportunity that will not be missed. Yet, the State of the Union is mainly a time for self-congratulating (“look at the things my administration has accomplished!”), gentle scolding (“Congress should actually try to accomplish something”), broad goals for the year ahead (“we need to focus more attention on this important issue”), and of course numerous charming tales of ordinary people (just like us!) whose lives have become nice anecdotes to colorfully illustrate a talking point.
For the most part the State of the Union was exactly what one expected, and even if the President did strike a strong tone when discussing inequality his words appear almost quaint in comparison to the recent comments on the same topic from a raging old leftist. No, not Pete Seeger. Pope Francis.
While some (myself included) may have wondered whether or not President Obama would mention Pete Seeger in the speech, the omission was not particularly surprising. The decision by a President who is continually (albeit absurdly) deemed a “socialist” by his political opponents to not mention a folksinger who really was (at least for much of his life) a socialist is understandable. Besides, Seeger’s life was one that was consistently defined by protest and radical politics. Ethical stances on Seeger’s part saw him continually standing up for social justice even when his politics landed him before the HUAC, where his refusal to plead the Fifth Amendment resulted in his being held in contempt of Congress. Granted, one needs only glance at current approval ratings of the US Congress to see that a majority of Americans currently find Congress quite contemptible.
Nevertheless, the point is simple: amidst a speech where the President attempts to reassure Americans that there is no reason to take to the streets and protest it is unwise to dwell upon the life of a man whose life was defined by protest, and giving people good songs to sing while protesting. It may well be that the foundation for President Obama to speak about economic inequality was developed by activists protesting around those issues in the last few years (insofar as such protests helped put the topic of economic inequality into the mainstream political discussion). Yet President Obama’s speech – for all its anecdotes – remained one in which people were generally encouraged to trust in the government.
Which is precisely why this year’s State of the Union seemed like such an absurd display. It was not as though President Obama was going to use the speech as an opportunity to say: “let’s face it the State of our Union is divided, unequal, beset by corporate malfeasance, and en route for environmental calamity,” but the upbeat tone of this speech is worth contrasting to another recent speech that President Obama delivered. The other speech having come in response to one of the issues that has repeatedly come up in political discourse this year (no matter how much politicians [in both parties] and the media want the story to go away). This is the case of the NSA’s massive surveillance program, about which there were fresh revelations the day before the State of the Union (revealing how the NSA soaks up data from innocuous seeming apps and games [like Angry Birds]).
It is easy to joke that if one wants to really know the State of the Union one only needs to FOIA the NSA; though the humor is (of course) that such a joke reveals that in the last year we learned more about the state of the union from a whistle-blower turned fugitive, than we would ever learn in a sanitized speech. The state of our union is “under surveillance” (though in fairness, as Bernie Sanders [I-VT] seems to have learned, this includes those in Congress too).
While it is true that the President did mention his commitment to reforming these surveillance programs, the comment was made in such a passing fashion that the single sentence served more to highlight the fact that he was not going to talk about the NSA than to remind people of his commitment to introduce largely cosmetic reforms. That the last year was filled with stories of government surveillance made easy through new technologies strikes a particularly odd note when one considers how technology and in particular new technology was continually held up in the speech as the path forward for the US even as it becomes ever more evident that the machines are not our friends.
Technology was continually discussed in the State of the Union if rarely put in terms that truly considered it as such. From mentioning the need for new manufacturing which has been undercut by (technological) automation, to describing the pursuit of natural gas (accessed through complex technological practices), to emphasizing the saving and resurgence of American automakers (machines on wheels), to insuring broadband in schools, to discussing the prevalence of the 2nd amendment machines (guns) that have resulted in no shortage of tragedies in the last year, to the comical failure of a computerized system that led to the Affordable Care Act getting off to a farcical start – technology was everywhere in the speech. Whether it be the metastasizing surveillance state, the encroachment of automation into seemingly safe professions, or the environmental piper of industrialized capitalism calling for payment, we are seeing that the state of our union has gone through a technological wringer. And it has come out looking none to promising.
To continue offering technological solutions to our machine wrought maladies is swiftly becoming not simply an intellectual failing, it is increasingly becoming an ethical failure as well.
And yet, to discuss NSA surveillance would have been a downer in what is supposed to be an upbeat speech. Similarly to dwell on the recent corporate chemical spill that poisoned West Virginia’s water supply, would also have been a downer. A speech that is meant to rouse confidence should not be peppered with too many details that make people question the rosy tone, and political leaders in positions of power rarely tell the people that the State of the Union is one of extreme precariousness. It is easy to speak of inequality, to praise health care reform, to state that one cares about the environment and education, but what is not easy is to look at those same issues and frankly declare to the citizenry “the state of our union, indeed the state of our world, is in trouble.” After all, that would be a different speech, one that would not occur at the State of the Union or in the approved of response (except insofar as the official response is a chance for the opposition to tell horror stories as blandly self-serving as the anecdotes that fill the former’s speech).
The State of the Union had no surprises in it, and it is pointless to expect much from such a speech. Yet, the reminder of what the state of the union really is and what it could be was not delivered by a politician (it never is) but in the tributes that were issued in memoriam to Pete Seeger. For the songs that Seeger wrote and helped popularize – from “We Shall Overcome” to “If I had a Hammer” – were always a committed call to one and all that the state of our union may not be particularly strong, it may be rife with inequality and injustice, but we can overcome the challenges with which we are confronted.
Not by trusting in politicians giving applause filled speeches.
But by trusting in each other.
[Note – the picture at the top of this post is actually from President Obama’s 2011, State of the Union]