I did not watch the speech, that’s not possible here at my house, but I read it. I actually read all of it, but ran out of enthusiasm at paragraphs number five and six. That’s what, maybe 5% into the thing? I struggled through the rest, but my heart wasn’t in it. This is where he lost me;
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.
We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.
One must expect a certain amount of flag-wagging and nostalgia on occasions like this; tradition demands it, and it would be political suicide, almost, if such seasonings were noticeably missing.
But this is unconscionably dishonest bullshit. There was a piece in the Guardian the other day which attempted to make the same analogy between today’s situation and the immediate post-WW2 period, and it was a crock of shit then just as was last night. An entire dissertation awaits somebody, one day, on the subject of why this is so.
The problem is not that any reference to that period is invalid or worthless, far from it. The problem is that the framework used in the reference is all wrong. It is entirely what one might expect from the atavists on the right – a clarion call to renew ourselves through a determined and heroic effort modeled on the past. Navigation into the future, therefore, through the rear-view mirror.
It is indeed true that the generation which emerged from World War Two, the biggest public works program in the history of human affairs, did build “the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.” But they were starting from an entirely different baseline, and moving forward into an entirely different set of conditions than those that face us today.
This was a period that in many ways was the polar opposite of the conditions today. Millions of people had money burning a hole in their pockets from the savings accumulated through years of full employment in war industry – money yearning for a consumer market that had been suppressed by switching from domestic production to weapons production.
An entire continent, Europe, was basically a pile of rubble, including its industrial base, and the US was the only intact modern economy in the world, with an unrivaled manufacturing capacity. A ready-made mountain of consumer demand. This extended the playing field for the US to literally global proportions, with a permanent military presence in almost every corner of the world, and provided virtually unlimited access to copiously available, thus cheap, materials and resources – energy, various ores, rubber – you name it.
The point here is that given that baseline, it would have been surprising indeed if the US had not exploded into the “the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.” It’s not easy to imagine how it could have been avoided in such circumstances, and to place the credit wholly and exclusively on political conditions and work ethic, or the (unstated but palpable) implication of “American Exceptionalism”, is fundamentally dishonest and diversionary. The truth is more like this; we had a lucky geographical break in that we weren’t bombed to rubble and thus were positioned by serendipity to be a nation-state with an unassailable head start over everyone else.
It’s not that the goals articulated in the extract from the President’s speech are awry, they are not. The problem is that the real lessons from any comparisons to the post-WW2 years is being missed. It’s not the similarities that are important, they are few, it’s the differences in baseline conditions.
“Control of our own energy” has a wonderful ring to it. Indeed, it has such a powerful emotional effect that Obama now becomes another in an unbroken line of Presidents since Nixon who have employed it. All of them.
He also becomes yet another in a line of Presidents who have declined to spell out how it could be done. This is because it can’t be done, at any rate not by simply addressing the supply side. One President only took the risk of attempting to be honest about energy – Carter – and he was so successfully eviscerated politically that we’re not going to get another President make that mistake anytime soon.
“Security and prosperity (that) aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world” sounds wonderful too, and resonates with people. But in the context of comparisons to the 1950′s it’s misleading. It was precisely the geopolitics of that period which tied us so firmly to those parts of the world in the first place! Now if this or any other President is advocating that we begin to undo those knots, then fine, but how? Fossil fuels are still the name of the game here and everywhere. No other energy source is so powerfully versatile, all modern economies depend upon it almost totally, and no competitor is in the pipeline that can come close to its performance characteristics.
The tragedy here, and it will become more and more apparent for ensuing generations that it is indeed a tragedy, is that a real-world opportunity has again been missed to emphasize the differences in planetary conditions between now and then.
It is of course inevitable that such an opportunity was missed. It remains politically impossible to discuss planetary reality, and in this context as in so many others, “politically impossible” means simply that entrenched economic power doesn’t want it. Indeed they spend prodigious amounts of money promoting the notion that none of this “planetary imperative” hippie bullshit is real. It is not a coincidence that the right is deploying a full court press to trivialize science.
What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.
No. What matters now are planetary values. There are places where planetary values and American values intersect, and places where they most definitely do not. And we have yet another President who either does not know, or for political reasons dare not articulate, the differences. Either way the end result will be the same. We go downhill until we get this right, and we’re not there yet.