Friday, September 09, 2011


The Atlantic's Clive Crook generally liked the president's speech, but he objected to this:

In fact, this larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own -- that's not who we are. That's not the story of America.

Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world.

But there's always been another thread running throughout our history--a belief that we're all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

Crook's objection:

It's tired. It's beside the point. It moved the rhetorical focus from specific plans aimed at actual problems--challenging the GOP to explain its objections--to routine denunciation of caricature conservatism. For a moment it made the speech less urgent, and more overtly political. His accusation that conservatives are using the crisis to advance a bigger agenda is true, but instantly called to mind the White House's own declaration on that point (never let a crisis go to waste). Progressives had plenty of applause lines without this detour. For the wider electorate, I thought this subtracted rather than added.

Oh, yes, it's terrible and counterproductive to denounce "caricature conservatism" -- even now, when the "caricature" has stopped being one and is essentially photorealism.

Here's what's truly offensive about this: Crook is arguing that Obama shouldn't offer a contrasting narrative while Crook himself is demonstrating the success of the right's carefully cultivated, oft-repeated, and distorted narrative. The right-wing narrative is that the right is all that stands between ordinary Americans and the evil, devious mad scientists of the left, who impose their socialist/fascist policies on America out of a grotesque desire to dominate and enslave. (See "serfdom, road to.") That's why right-wingers endlessly quote Rahm Emanuel's line about never letting a crisis go to waste -- their point is that Democrats and liberals want to take advantage of crises (in the most pejorative sense of "take advantage") in order to put something over on people.

(If you want to see Emanuel's quote in context, go here, and note that Emanuel talks, among other things, about "ideas from both parties for the solution." He's not Vladimir freaking Lenin.)

By contrast, it's impossible to read about the notions presented at Koch brothers retreats, or in Rick Perry's book, or in Paul Ryan's budget, without thinking that the right absolutely does want to use shock-doctrine politics to dismantle twentieth-century programs and regulations that have made life better for ordinary Americans, all solely to make the rich even richer. And yet the right's intentions are seen by much of the electorate as well-meaning (cut wasteful spending! cut high taxes!), while liberals and Democrats are regarded by many as either crazy or malevolent.

If Obama's speech offered a different explanation for why government exists, and why advocates of social programs aren't dangerous lunatics, that was not just appropriate but vitally necessary. Maybe (as Matt Taibbi contends) such Obama rhetoric isn't often backed by genuine progressive action, but even so, it's good for America to hear it now. Much more, please.


On the other hand, I didn't like the "refrain" of the speech -- You should pass this jobs plan right away. James Fallows, also at The Atlantic, did like it, describing it as the kind of repeated phrase you get in revival-meeting sermons. Well, yeah, but it was a noodgy kind of refrain. "Must" is a compelling, hortatory word; "should" isn't.

I'm glad the latter part of the speech had less of this refrain and more of this:

Ask yourselves - where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn't had that chance?

Fallows liked that. Me too.