Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic puts in his take on last night’s
clip show SotU, and while I don’t go for everything he says, I think he makes an interesting point toward the end. He quotes the President:
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job — the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
This is deeply wrongheaded.
Yes, we’re bound together as Americans in certain tasks, like defending the homeland and seeing that those who cannot care for themselves are provided with what they need. And there is agreement on certain broad goals: better educated children, safer infrastructure, etc. But a nation of 300 million free people doesn’t share a common purpose, nor should it; government’s role is to facilitate our ability to live as we see fit, not to bind us together like Navy SEALs on a military raid ordered up by our commander-in-chief. This nation is great because it affords such a diverse polity the opportunity to pursue happiness, not because “we built it together.”
(We didn’t in fact build it together.)
How can Obama say that the Bin Laden mission “only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back,” and add, “so it is with America”? It just isn’t that way with America. Lots of people within our polity mistrust one another, as is inevitable; in the post-WWII period of prosperity that Obama earlier invoked, there was segregation and the Red Scare and all manner of Americans short on mutual trust, and while there isn’t anything wrong with calling for less unfounded paranoia, positing that only a trusting nation can succeed fundamentally misunderstands our past and our future.
The strength of our system — the free markets, the best of our regulations, our very culture — is that it brings about progress even if the leader doesn’t himself know what energy investments will pay off; if we maintain the system, we’ll prosper even if the federal government doesn’t adeptly line up the economically efficient community college training program with the right applicant and employer; folks will find jobs even if we never develop the single perfect web site for job searches; we’ll thrive even if our diverse passions and values create mistrust and infighting.
What I hear (and what I suspect Friedersdorf may hear), is the President’s effort to give his agenda a boost by invoking a militaristic solidarity in the name of some “moral equivalent of war”, a term the President didn’t use, but which the rhetoric seems to suggest — call it the emanation of a penumbra, if you like. At this point, I’ll turn to a 2008 column from the Major (Ret.)’s favorite columnist, covering some ground he explores in more detail in his book:
Ever since philosopher William James coined the phrase “moral equivalent of war,” self-described progressives have sought to galvanize the masses for collective purposes. They have loved the idea of war-without-war precisely because they want a public that follows in lockstep and individuals who will sacrifice their personal ambitions for the “greater good.” This is what John Dewey, James’s disciple, called the “social benefits of war.” Dewey, later a famous pacifist, supported WWI because he believed it would usher in an age of collectivism and crush laissez-faire capitalism.
The yearning for a moral equivalent of war is an understandable desire, perhaps even noble in its intent. But it is not democratic. It is fundamentally authoritarian[.]
And indeed, we have here a leader who encourages us to unify under a militaristic, authoritarian model (an interesting inversion of e pluribus unum) for a domestic agenda. What could he use as a symbol? Perhaps a bundle of sticks, which bound together is stronger than any individual stick? Meh… I think it’s been done.
I don’t really think the President is a fascist — but I do think Friedersdorf has a point in the title of his article. I think there are things the President fails to understand about the nature of the American idea. Last night was just the latest example.