Best Thing I’ve Read Since the Last Best Thing I Read

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.

Friersdorf’s response:

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.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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12 Responses to Best Thing I’ve Read Since the Last Best Thing I Read

  1. Huck says:

    With all due respect, Prof. Mondo, I think Obama understands America and Americans pretty darn well if you want to refer to the average person. You (and Friedersdorf) can read a (nearly) fascist meaning into what Obama was saying, but I think folks who don’t hold Ph.D.s or who haven’t studied closely the fine variations of governing ideologies such as totalitarianism, fascism, democracy, republicanism, corporatism, etc., will know exactly what Obama meant. He was saying (as he hinted at when he directly prefaced this part of his SOTU address when he noted that the soldiers on the Osama bin Laden mission were probably both Democrats and Republicans) that in spite of our differences, we all share what it means to be an American and that this matters (or should matter) when push comes to shove and the very idea of America is in question. In fact, I’ve even heard some conservatives make the point that when a foreigner seeks to demean our country’s President it doesn’t matter that we do it ourselves. We get to do it because we’re Americans, and it’s our birthright; but if some foreigner wants to do it, well then we’re going to stand with our President and defend what he represents as an American because it’s also a slight on us if we don’t. For instance, I may not have liked George Bush, and I may rail on him all the time, but I’ll be damned if I won’t come to Bush’s defense as an American when some foreign yahoo tries to belittle and demean him. That’s what Obama was conveying, and I think most Americans knew exactly that and agree with it. It has to do not with the messiness of difference, but with the commonality of our American identity.

    • profmondo says:

      I’m glad to hear that you’d rally even to W’s defense against an outsider — there’s the “family can pick on family” concept, which I agree with and think is good (despite Chesterton’s comment that “My country, right or wrong” is rather like “My mother, drunk or sober.”). But the fact that he decided to use the model of a military unit bonded for the sake of a mission carries certain freight, and I think Friedersdorf’s critique has merit, especially given the tendency we’ve seen on both left and right to try to “mobilize” the citizenry for causes ranging from a “War on Drugs” to a “War on Poverty.” As ever, thanks for dropping in!

      • Huck says:

        Of course referencing the military carries a certain freight; and I’d argue that’s precisely why conservatives are chafing at Obama’s use of it because, lest we forget, only conservatives get to use the military in any kind of analogous way to what a unified and patriotic American identity is or should be. Obama could have made the exact same point referring to the family, and no one would have ever said that he’s bordering on the fascistic or that he’s misunderstanding the essence of America. What seems to bother conservatives is that Obama deigned to use the military as frame of reference to make a simple point about America that even you agree with and think is good. So how is that somehow such a bad thing? Always a pleasure to drop in and read such good stuff! Hope your semester is off to a good start, in spite of the car snafu the other day.

      • profmondo says:

        The car’s much better — it was a wiring harness issue, and only set me back $159, including a $50 tow. Thanks for asking!

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  3. Fake Herzog says:


    I just stopped by your blog and will commit to being a regular — I like to read what the other side has to say and you seem like a reasonable guy who happens to have a liberal views 😉 As for this post, I think this is the key phrase from Conor’s original post:

    “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. ”

    Is it really true that Americans don’t share a common purpose? What about :

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”?

    So in one sense Conor is right — our common purpose is not quite as exact as the common purpose of a military raid — in another sense though, like many liberarians (and Jonah said he became more libertarian after writing his wonderful book) I think he is too quick to through the baby out with the bathwater. As you say, and as I was recently commenting on a different post on this site about my conservatism — I do think we are bound together by more than just the desire to be left alone by our friends, neighbors and our government (the standard libertarian position). I think we want to come together in communities for certain common ends — we disagree on those common ends, especially us conservatives and liberals — which is why I want a lot of room for us to live our lives in separate liberal and conservative communities (i.e. federalism). But I do think that as a country, we are Americans in a sense that Obama was trying to capture in his speech and I think he did so in the part that was quoted. In other words, when we come together and try to figure out economic or energy policy — we will always be squabbling liberals and conservatives. But when we come together to defeat a common enemy or to defend our core ideals, we are Americans — or as Obama famously said in his best speech in 2004, not red or blue Americans, but just Americans.

  4. arethusa says:

    Is it really possible to do this kind of analysis with a speech intended for political purposes? I am quite sure Obama doesn’t believe what he says here, based on his own past behavior, or that, if he does believe it, it is a belief he is willing to put aside for perceived political gain. I agree that it’s rhetoric that appeals to many Americans, but it seems to me the question of whether this accurately portrays the President’s view of America is beside the point.

  5. The problem is, we’ve got an awful lot of people walking around who are fair-weather friends to the majority viewpoint. That is, they like the rule that says 51 carry the day and 49 have to learn to live with it, if & only if they are assured that they’ll be part of the 51. Our incumbent President is emblematic of, and part of, this crowd.

  6. Chris says:

    It’s difficult to share what it means to be an American when this President is trying very hard to redefine that. It’s also difficult to come together in defense of the American dream when the attacks are coming from within.

    Frankly, there are plenty of people in this country that I don’t want anywhere near my back, thank you very much. I also don’t need a supportive collective to validate my choices.

  7. arethusa says:

    ProfM – Jonah Goldberg has a bit on this this morning:

  8. Jeff says:

    In addition to the fact that a SEAL team is hardly a model republic, the metaphor falls short in a bunch of other ways. It certainly doesn’t represent the federal government, where everyone is supposedly united in “public service”–but the careerists hate the political appointees, who hate the experts at the country desks; the Marines roll their eyes at the professional diplomats, who roll their eyes at Peace Corps volunteers; Commerce goes to bat against Interior on behalf of the Weather Service; Congress annually promotes hot-dog eating on behalf of the meat industry while sub-agencies in the executive branch scold Americans not to eat them…

    The system is complicated, contentious, petty, and frequently dysfunctional. it’s cynical for the head of the executive branch to suggest otherwise.

  9. Huck says:

    Everyone who has commented here has made some good points. All I would like to say in rebuttal is that Obama was using a military metaphor of a moment (i.e. the death of Osama bin Laden) that all Americans celebrated to a certain degree. And he did this not to convey a “fascist” vision of government, but simply to try to convey the commonality of what defines us as Americans, whether or not we viscerally disagree about the policies that should govern and guide our social contract. I think this was his intent and I think that average Americans with no “hate liberals and Obama at all costs” mindset would understand that listening to his SOTU address.

    I think ideology by rock-ribbed partisans clouds this understanding.

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