Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Speechy, Preachy, Not-Quite-Peachy

Last night, I watched the State of the Union, as well as the Republican response. I will admit, at times, when it all felt a little too thick to spoon through, I switched over to The Fantastic Four for a few seconds at time. A superhero movie—any superhero movie—sometimes feels more realistic than political rhetoric; I doubt anyone suspected that watching a group of radiated super-scientists would seem grounding, as compared to listening to chatter about education reform, when they made that film. Who am I kidding? I'm a sucker for Ioan Gruffudd—he's Welsh and he plays the oboe, so his cool points are through the roof in my ledger. Mister Fantastic, indeed.

I'm also a sucker for a good speech, given by a good speaker, in particular. I love feeling out the rise and the fall of the words. I'm always impressed with a genuine comic relief moment, which you almost never see in a State of the Union—last night's "call your mother" seemed to hit the non-partisan funny bone. Libertarian or socialist, trust me, your mom wants you to call her more often.

What struck me this year, more than the specific policy points—some that made me want to cheer, others that made me highly skeptical—was the intractability of the politics. I get it, if you are in the opposition, you don't stand or clap much. If you are on the speaker's side, you clap and make a spectacle. Okey-dokey. But so many of the items mentioned, both in the speech and in the response, were simply ideals, not even plans—don't we all hold most of those ideals? I mean, does anyone want people who work full-time to live in poverty? People with pre-existing conditions to lose out on health care? Soldiers to go into unnecessary battles? Are those really partisan moments?

And yet, I'll admit, independent-with-liberal-leanings me, sat there unable to see how individuals with the opposing view point could respond/propose as they did. It's not that I can't understand the nuts and bolts of their proposals—although neither side provided much of that last night—it's that I can't understand their underlying values. In all the political rhetoric that has become so commonplace that we don't even register it anymore, there is the recurring theme: we all believe in the same values as Americans, we just don't have the same tactics to achieve our goals. 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers stated as much at the top of the GOP response:

"Tonight the president made more promises that sound good, but won't solve the problems actually facing Americans. We want you to have a better life. The president wants that, too. But we part ways when it comes to how to make that happen."

President Obama called out several shared American values throughout his address, stating (as we almost always do, no matter which party represents our views) that these are common among all Americans:

"[Millions of Americans outside Washington] believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That’s what drew our forebears here."

"And we do [kindness overseas/cultural and economic alliances] because we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation."

"But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress—to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen."

As I listen to political speeches, though, and I watch the response from both sides to the messages, what I come away more and more is that there is no such thing as "all-American"values, as there are no core values that everyone in America shares with equal fervor, or in equal proportion. There is no correct, one-size-fits-all formula for being American, at least where values are concerned.

This came up a lot when I was studying health care policy in grad school: one of my profs posited that as soon as you accept the idea that freedom and equality—both critical, core values of America—are in opposition to each other, and require a constant give and take, sacrifice and gain, etc., you can understand how any policy can get either enacted or stalled in the legislature. I had managed to study political science as one of my undergraduate majors, do a certificate of political study in France, and live in DC for nearly a decade, without ever really confronting that thought. These American values of ours aren't harmonious. In my youth, I had wrapped every value in the flag, thinking of them as a set of beautiful crayons that all mixed together to make the lovely tapestry that is America. I had never thought of them as elements like wind, fire, water, and earth, all critical, but some playing nicer in collaboration with each other than others.

I woke up this morning with post-SOTU bureaucracy hangover, knowing that I should be grateful for the many ways that Americans think and feel, believe and act, etc., but actually just wishing we could all agree about more than just how much we love our generalized Americanness and get some stuff done. At mid-day, when I picked up my book club's next February selection, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America I was actually relieved. This book had gotten a lot of press, and quite honestly, what I had heard on the radio and read in the paper had not made me want to purchase it. Within a few pages of the introduction, however, there it was: the difference in values has been here from the start, and it isn't simply split along party lines, it's split among them, across them, and within them, across regional groups that range from those who value you education/government intervention, to those founded by landed gentry who embraced a slave economy, to anti-government religious freedom-seekers who were skeptical of laws, but highly communal. 

In short, if we are living out our deep, American roots, we have no hope of ever truly having all the same values. Contrary to what we hear in speeches, it may, in fact, be easier to agree on the nuts and bolts stuff than the core, underlying beliefs driving those policies.

It will be interesting to see what else I take from this author's work; what I do know, now, though, is that agreeing to disagree—not just in practice, but in thinking/feeling/believing/knowing/living—may be the most American value of them all.

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