The State of the Union is not good:
- The United States pours $720 million a day into the furnace of war in Iraq — — that’s enough to pay for 12,000 new teachers or 35,000 scholarships to four-year colleges or the construction of 84 new elementary schools every day.
- As the only economically advanced country on earth that fails to guarantee health care to its citizens, the United States has created a system controlled by massive for-profit insurance corporations and giant pharmaceuticals, simultaneously delivering the best medical interventions possible to the fortunate few and a descending level of care down the economic ladder, impoverishing middle income people who have the misfortune of falling ill and leaving millions with no insurance at all and little access to the most basic care — a system where getting a joint replacement is the expected standard for some, while dying from an abscessed tooth is a routine possibility for others, a system that can transplant a heart but doesn’t have a heart.
- The income gap between white and black families is greater now than it was 40 years ago, and the gap between the richest and the poorest Americans is huge and accelerating.
- Mass incarceration — over 2.1 million of our fellow citizens are caged in America — and widespread disenfranchisement have become normalized and expected in this country. For example, a third of black men living in Alabama are disenfranchised and civically dead because of a drug conviction.
The picture is grim: Empire resurrected in the name of a renewed and powerful jingoistic nationalism; war without end; identification of opaque and ill-defined enemies as a unifying cause; unprecedented and unapologetic military expansion and militarism of the entire society; white supremacy essentially intact and unyielding; the entangling of religion with government; the shredding of constitutional rights, the casual disregard for human rights, and the systemic hollowing out of democracy; corporate power unchecked and the ideology of the market promoted as the only true expression of democracy; fraudulent elections; a steady drumbeat of public secrets — obvious lies issued by the powerful, like “we don’t torture,” whose purpose is both future deniability as well as evidence of power’s ability to have its way regardless of law or popular will; disdain for the arts and for intellectual life; the creation of popular movements based on bigotry, intolerance and the threat of violence, and the scapegoating of certain targeted and vulnerable groups. On a world scale dislocations and imbalances are endemic: 1% of the world’s richest people own 40% of the wealth while 50% of the world’s population controls only 10%. This is a recipe for continued violence and war and ongoing disaster, and while it may not be the whole story, it is without a doubt a bright thread that is both recognizable and knowable.
Now let’s take a trip through the looking glass to the upside down world of George Bush. In an address that sounded as if it had been crafted in some dark cubicle in the cellar of the Heritage Foundation, President Bush delivered a faith-based, fact-free speech rich in reactionary ideology but completely disconnected from the world we live in. The economy is fundamentally sound, we were told, peace is at hand, democracy is on the march, we’re the greatest country on earth. I was reminded of the legendary I. F. Stone’s fundamental principle as a reporter: assume that all governments lie most of the time. If you start there, you are at least forewarned as you struggle to get your bearings and figure out what’s actually going on.
But most of us don’t start there. We are too trusting, too credulous, too easily seduced into discussions set up with so that the conclusions are inevitable. Take the “war on terror.” The term is a metaphor constructed in the aftermath of the terrible crimes of September 11, but it wasn’t an inevitable choice. A different metaphor — a criminal justice metaphor, say – might have led to a different conclusion; after all if there’s a killing in Chicago, the cops question witnesses, gather evidence, pursue leads, focus energy and activity on finding the perpetrator. Perhaps the “war on terror” like “the war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” appealed simply because the rhetoric seems to stand for an all-out effort or a serious undertaking. But here the metaphor is brought to life through full-scale military invasions in Afghanistan to Iraq. The metaphoric bind is this: “the war on terror” can’t be won because it’s being fought against a tactic, perhaps a state of mind; the real wars in real countries are hard to stop because “the war on terror” is ongoing — it’s a war that is everywhere and nowhere at once, a war whose conclusion no one can describe with any confidence. As soon as we begin to discuss “the war on terror” we are trapped in a lie.
Or take health care: if the controlling metaphor is that health care is a product much like a television set, then our current system makes some sense — it taps into deeply held cultural beliefs about individual responsibility and choice and cost. But if the analogy shifts, if health care begins to be discussed more and more widely as a universal human right, like the right to an education or to public safety, then other deeply held beliefs — about fairness and shared community responsibility — move to the front.
President Bush styles himself the education president, and touts his attachment to standards and accountability, to trusting students to learn, to empowering parents to make choices, and to introducing market metaphors in the discussion of public schools. Here again he has proven himself the master of the metaphoric battle — enter his framing of the discussion about standards and accountability and feel the ground shift, the slippery slope toward privatization just ahead — but his efforts have been a catastrophe for students and families and teachers in schools. His overall grade is an “F.”
A basic tenet of democracy, as W.E.B DuBois argued, is that the ultimate authority on any individual’s hurt or desire is the individual himself or herself. Education in a democracy demands equity, access, and an acknowledgment of the humanity of each person. The job of schools is to stimulate latent interests, desires, and dreams that cause people to question, to challenge, to criticize, and to act. Obedience and conformity are enemies of democracy; initiative and courage are its hallmarks.
The right wing attack on public education has taken many forms: an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests as a measure of intelligence and accomplishment; the elevation of zero tolerance as a cultural weapon used to sort students into winners and losers; and the widespread use of the market metaphor to judge school effectiveness. This campaign never raises the issue of fair funding, of equal access, of generous pay for teachers, of rebuilding dilapidated schools, of encouraging students to ask their own questions in pursuit of their own goals. It’s a campaign aimed at destroying public schools.
The State of the Union address was a theater of the grotesque; a long line of marionettes on a string, jerked periodically from their seats, heads bobbing, faces twisted into perverse smiles, hands clapping, while the Marine chant – hoo-AH, hoo-AH– pierced the air. It was mesmerizing. The death march on display.