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Panning for Pyrite on a Cold Day at the Mall
“The American way of life is not negotiable.”
GHW Bush, 1992
“The American way of life is non-negotiable.”
RB (“Dick”) Cheney, 2001
“We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense…”
BH Obama, 1/20/09
Barack Obama went to the mall in Washington, D.C. to give a speech. He brought his family. Powerful people sat behind him as he addressed his powerless fans. He wore a flag pin. He often invoked a certain jealous sky-god and directed “Him” to “bless America”: His first act as commander-in-chief.
The “soaring rhetoric” he deployed was then endlessly parsed by the chattering classes for hints of what it all might mean. Like ragged miners, sifting though gravely stream beds questing for shiny flecks of precious metals, they bent doggedly to their task.
But mostly Number 44 continued his announced strategy of being toweringly vague and allowing political consumers to project their dreams onto his “blank screen” (Audacity of Hope).
Typically, he demeaned much historical struggle and ideology as so many “petty grievances, false promises, … recriminations and worn-out dogmas.” He pledged to “set aside (these) childish things.” He never said which grievances he considered “petty” or which dogmas were “worn-out,” though he was very clear that the organized slaughter of ferocious military adventures past and present, and “freedom”- expanding “markets” were praiseworthy and very grown-up keepers indeed.
Mr. Obama described the current deflation-fest as “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some.” In the run-up to the inauguration there was much loose talk invoking the memory of FDR and even Lincoln as figures perhaps comparable to Number 44.
Contrasting inaugural addresses reveals something of an Obamian substance-gap. FDR didn’t blink at naming the economic malefactors in his first presidential speech. Referring to the financial wreckage of the 30s he was characteristically blunt: “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.” Mr. Roosevelt was evidently not given to Kumbaya singing. Or perhaps he was just pathetically lashed to the now happily outmoded “petty grievances, recriminations and dogmas” of his unenlightened time.
Mr. Obama repeatedly expressed his devotion to “the ideals of our forebears,” and “our founding documents.” So too, Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural was at pains to declare his dedication to First Principles. “I have no purpose,” he said, “directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
As he spoke, the forces of Civil War gathered. The secessionist Confederate States insisted on their white citizens’ sacred constitutional property right to own and traffic in other people. Lincoln continued, “There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:
‘No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.’”
As Daniel Lazare (The Frozen Republic) has convincingly demonstrated, slavery was so deeply imbedded in the country’s founding document, that nothing short of war and “setting aside” the constitution could bring it down. Lincoln had to retreat to the Declaration of Independence ( “Four score and seven years ago…”) in his 1863 Gettysburg Address to find some documentary rationale for ending chattel slavery. Cheap labor was (and is) as American as apple pie.
As uncivil butchery raged four years later, Lincoln’s second inaugural now bemoaned slavery and the (still) common practice of “wringing … bread from the sweat of other men’s’ faces.” But unlike today’s feel-good proto-fascists, The Great Emancipator described the war as a national atonement, even if “… it (should) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”
Obama’s fog-speak and serial evasions are no match for the powerful clarity of past presidents like Lincoln and FDR. Of course, their listeners and constituents brought expectations, not just hope for some hazily imagined deliverence to previous inaugural events.
It’s actually quite unlikely that the incoming Obama administration will differ radically from the Bush/Clinton/Bush regimes. The long-standing pursuit of cheap oil to fuel consumerism, sprawl, and metastatic growth — “The American way of life” — is famously non-negotiable. No candidate who thought otherwise could ever raise enough corporate money to buy his/her way into high office. It is, after all a pay-to-play system.
While Mr. Obama favors continued tax cuts for the rich, and “selflessness”/ “service” for everyone else, he is on the bipartisan track to “reforming” Social Security and Medicare. The New York Times reports that “overhauling Social Security and Medicare (will) be ‘a central part’ of his administration’s efforts to contain federal spending, signaling for the first time that he would wade into the thorny politics of entitlement programs.” (1/7/09)
Such buzz-killing plots were largely unmentionable in the BHO inaugural. Number 44 could summon blunt clarity only when it came to his willingness to wage traditional resource wars. The USA intends to have other peoples’ oil and labor at prices conducive to a sprawling Way Of Life. “We will not waver in its defense,” he said. And we will “outlast” anyone with other ideas.
In a speech littered with weasel words and fatuous fudge-factors, the new president was brutally candid on this central point; Mall America forever.
RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine.