In Edward Bond’s play, “Early Morning,” which I saw at the Royal Court Theater in London, in, I believe, the fall of 1969, or possibly the months following, Florence Nightingale steps out on a darkened stage and says to the effect of, ”My God, I’ve been raped by Queen Victoria!” The English had a directness, at least in 1968-9 (when I returned home I discussed this with John Lahr who was championing Joe Orton) altogether lacking today, especially in America, whether in the theater or, my concern here, politics, to be exact, Barack Obama, whom, though I’m not a dramatist, I see, in my mind’s eye, metaphorically, of course, raping the Statue of Liberty, a stand-in for raping the American people. Too harsh? Poor taste? Sure, but nonetheless imperative to be spoken—with this qualification. If we were translating rape into political-structural terms, this could be shorthand for fascism. Obama does not quite get that far—yet; so, for the sake of verisimilitude (even drama has its standards of historical accuracy), we must qualify this to say, from Statue of Liberty to American people, or whatever, not vaginal penetration (or its male equivalent—I am no authority!), but extensive foreplay, shorthand therefore for proto-fascism. Serious matters require that we not exaggerate: proto-fascism will do nicely, thank you.
Why “soft-core pornography” in characterizing the speech? Man and speech come together, even if he didn’t write it. Cody Keenan did, whom NYT reporter Michael Schmidt considers adept at presenting “the struggles of ordinary Americans [here the idealized couple Ben and Rebekah, as we’ll see] in… the gritty, Everyman prose that has become [his] trademark,” in sum, a master propagandist (mine), who, along with the teleprompter, provides heft if not gravitas to Obama’s rhetorical style. Thus, following my Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate, admittedly out-of-date, I use pornography advisedly and literally to mean, traced back to Greek and French, harlot, and harlot from Old French to mean rogue or prostitute. (As we say, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Not here, though). As for soft-core, the difference between foreplay—six years of it, in setting up the American public for the lumpen qualities necessary to not only tolerate but actively support war, wealth concentration, the whole Obama-Democratic thing (Republicans already having stepped over the line)—and penetration, between proto- and fascism full out, suggests continuous stimulation as preparation for the final act, one to be determined. Stay tuned. Global hegemony or nuclear conflagration—take your pick.
The State of the Union Address had all of the solemnity and dignity of a massive advertising campaign to sell toothpaste, life insurance, or Chevy trucks—next to none. I’m being charitable. Indeed, speaking of advertising, let’s begin with the stars of the Address, Ben and Rebekah, who are introduced early, after some softening up. The nation experienced “two long and costly wars” and “a vicious recession.” Yet “tonight, we turn the page…. America, for all that we’ve endured, for all the grit and hard work required to come back, for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.” Amen, feel good (the necessary mood of the huckster): “we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.” Success is here, “an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort.”
Ben and Rebekah have the required “grit and hard work,” they will make “the effort,” a late 19th century refrain from Social Darwinism sunk deeply into the American mindset. For, if one does not advance up the ladder of success, this is presumptive evidence of not having made the effort. Ergo, those who do succeed are entitled to their wealth, the poor justifiably left or kept in their place. We, or at least I, feel manipulated from the get-go. Obama asks, will we be “fearful and reactive” in the world, “[o]r will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?” Upbeat in mood, but covering over the disconnection between writer, who paints the rosy picture of prosperity, and speaker, who executes the deadly policies of what I shall term, militarized capitalism (“using all elements of our power”). Then, our friends enter, a somewhat embarrassing re-run, on Keenan’s part, of the (in)famous Harry and Louise commercials sponsored by the Health Insurance Association of America in 1993 to head off health care legislation. (Harry and Louise commercials since then have been on all sides of issues depending on who was paying, but the propagandistic value of the personification of issues has been amply shown, including here.)
Best keep things vague. Obama: “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.” Ah, the cheerful kitchen, a young couple, miles away from drone assassination, intervention, covert activities, government support of banking, trade, and the business system. He begins: “Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way. They were young and in love in America, and it doesn’t get much better than that.” No it doesn’t, not a commie or terrorist in sight! Real Americans! To criticize the scene, and by extension, whatever Obama says and does, and Government, Business, Capitalism, puts one in an unenviable position. True grit: “’If only we had known,’ Rebekah wrote me last spring, ‘what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.’” The crisis deepened, “Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find,” while Rebekah “took out student loans and enrolled in community college and retrained for a new job.”
Here Obama-Keenan could have said, Dagwood and Blondie, so doggedly do people—especially those in Congress—want to miniaturize monopoly capital to the corner grocery or small town business section, Ben and Rebekah, in the way used here, similarly, Harry and Louise, personifying corporate/banking moguls, at the breakfast table clearing their own dishes. We see in the device incipient fascism: hard work, middle class identity, innocence, good will, the FOLK conveniently standing astride a system equal parts militarism, advanced capitalism, hierarchical class structure—the key (Obama’s emphasis shortly on middle class economics) being the use of the middle class ad infinitum, denying class, wealth, power altogether. (Joseph Goebbels would be tickled.) The Ben-Rebekah narrative continues: “They sacrificed for each other, and slowly, it paid off. They bought their first home. They had a second son, Henry. Rebekah got a better job, and then a raise. Ben’s back in construction and home for dinner every night.”
Jaime Diamon meet Horatio Alger meet Barack Obama. Rebekah: “’We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.’” Obama: “America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story. They represent the millions who’ve worked and scrimped and sacrificed and retooled.” No modesty here, Obama the selfless patriot (with this ideal cover pushing his own record spanning war crimes to derelict regulation of the major power centers of the economy conveniently aside) solemnly now avers, Ben, Rebekah, Jack, and Henry safely tucked in bed: “’You are the reason that I ran for this office.’” Further, “You are the people I was thinking of six years ago today in the darkest months of the crisis when I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation.” The rest is history: deregulation, mergers, consolidation, muscular trade agreements, an economy suited to capital accumulation, not to the deconcentration of wealth and power or equitable class arrangements. And of course, the non-economic sector has fared as poorly, beginning with the massive surveillance of the American people, and so on.
The remainder of the Address purports to be a litany of perfection, but on close inspection solidifies or continues the main lines of economic consolidation and wealth concentration. Obama: “We believed that sensible regulations could prevent another crisis, shield families from ruin, and encourage fair competition.” If he means by that the much vaunted tax on banking, let’s look closer. David Dayen’s article in the Guardian, “First thing we do, tax all the banks,” (Jan. 21), finds that “Obama’s middle-class economics plan makes good sense,” the provisions, however suggesting both minimal correctives and reasoning less to do with the public than with continuing the banks’ profits. In other words, government stabilization of the private sector on terms supportive of the latter. First, this is almost five years in which the Obama administration did nothing: “Obama’s tax plan is actually the first real plan for financial regulation from the White House since the passage of Dodd-Frank financial reform in 2010.” And what has Johnny-come-lately come up with?
Dayen reports: “One notable aspect of Obama’s plan is that financial institutions with assets of over $50bn would have to pay a 0.007% fee, a kind of tax for being too big to fail.” Wow, sounds socialistic! A crushing burden, but even that slap-on-the-wrist proves illusive: “But the key to the plan is that it does not attack the bank’s assets, or what they own; it taxes their liabilities, or what they owe.” Whew, for a second I saw the Bolsheviks marching on Morgan Chase. Dayen explains, “it’s a tax on bank borrowing,” and that if Obama simply wanted to raise money—in the Address he viewed it as a way to finance other programs—he “would have proposed taxing the bank’s assets, which are hard to reduce.” But he didn’t. Likewise, the presumed attack on corporations, a centerpiece of Obama’s middle class economics, again, to the barricades: The corporate tax rate in currently 35%. Republicans want the new rate to be 25%, Obama, 28%. On such mole hills are mountains created. In Paris we hear,” Je suis Charlie,” what I’m hearing from Washington, “Je suis Charlatan.”
Back at the old stand: “Tonight, together, let’s do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.” Here Keenan, to Obama’s approval (else, deletion), appears to have listened to Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, who couldn’t have said it better if he tried: “Like millions of hardworking Americans, Rebekah isn’t asking for a handout, but she is asking that we look for more ways to help families get ahead.” The term “handout” has been the cudgel to beat down the poor and working people in general at least since the time of Herbert Hoover, and ill comes out of the mouth of a Democratic president. No surprise there. Nor that he adopts the phrase “middle-class economics.” Too, Obama falls back on the reputation of the New Deal, riding its coat-tails without giving its content. His exhortation, “they needed to go as far as their efforts and their dreams will take them,” returns to the theme of hard work—if you don’t make it, you don’t deserve to. In fact, middle class economics is superimposed on a monopolistic structure of extreme wealth concentration. Every man an oligarch, if you can do it.
In such a framework, even were paid sick leave and paid child care achieved, both advocated here, class relations would not be altered. And, as in his remarks on infrastructure, this would be to make America “the place where businesses want to locate and hire,” the capitalization of private requirements as the answer to outsourcing—aimed at China, as is his angry outburst: “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region [to the detriment of our export trade]. As always, he allows Wall Street to hide behind the presumed welfare of the American worker: “That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage.” The worst thing America could do: “Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free but fair.” Global hegemony is an unquestioned assumption.
With trade supremacy, hegemony is happily mixed with military supremacy. He states: “Of course, if there’s one thing the new century has taught us, it’s that we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores.” Flags flying, trumpets sounding, if only in his listeners’ and the nation’s imagination, Obama proudly declares: “My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America. In doing so, the question is not … whether America leads in the world, but how.” Hegemony, not only an unquestioned assumption, but also a foregone conclusion. What more can be said of the Address, except that Obama uses the occasion to rev up further sentiment for confrontation with Russia.
After calling for Congressional authorization for “the use of force against ISIL,” he turns to Russia: “[We] are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small by opposing Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.” (This is getting to be too much, given Kiev’s infestation of Nazi-types.) And in full-view of the world he publicly disparages Putin in a State of the Union Address, quite unusual: “Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies [somehow, “hard work” doesn’t apply, except to give sanctions an ethical quality], as we were reinforcing our presence with the frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression, it was suggested, was a masterful display of strategy and strength.” Obama seems always to be to comparing himself to Putin, to his own advantage: “Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads: not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” There already seems enough bluster to go around.
Few commentators appeared mindful of foreign policy in the Address, but on position on Cuba and Iran reveals further hegemonic claims of righteousness and grandeur. On Cuba, he says that the US “shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere and removes the phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba, stands up for democratic values and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.” Make a show of accommodation, so as not to lose US influence in Latin America; the democratic values in question refer to capitalism; most interesting, extending the hand of friendship to the Cuban people is the old Wilsonian point—appeal over the heads of the government to the people (a mainstay of American foreign policy, from food assistance to NGOs, to Radio Free this and that). Also, hiding behind suddenly popular Pope Francis—“diplomacy is the work of small steps”—Obama adds that “these small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.” (My own take: Cuba should have rejected US advances, as the sweet embrace of the boa constrictor.) His passage on Cuba reminds one of a predominant Cold War thesis applied to Eastern Europe: from slave to free, the Captive Nations theme.
Iran, similar. Negotiations, yes, but the fateful insertion that America reserves the right to do as it likes: “There’re no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep ALL OPTIONS on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.” (my caps.) Then, “The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.” Yet given the propaganda offensive, and the felt need seemingly at all times for an Enemy, last resorts at times become first resorts. There is also a part on cyber-attacks, “No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.” Mention of the kids aids in the power of deniability; America is engaged in the massive surveillance of its own people, invading the privacy of American families nicely the job of the US government. There is, of course, more to the Address, but I think the point is clear. Instead of a program and policy of democratization at home, and peace abroad, Obama’s State of the Union Address is a prime example of soft-core pornography: hard work, the crutch to hide wealth accumulation, American values to rationalize global exploitation and global intervention.
He states near the close: “And there’s one last pillar of our leadership, and that’s the example of our values…. We respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened…. We defend free speech…. We have a profound commitment to justice…. We cherish our civil liberties.” Each and every one of these claims can be disputed. And in a burst of joy, he declares: “That’s what makes us exceptional.”
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.