Reflecting after the SOTU Speech

spaceship earth

The themes of the President's State of the Union speech that stood out most for me were: we can win the future and many references to the American Dream. I voted for Obama and am a loyal Democrat, but I cannot accept all this rhetoric as a positive steps toward the goals I believe I share with him. I appreciate the need to tread lightly upon the steps of political correctness, and offer a positive image at the same time.

But "win the future" is a very poor rallying cry. Ontologically and grammatically, it is doesn't work. We might be able to win in the future, whatever winning means. It would be more accurate to say something like the future is in our hands to create. But even that doesn't work in a complex world where the outcomes of our well-intentioned and carefully designed plans are only guesses.

So many of the troubles of today's world are tied to its complexity. It is increasingly difficult to predict outcomes of policies put into play. We cannot dictate that future by either economic or military hegemony, as we might have been able to do for a brief period after the Soviet collapse. The "American exceptionalism" mentioned several times during the speech is not any longer a rallying cry strong enough to force whatever is exceptional on other parts of the world. We are different for sure from much of the world. So winning, a prediction that suggests we are in a battle for something, doesn't offer, after a moment's reflection, anything connected to that Dream.

The Dream of America is most simply put as a society where all citizens enjoy their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are far from realizing that. Holding it out as a promise will certainly create anger and disappointment in those who cling to it as a magnet to pull them out of their dire straits when it fails to materialize in the near future. The Republican response, if I remember accurately, belittled the European countries that are imposing burdensome austerity programs. The only difference I see is that these nations are doing what must happen now where we are leaving the burdens to be borne by future Americans.

In our finite globe with limited resources that are showing stress and whose years can be counted in terms of decades or less, talk of winning is misleading at best. Green technology and eco-efficiency can't be counted on to solve the problems of a world with growing demands for these materials, backed up by claiming their moral right to share them. The sustainable development goals of the Brundtland Commission are trashed in the idea of winning. The best we can do is to figure out how to share the world with the other 95% of its inhabitants. Keeping waving the Dream before us makes moves toward such sharing even more problematic than they already are.

It's maybe too much to ask a sitting President faced with an angry and obstreperous opposition to tell the truth to his country. In times past in an empty world with fewer mouths to feed and less cars on the road, it might have been actually possible to win, in the sense of some bounded economic game, like Monopoly. The State of the World, as opposed to the Union, is not strong as Obama claimed at the end, like so many Presidents before him have said. Is it healthy or flourishing? Do its citizens live dignified lives? Are all realizing their inalienable rights? Is it the fair society that also anchors the American Dream?

Before talking about winning shouldn't, we be talking about staying in the game? The idea of winning should have disappeared the minute we saw the magnificent photo of Planet Earth from space. The Sputnik moment that triggered the program that enabled the photo was not only a rallying cry, as Obama use it; it was the spark that ultimately has forced us to accept the finitude of Spaceship Earth as Kenneth Boulding named our planet.

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1 Comments

Galen G-M said:

Thank you for discussing "winning the future." Argh...it's been driving me crazy all day! It doesn't make any sense, any way you look at it. Who wrote this fluff?