I would rather eat my keyboard than watch the State of the Union speech, so consider this article an act of sacrificial public service.
The most irritating thing about the State of the Union is that we are a captive audience — in every way. This guy taxes us, spends our money on stuff he likes, sends our kids to war on his decision, lies to us, dares to believe that his personal will is somehow more important than yours or mine or anyone else's solely because he managed to eke out a few more electoral votes than Gore two years ago, and to top it off, expects that we will watch for more than an hour as he prattles, while his minions interrupt him only to stand and applaud.
Where to begin to criticize? George Bush is the biggest spender since Lyndon Johnson, increasing federal spending at a rate twice that of Clinton, and yet he stands up and demands spending restraint, seeming to blame everyone but himself.
He talks about freedom and opportunity and then brags about his new bureaucracies, spending programs, mandates, comprehensive plans, regulations, and goals concerning all our lives, from how our kids are educated to the cars we drive to the way we care for those in need.
He claims to care for life, decries partial-birth abortion, but refuses to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the war he is plotting. He calls on America to feed the entire world, liberate all its women, educate all its children, and cure all its sick, even as ghettos rife with every social pathology languish miles from the White House.
Hypocrisy? He denounces bureaucrats and praises innovation only to demand a huge new boondoggle program to put researchers on the dole. Indeed, the underlying assumption behind the entire speech was that America's commitment is identical to his own commitment, which is reflected in his plans for your money.
Don't write me to say that he wants to cut taxes, and so we should like him. Every few minutes, we heard spending numbers: tens and hundreds of millions, tens and hundreds of billions! It is never too much, and nothing is outside his purview. Indeed, he calls for the federal government, under his leadership, to "transform" our "souls." He went further: he says he is defending the "hopes of all mankind."
His entire foreign policy seems like a massive effort to incite every terrorist in the world against this country, and otherwise encourage every small country to arm to the teeth against the US threat. From the government's point of view, such would only increase the power of D.C., so one has to wonder whether this is the point after all. And not to nitpick, but how can he at once say that Iraq is despotic for ignoring the UN even as he brags that he will ignore the UN if he chooses?
"The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others… I will defend the freedom and security of the American people."
Are these not the words of a dictator?
It's too much! There should be a break at the midway point, in which we could broadcast messages like: You are our servant, not our master! Everything you do, you do with our money! There are three branches of government, and you only represent one! The powers not granted to you are reserved to the states and the people! You are not king of the world! The founders envisioned frequent impeachments!
Instead, we must sit and sit and watch a despotic display that seems like an import from the times of Pharaohs and Caesars, or the modern world of dictators and commissars. What does this one fellow, holed up in the White House, living off other people's money, surrounded by sycophants and pollsters, know about the state of the union?
The speech was particularly bad this year because we are dealing with a man who has clearly lost perspective. He speaks about his desire for peace even as he ignores the whole world's plea for him not to bomb and kill. He talks about a war on terror but the words Osama Bin Laden never pass his lips. He speaks of all the things the government will do to make us prosperous even as a two-year track record has failed to put a dent in the worsening recession.
Indeed, his language seems to reflect a very dangerous state of mind. He habitually speaks about America as identical to the central state, and seems to regard that state as incarnated in himself — the entire apparatus of government embodied in his person. His will is the people's will, the perfect realization of Rousseau's fantasy. But rather than the language of the French Revolution, he uses the cadences of his evangelical constituents, invoking God and quoting old-time hymns.
Americans have a hard time recognizing just how fascistically scary all this is because we are surrounded by it all the time, and we read and watch a media that rarely draws attention to it. But foreigners see it.
Hardly a day goes by when I don't receive a call from abroad, usually from some classical liberal scholar or supporter, who asks with astonishment: what in the world is going on over there? What is it that drives this man? Why is your president going to war? Who does he think he is? How broadly is he supported? Are there no mechanisms available within your system of government to rein him in?
Well, the speech tonight illustrates the problem. Whereas Clinton was merely a con man who seemed to revel in his ability to dupe people, Bush is something more alarming: he may actually believe what he is saying.
Sadly, there are no mechanisms to restrain him other than public opinion. Americans are instinctively suspicious of government, but when it is headed by someone who seems to be a good and sincere man, they let the head of state get away with murder, particularly the murder of foreigners.
Just in time, however, it is becoming more obvious than ever that the economy is not improving.
For 20 months, the business punditry and the government have been telling us that the economy is not in recession but is rather only stumbling a bit. Recovery is perpetually underway.
The truth is that we are still in the midst of what even official data designate as the longest recession in postwar history.
There's nothing like a prolonged recession to end a people's romance with the head of state, and this seems to be happening. It was due to internal polling that the speech had an unusual focus on domestic issues, at least in minutes. But instead of recognizing an obvious truth that there is nothing the government can do to improve our lot except get out of the way, Bush has invoked a tired cliché: we must rally to a unified "great cause" that involves serving the government and serving each other in ways the government approves of.
This man has no idea what a "great cause" is. In the real world, a great cause is doing something like meeting a payroll, getting one's kids a good education, paying for college, doing a good job at work, helping the needy through our churches, maintaining healthy families and peace at home. These day-to-day details of bourgeois living constitute the great cause, and it has nothing to do with the government. Nothing at all!
But in Bush's mind, no cause can be truly great unless it is endorsed and generally organized by the state. If the great cause that Bush is seeking won't actually address any real problem that the typical American may be having, what is the point? It is to "rally the American people," as they say, which is to say, distract them from the failures of the state in hopes that they will view the state as the organizing center for all of society. This is the real point of invoking a great cause.
Everyone says that Bush is a Christian man who has a strong moral sense and a penchant for prayer. Good. But the Christian religion offers specific spiritual guidelines for heads of state. St. Augustine writes in the City of God (Book XIX) of the "Libido Dominandi" — the lust to dominate others. He was speaking of a general flaw in human nature, to which heads of state are particularly prone.
Augustine cites this impulse as the worst manifestation of the sin of pride, since it directly seeks to ape God. It can also be shortened to a more familiar phrase: Power Lust. By way of contrast, Augustine cites the case of a family headed by a "just man who lives by faith and is as yet a pilgrim journeying on to the celestial city." There, "those who rule serve those whom they seem to command; for they rule not from a love of power, but from a sense of the duty they owe to others — not because they are proud of authority, but because they love mercy."
Mercy and peace are causes great enough to consume any head of state. A just man who heads a government has enough to do to suppress the lust to dominate, which every "great cause" proclaimed by every despot threatens to unleash. He got the country's name wrong, but Bush was precisely right when he said: "Your enemy is not surrounding your country. Your enemy is ruling your country."
January 29, 2003
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