not for the weak of heart (or mind!) a journey into how the president used language in his inaugural address to diminish the individual and aggrandize “collectivism” and government action.
The President’s 2013 inaugural address was written in such a way as to gloss over the President’s true agenda and make him seem as if he is bound by the same rules that bind the rest of us. His speech would try to make us believe that the bloated government is in need of further bloating—and all for the greater good. It is a deceptive speech in the most dangerous way. Here, there is no obvious, Orwellian language. There is no mention of dictators or dissenters being vaporized in their sleep or Ministries of Truth that torture citizens into spiritual submission. There is nothing that would stir the average citizen to concern. No, Mr. Obama’s language is far more dangerous. His language, the same language that won him the 2008 election, is the euphemistic language of nonspecific hope—of ideas so vague they cannot readily be argued against, so vague that they allow audiences to project meaning onto them regardless of the President’s true meaning. His language is disarming in the same way skinny actors smile during fast food commercials. In both cases, the feeling the audience is left with is a positive one, and the unspecified and unfounded optimism leaves one unwilling to question the fatty truth behind the message.
In the very first line of his speech, the President uses the day’s occasion to commemorate “the enduring strength of our Constitution.” President wants his audience to make is that the Constitution is being followed, and his sentence presumes it is true without allowing argument. In this one phrase, he dismisses all valid concern that the Federal government’s power is being pushed to (and beyond) its Constitutional boundaries. His phrasing allows for no such speculation.
The very first sentence also begins use of the prominent pronoun he employs for the entire speech, “we.” Using this pronoun, he is not only rhetorically uniting the American people; he is including himself within that fictional unity. He begins with statements difficult to contradict. Yes, we are bearing witness to a peaceful transition of power from one Obama administration to the next. Yes, we are affirming the promise of a democracy in which elections are held and followed peacefully. Yes, we like the fact that we are bound by the ideas within the Constitution. He even throws in the phrase “color of our skin” as a nod to Martin Luther King, Jr. Who can argue with any of that?
Pulling us in with these large, hopeful ideas, quoting our Constitution, and including himself in the collective “we” of the nation, Mr. Obama has disarmed the audience.
Then, he moves into his agenda. But he does so slowly, the way one would turn up the water temperature against a captive frog—so that he won’t realize he is about to boil to death. Like the victimized frog, we all sit and listen, unaware of the inevitable dangers we face and the ever increasing temperature of the pot of water in which we all sit.
In saying that we “continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words [of the Constitution] with the realities of our time,” the President implies that there is something wrong with our nation.
No American will argue that our nation is perfect, but the implication he begins in that sentence continues into the next few paragraphs, eventually implying that our nation needs help the same way it needed help to free the slaves. He is sure to use the phrase “move forward” when describing the nation’s end to slavery. In this implied analogy, he is suggesting that anyone who is against slavery must also be in favor of “moving forward,” which just happens to be his campaign slogan. He does not praise America for being the freest nation on earth; he dwells on the problems still faced by the nation, problems that would pale in comparison to many other countries who face challenges in basic human rights.
Continuing his motif of “we,” the President begins a series of sentences beginning with the word “together.” For example, he writes, “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.” By using this grammatical structure, he is essentially putting thoughts in the minds of his audience. “Together, we discovered” implies that all Americans reached the same conclusion, in this case, that government is necessary to protect people from evil businesses. Again, the innocuous nature of his phrasing is meant to convince the average listener that his conclusion is valid, and one that is agreed upon by all. He does not open the issue to other possibilities, such as the fact that government regulations added significantly to the recent mortgage and housing crisis by interfering with self-policing market consequences of poor decision making by mortgage companies. Grammatically, he never allowed that thought to enter the minds of his audience.
He interrupts his list of things we have discovered “together” (which include the need for government to build roads and schools—again, never opening to the option of proven charter schools or private roads) with a paragraph acknowledging distrust of government. This paragraph is conveniently placed just at the point in the speech where someone skeptical of big government might become—well, skeptical of his speech. He includes in this paragraph, though, a condition: “nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.” The word “alone” is a qualifier that subtly suggests that though government isn’t the only solution to problems, it is a required component—perhaps the major component—in problem-solving. In other words, he’s conceding that perhaps the private sector or individual brainpower is a small part of the solution to our ills, rather than conceding that government is a small part necessary only to supplement the small number of duties the private sector and individuals cannot do alone.
Indeed, the one conciliatory paragraph is followed by a loud “But” when he says, “But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” In fact, his speech is alarmingly full of suggestions that “we” as a “collective” are necessary to face the future. Again, it sounds innocuous. It rings of family, of parents looking after children, an admittedly comforting idea. But once again, it disarms the audience, encouraging them to accept the premise that government knows best.
Once again, he shies away from being overly-aggressive in his suggestions about collectivism by adding two paragraphs with inspiring language summarizing many of America’s past accomplishments. He is sure to mention that collectively, we fought the evils of fascism and communism, two of the types of government his opponents strongly contest. His language, once again inspirational without discussing specifics, disarms the audience to any sense of aggression. But throughout these inspirational paragraphs, the President is sure to reiterate that “we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.” Together being the key word. And indeed, he adds gentle negatives, stressing his belief that “No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need” or “build all the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs.” He seems to have little faith in individual man, forgetting that individual men have changed the face of the world, from Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs—men whose leadership and individual genius provided jobs and an improved way of life for nearly everyone.
Again, he throws a bone to his opponents when he suggests that we (once again “we”—he is again putting thoughts in the audience’s head) “understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time” and that we must “remake our government.” However, in the very next major paragraph he is uncharacteristically specific in praising programs that his opponents believe are harming this country: “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
He does not mention that these are the very programs that are bankrupting this country, that these programs are riddled with fraud and unfunded liabilities, that they are harming the future of this country and leaving future generations with a terrible debt. But he makes no mention of this. Rather, he continues with the innocuous “we,” encouraging the audience to buy into the collective thought that these programs are there for the common good of all.
While ignoring the crippling debt his beloved programs are racking up, he is quick to suggest that we must “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.” He mentions nothing of failing clean-energy scandals like Solyndra, SunPower, First Solar, and other companies that failed, wasting taxpayer money by the billions of dollars. He does not mention the fact that, to deal with the expense of high wage and union demands, Americans look to China to produce goods. He does not mention the fact that Chinese factories do not conform to the same environmental standards as American factories, and that regardless of what America does to help the environment, all our efforts are but a drop in the bucket when countries like China are harming the environment in much more malignant ways. He fails to mention that energy policies meant to help the environment only prove to punish America economically by making our goods too expensive to produce, encouraging increased production in environmentally-harmful countries like China. But instead of addressing the complexities of these issues, he uses gentle language, beginning his paragraphs in this section with “we, the people,” channeling all the phrase’s patriotic undertones. And please, won’t someone think of the children? Rather than encouraging his audience to question policies and make smarter decisions, the President simply appeals to America’s sense of patriotism, hoping the strong emotion of national pride will circumvent a rational examination of the issues at hand.
His nonspecific language continues when he says, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” He neglects to mention that he, as President for the last four years, is partly responsible for the “perpetual war,” but he quickly moves away from that issue, dissolving into patriotic language that praises those who have served and asks us, in a very nonspecific but somehow patriotic and inspirational way, to “carry those lessons [of those who fought for eventual peace] into this time as well.”
After some nonspecific and pleasing language about promoting peace between America and the rest of the world, he hints ever so mildly at the idea of social justice, saying, “we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.” This statement returns to his beliefs about collective versus individual concerns. He seems more concerned with finding and righting the injustices of the world, rather than helping individuals succeed. He seems to forget that when an individual like Steve Jobs succeeds, jobs are created. When an individual like John Rockefeller succeeds, the quality of life improves for everyone, as the common man is now able to enjoy new energy sources and all the conveniences that follow. But the President doesn’t see the benefits of this—that when a man like Rockefeller becomes filthy rich, the quality of life improves for everyone. He seems to be stuck on the fact that the disparity between Rockefeller and the common man is too large. It seems that he, as Margaret Thatcher once noted of her opponents, would be happier if everyone’s standard of living were lowered, so long as it meant the disparity between rich and poor were narrowed. That a shared despondent misery is somehow preferable to an unequally divided prosperity.
Solidifying this concern are three allusions he includes at the end of his speech. For a speech filled with such nonspecific language, these three references stand out. Seneca Falls references a convention held for women’s rights; Selma refers to an important protest in the Civil Rights movement; Stonewall refers to protests and riots among the gay community in pursuit of rights. Again, he dwells specifically on groups that are or have been denied equal rights. He dwells on the negatives rather than suggesting, perhaps, that gay rights have been denied largely because of overly-oppressive government legislation. He does not suggest that perhaps government is the problem, standing in the way of people’s rights; he implies instead that government is the solution. There is an inherent danger when the government gets to decide what is right. Hitler tried his hand at becoming a moral policeman. We all know how that worked out. Yet the President completely ignores this in his speech, implying instead that the government of this country knows best and is there to help all the oppressed groups the “we” choose to recognize.
But who gets to decide what is “right” and what is “wrong”? I certainly don’t want that decision to fall into the hands of a government bureaucrat. But the President discourages this way of thinking by using the adjective “our.” “Our generation’s task” and “our journey” pervade the next paragraph. He is sure to sprinkle in references to locations that have recently experienced hardship: Detroit, Appalachia, and, of course, Newtown, Ct. He ends the paragraph with the thought that people from these locations must know “that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.” “Always safe from harm” is impossible. Sure, it sounds good. It’s something a parent would whisper to a child while tucking him in at night. But it simply isn’t realistic. Even under the best circumstances, no one is ever “always safe from harm.” A crazy person can instigate a school shooting at any minute. A crazy person could take a textbook and bludgeon a child to death. Sometimes, crazy people capture commercial airplanes and crash them into buildings. Crazy, angry people exist in this world, and the President’s speech seems to ignore that fact, promising, instead, a quixotic world that simply can never be achieved, and certainly not by government.
Moving into the conclusion of his speech, the President once again conjures the patriotic phrasing of our founding fathers, “Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” But he is careful to add the stipulation that “it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way” and that “progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time—but it does require us to act in our time.” Once again, his language choices gently suggest to his opponents that he, as the government, will decide what liberty means. His words suggest that “progress” demands that the government act without settling the debate of the proper role of government, which, in the eyes of this President, just isn’t an important debate.
His next paragraph repeats the idea that “we must act,” and act without delay. Further stressing his belief in government-as-the-solution is his statement that “it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.” This references people gathered for future presidential inaugurations—and the government being inducted into power—rather than individuals coming up with solutions in the same way unique and innovative thoughts founded this nation.
The President ends his speech by referring to his oath as “not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty” and insisting that his words “are the words of citizens.” “You and I,” he reiterates, “as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.” Once again, he muddies the water by pretending that he operates on the same level as the average citizen. He seems to forget once again the privileges he enjoys—the ease with which he can secure a stellar, private education for his daughters, the security he enjoys knowing his family is protected around-the-clock by armed guards, the peace of mind he enjoys knowing that even after his final term is served, he will enjoy secret service protection and a salary for the rest of his days.
You and I, citizens, do not enjoy those reassurances. You and I, citizens, must worry about the safety of our children in schools because teachers are denied the right to carry a gun in self defense. You and I, citizens, must endure the rising costs of “clean energy” policies that burden American companies to the point of non-competitiveness. You and I, citizens, are being asked to blindly trust the government to make decision about what is right and what is wrong, what causes to fight for and what rights to infringe upon. You and I, citizens, are different from Presidents and Congressmen and politicians and lobbyists. You and I, citizens, are the lifeblood of this country. And yet our children are being asked to shoulder the crippling debt of the policies endorsed by this President, a debt ignored by this speech and this administration.
I—yes, I, because I speak for myself and let you, the reader, make up your own mind—will not fall prey to the innocuous and reassuring language of this President. I will hold him accountable for rising debt and intrusive government policies that overstep the bounds that were intended. If it’s true that our philosophy of life stems from our experiences, then this President believes individuals cannot achieve greatness on their own, that it is only through the power of the collective that anyone can aspire to greatness. What, I wonder, happened in his life to make him feel this way? How many people did he depend upon to help get him to where he is today? Is it his reliance on unions to channel the collective power of persuasion to build support for himself? Is it his reliance on powerful but meaningless words delivered by his teleprompter to convince a good deal of the American people that he is fighting for exactly what they believe?
I have a different philosophy. While I acknowledge that many people have helped me reach the successes I have enjoyed today, there is one person in particular I could not have done it without: me. This nation was founded by individuals working on their own merit to achieve individual success. What the President fails to understand is that individual success is mutually-beneficial. If he leaves well enough alone, the private sector—and indeed, man’s drive for individual achievement and fame, and even filthy riches—will make the world more efficient, more convenient, and more economical. And that, without the oppressive, inefficient, and corrupt hand of government, is something that benefits everyone.
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