State of Disunion
What cancer hecklers, "USA!" chanters, George Packer, and Ray Charles tell us about our country
Due to the hyper-partisan hellscape that has become today’s politics, I spend zero time worshipping in the temple of Republicans or Democrats, as that would get in the way of practicing my one truth faith: complete disillusionment. The political equivalent of my Nicene Creed was written by the British writer, Ernest Benn, who said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”
Easy cynicism, cynical partisans would say, is too…..easy. Well, yes, it is. Because they’ve spent ungodly amounts of time making it that way. And besides, life is hard. Food and home-heating prices are sky high. National morale has cratered. Every time I hit the filling station these days, I feel like I’m grabbing my ankles in a Turkish prison movie. One false move, and we could be plunged straight into World War II’s sequel, except this time, the commies won’t be on our side, and the Nazis are with them, too. Bottom line? I don’t mind a little bit of easy. So politicians and I observe an unspoken pact: I keep my expectations low, and they regularly meet them.
Similarly, my expectations were again mostly met at President Joe Biden’s first-ever State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. No matter who is president, State of the Unions are always dreary affairs. The guy in power stands up and takes credit for everything that’s gone right in the world, even if he had nothing to do with it, while failing to mention anything that’s gone wrong, unless he needs to pin blame on his predecessor. His party always gets up-and-down, up-and-down from their seats, gleefully banging their mitts together for uninspiring, predictable applause lines. (Considering half the Senate is 65 years old or older, this might be the most cardio they get all year.) While if the sitting president delivered stone tablets hot off the presses from God, the opposition party will typically twist up its nose as if smelling a fart in church. (Unless, that is, children are mentioned. Everyone is required to wildly applaud children no matter what, even if they are shorter and dumber than we are. And also, fart a lot.)
My old friend Jim Treacher captures the formula nicely: “The figurehead makes a majestic entrance and reads a bunch of caca del toro from a script. The side that’s in power enthusiastically cheers on every lie he tells, and the side that’s out of power glares at him like he’s a child molester. It’s just pro wrestling without the talent.”
And so, as Biden took the lectern, we were treated to what are by now familiar tropes. There was Nancy Pelosi beaming beatifically behind him, applauding inappropriately, smiling eerily, and sucking her teeth for an entire hour. (Madam Speaker, one word: Waterpik.) Unless……they aren’t her actual teeth. (Madam Speaker, two more words: Fixodent Ultra.)
There was Squeaky Fromme and Lizzie Borden, i.e. congressposeurs Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, loudly heckling Biden as he was espousing helping veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who had contracted cancer from breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits, right before he mentioned his own Iraq-veteran son’s death from cancer. Maybe the partners in slime were acting on conscience, assuming they have one between them. Maybe they were just carrying out Q’s orders. Either way, even a lot of Republicans felt this outburst was inappropriate, booing them. Whereas, I thought it was inbounds: two cancers-of-congress heckling actual disease-cancer? It seemed like an all-in-the-family squabble to me.
The president carried on in the grand SOTU tradition of embroidering and truth shading. The Dispatch’s fact check crew caught Biden fibbing about everything from Trump-era tax cuts (more people received them than just the one percent) to his claim that gun manufacturers are the only industry that can’t be sued. (They can. Vaccine manufacturers, by contrast, are protected from lawsuits over COVID vaccine side effects by the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act.)
Biden’s speech itself was – and this will shock you – fairly unremarkable, even if he came out for things Democrats have been recently hostile to, like funding police. (Now that midterms are nearly upon us and Biden’s popularity numbers are almost as low as the media’s, Democratic lawmakers seemed just fine with backing the transient global amnesia strategy.) If there was a truly memorable line, I haven’t found it, not even after re-reading the speech twice.
Consisting of a laundry list of initiatives and accomplishments (some of them imagined) that I’m too bored to bore you with, it was not exactly a sparkling piece of American political rhetoric. It was no MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man With the Muck-Rake” oratory. It wasn’t even in the ballpark, of say, George W. Bush’s bullhorn speech, given atop a World Trade Center pile of rubble with his arm draped around a fireman: “I can hear you. The rest of the world can hear you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” I have to admit that at the time, that one got me all verklempt. Though my emotions had a chance to recover in the two decades of unwinnable wars that followed.
And yet, I still found some refreshing moments in Biden’s (mostly) uninspired attempt to inspire us, as our patience and our nerves are run ragged from perpetual crises. One came during a boilerplate turn about making things in America instead of relying on foreign supply chains. Dems started a “USA! USA!” chant, and some Republicans even joined in. While some find such gestures gauche or jingoistic, especially in light of all the current troubles in Ukraine, I found it…….kind of nice.
It’s not that there haven’t been USA chants in past State of the Union speeches. But too often, the left seems to figuratively sit on its hands, since in the last decade or so, they’ve become habituated to blaming America for every ill – from inequity to misplacing their car keys - rather than cheering it on. By contrast, the right is often all-too-happy to chant it, but while wielding it as a weapon, more than a gesture of national unity: “We love America, but only the half of it that we inhabit.”
Maybe it was the double bourbons I’d ingested to get through the speech. Maybe all of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing atrocities ever-so-briefly pushed us back on the same team, the way we were after the 9/11 attacks (for about a half a week) or after the pandemic fell upon us (for about a half an hour). Maybe we needed a monster like Putin to ever-so-briefly unite us, because sometimes it takes coming face-to-face with a monster to remind us of the monsters we don’t want to become. But to my ears – and I know the rabid ferrets of Twitter didn’t hear it the same way - this USA chant didn’t sound weaponized. It sounded like a half-remembered favorite song from a now-shuttered dance hall where we occasionally used to waltz together in ¾ time.
And then there was this, Biden’s best moment by far:
You know, we’ve lost so much to Covid-19. Time with one another. And worst of all, much loss of life. Let’s use this moment to rest. So stop looking at Covid as a partisan dividing line. See it for what it is: a God-awful disease. Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies, and start seeing each other for who we are: fellow Americans. We can’t change how divided we’ve been. It was a long time in coming. But we can change how to move forward – on Covid-19 and other issues that we must face together.
There was none of the high rhetoric of his old boss, Barack Obama. Neither was it memorably framed enough to land in any book of political quotations. It was just a simple appeal to decency and humanity, which is enough of a rarity these days – with all the polls showing intimations of coming civil war – that it sadly tends to stand out.
I didn’t vote for Biden (neither did I vote for Trump). And I don’t particularly have much confidence in him dragging our fat out of the fire. Almost every time Biden speaks for longer than 30 seconds, I hold my breath in pained apprehension, like people used to do when watching Gerald Ford do something dangerous, like descending a flight of stairs. Why, even in his SOTU, Biden said, “Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he’ll never gain the hearts and souls of the Iranian people.” It likely came as a shock to the ayatollahs that Putin had them surrounded.
But just because you don’t love the head coach doesn’t mean you can’t root for his team. Which is our team, the same team. Or at least it used to be. Maybe it can be again. Things have gone so acrimonious in the last half decade, that I have slim hope. But slim hope is better than none.
As George Packer wrote in his recent and wonderful book, Last Best Hope:
We’ve been here before. These stories should sound familiar: a house divided, monopoly and corruption, fixed classes of rich and poor, racial injustice…..We could give the experts more power to govern us better, but then we would become even less capable of governing ourselves and end up under the rule of another demagogue. We’ve allowed things to drift this way for a long time, and now we hear the roar of the cataract. The task of bringing ourselves back from the edge is even harder than you might think. It’s common these days to hear people talk about sick America, dying America, the end of America. The thought has crossed my mind more than once…….If we are dying, it can’t be from natural causes. It must be a prolonged act of suicide, which is a form of murder……America is neither a land of the free and home of the brave nor a bastion of white supremacy. Or rather, it is both, and other things as well, changing all the time and yet somehow remaining itself. Whether you see it as one or the other or something else altogether is not a neutral observation – it’s a choice. Every choice satisfies a desire. Neither Sinful America nor Exceptional America, neither the 1619 Project nor the 1776 Report, tells a story that makes me want to take part. The first produces despair, the second complacency. Both are static narratives that leave no room for human agency, inspire no love to make the country better, provide no motive for getting to work. At some point you have to stop staring in the mirror and, in Langston Hughes’s words, “make America again!” But that will need a better story.
Bonus Track: Here is a great American, Ray Charles, singing a great American song. Pay particular attention to my favorite moment of his 1973 cover at the 2:07 mark. There, Charles sings, “America/ Sweet America/Y’know, God DONE shed his grace on thee.” The way he punches out “God done” almost sounds like “goddamn.” A blessing or an imprecation – it could go either way. It’s as if Brother Ray was singing “don’t blow the first, or you might get the last.”