Wednesday, January 27, 2010

President Obama's First State of the Union Address (Video and Transcript)

"Madam Speaker, Vice President Biden, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans,

Our Constitution declares that from time to time the president shall give to Congress information about the state of our union. For 220 years, our leaders have fulfilled this duty. They've done so during periods of prosperity and tranquility, and they've done so in the midst of war and depression, at moments of great strife and great struggle. It's tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable, that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were the times that tested the courage of our convictions and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, as one people.

Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history's call.



One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by a severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt. Experts from across the political spectrum warned that if we did not act, we might face a second depression. So we acted, immediately and aggressively. And one year later, the worst of the storm has passed.

But the devastation remains: One in ten Americans still can't find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. And for those who'd already known poverty, life has become that much harder.

This recession has also compounded the burdens that America's families have been dealing with for decades, the burden of working harder and longer for less, of being unable to save enough to retire or help kids with college.

So I know the anxieties that are out there right now. They're not new. These struggles are the reason I ran for president. These struggles are what I've witnessed for years in places like Elkhart, Indiana, Galesburg, Illinois. I hear about them in the letters that I read each night. The toughest to read are those written by children, asking why they have to move from their home, asking when their mom or dad will be able to go back to work.

For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated; some are angry. They don't understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded, but hard work on Main Street isn't, or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They're tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can't afford it, not now.

So we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope -- what they deserve -- is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences, to overcome the numbing weight of our politics, for while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds, different stories, different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same, the aspirations they hold are shared: a job that pays the bills, a chance to get ahead, most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.

You know what else they share? They share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. After one of the most difficult years in our history, they remain busy building cars and teaching kids, starting businesses and going back to school. They're coaching little league and helping their neighbors. One woman wrote to me and said, "We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged."

It's because of this spirit -- this great decency and great strength -- that I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight.

Despite -- despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it's time the American people get a government that matches their decency, that embodies their strength. And tonight -- tonight, I'd like to talk about how together we can deliver on that promise.

It begins with our economy.

Our most urgent -- our most urgent task upon taking office was to shore up the same banks that helped cause this crisis. It was not easy to do. And if there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans -- and everybody in between -- it's that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it.I hated it. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. But when I ran for president, I promised I wouldn't just do what was popular, I would do what was necessary. And if we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today. More businesses would certainly have closed; more homes would have surely been lost.
So I supported the last administration's efforts to create the financial rescue program. And when we took that program over, we made it more transparent and more accountable. And as a result, the markets are now stabilized, and we've recovered most of the money we spent on the banks.

Most, but not all. To recover the rest, I've proposed a fee on the biggest banks. Now, I know Wall Street isn't keen on this idea, but if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need.

Now, as we stabilized the financial system, we also took steps to get our economy growing again, save as many jobs as possible, and help Americans who'd become unemployed. That's why we extended or increased unemployment benefits for more than 18 million Americans, made health insurance 65 percent cheaper for families who get their coverage through COBRA, and passed 25 different tax cuts.

Now, let me repeat: We cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college.

(I thought I'd get some applause on that one.)

As a result, millions of Americans had more to spend on gas and food and other necessities, all of which helped businesses keep more workers. And we haven't raised income taxes by a single dime on a single person, not a single dime. Now, because of the steps we took, there are about 2 million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed. Two hundred thousand work in construction and clean energy. Three hundred thousand are teachers and other education workers. Tens of thousands are cops, firefighters, correctional officers, first responders. And we're on track to add another 1.5 million jobs to this total by the end of the year.

The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. That's right, the Recovery Act, also known as the stimulus bill. Economists on the left and the right say this bill has helped saved jobs and avert disaster, but you don't have to take their word for it. Talk to the small business in Phoenix that will triple its workforce because of the Recovery Act. Talk to the window manufacturer in Philadelphia who said he used to be skeptical about the Recovery Act, until he had to add two more work shifts just because of the business it created. Talk to the single teacher raising two kids who was told by her principal in the last week of school that, because of the Recovery Act, she wouldn't be laid off after all. There are stories like this all across America. And after two years of recession, the economy is growing again. Retirement funds have started to gain back some of their value. Businesses are beginning to invest again, and slowly, some are starting to hire again.

But I realize that, for every success story, there are other stories, of men and women who wake up with the anguish of not knowing where their next paycheck will come from, who send out resumes week after week and hear nothing in response. That is why jobs must be our number-one focus in 2010, and that's why I'm calling for a new jobs bill tonight.

Now, the true engine of job creation in this country will always be America's businesses, but government can create the conditions necessary for businesses to expand and hire more workers. We should start where most new jobs do, in small businesses, companies that begin when an entrepreneur takes a chance on a dream or a worker decides it's time she became her own boss. Through sheer grit and determination, these companies have weathered the recession and are ready to grow. But when you talk to small-business owners in places like Allentown, Pennsylvania, or Elyria, Ohio, you find out that even though banks on Wall Street are lending again, they're mostly lending to bigger companies. Financing remains difficult for small-business owners across the country, even though they're making a profit.

So tonight, I'm proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat. I'm also proposing a new small-business tax credit, one that will go to over 1 million small businesses who hire new workers or raise wages. While we're at it, let's also eliminate all capital gains taxes on small-business investment and provide a tax incentive for all large businesses and all small businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.

Next, we can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow. From the first railroads to the Interstate Highway System, our nation has always been built to compete. There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains or the new factories that manufacture clean-energy products. Tomorrow, I'll visit Tampa, Florida, where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad funded by the Recovery Act. There are projects like that all across this country that will create jobs and help move our nation's goods, services and information. We should put more Americans to work building clean-energy facilities and give rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy efficient, which supports clean-energy jobs. And to encourage these and other businesses to stay within our borders, it is time to finally slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas and give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs right here in the United States of America.

Now, the House has passed a jobs bill that includes some of these steps. As the first order of business this year, I urge the Senate to do the same, and I know they will. They will.

People are out of work. They're hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay. But the truth is, these steps won't make up for the 7 million jobs that we've lost over the last two years. The only way to move to full employment is to lay a new foundation for long- term economic growth and finally address the problems that America's families have confronted for years. We can't afford another so-called economic "expansion" like the one from last decade, what some call the "lost decade," where jobs grew more slowly than during any prior expansion, where the income of the average American household declined while the cost of health care and tuition reached record highs, where prosperity was built on a housing bubble and financial speculation.

From the day I took office, I've been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious, such effort would be too contentious. I've been told that our political system is too gridlocked and that we should just put things on hold for a while. For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold? You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China's not waiting to revamp its economy; Germany's not waiting; India's not waiting. These nations, they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.

Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may become, it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth.

Now, one place to start is serious financial reform. Look, I'm not interested in punishing banks. I'm interested in protecting our economy. A strong, healthy financial market makes it possible for businesses to access credit and create new jobs. It channels the savings of families into investments that raise incomes. But that can only happen if we guard against the same recklessness that nearly brought down our entire economy. We need to make sure consumers and middle-class families have the information they need to make financial decisions. We can't allow financial institutions, including those that take your deposits, to take risks that threaten the whole economy.

Now, the House has already passed financial reform with many of these changes. And -- and the lobbyists are trying to kill it. Well, we cannot let them win this fight. And if the bill that ends up on my desk does not meet the test of real reform, I will send it back until we get it right. We've got to get it right.

Next, we need to encourage American innovation. Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history, an investment -- an investment that could lead to the world's cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched.
And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year's investments in clean energy in the North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide, helping to make advanced batteries, or in the California business that will put 1,000 people to work making solar panels. But to create more of these clean-energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives, and that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new off-shore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean-coal technologies. And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. I'm grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. And this year -- this year, I'm eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate.

I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy. I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But -- but here's the thing. Even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future, because the nation that leads the clean-energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy, and America must be that nation.

Third, we need to export more of our goods. Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support 2 million jobs in America. To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports and reform export controls consistent with national security. We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules. And that's why we'll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, and Panama, and Colombia.

Fourth, we need to invest in the skills and education of our people. Now, this year -- this year, we've broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. And the idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform, reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city.

In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential. When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all 50 states. Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. That's why I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families.

To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans. Instead, let's take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants. And let's tell another 1 million students that, when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years, and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college.

And, by the way, it's time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs, because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem.

Now, the price of college tuition is just one of the burdens facing the middle class. That's why last year I asked Vice President Biden to chair a task force on middle-class families. That's why we're nearly doubling the childcare tax credit and making it easier to save for retirement by giving access to every worker a retirement account and expanding the tax credit for those who start a nest egg. That's why we're working to lift the value of a family's single largest investment, their home. The steps we took last year to shore up the housing market have allowed millions of Americans to take out new loans and save an average of $1,500 on mortgage payments. This year, we will step up refinancing so that homeowners can move into more affordable mortgages.

And it is precisely to relieve the burden on middle-class families that we still need health insurance reform. We do.

Now, let's clear a few things up. I didn't choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics. I took on health care because of the stories I've heard, from Americans with pre-existing conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage, patients who've been denied coverage, families, even those with insurance, who are just one illness away from financial ruin.
After nearly a century of trying -- Democratic administrations, Republican administrations -- we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans.
The approach we've taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry. It would give small businesses and uninsured Americans a chance to choose an affordable health care plan in a competitive market. It would require every insurance plan to cover preventive care. And by the way, I want to acknowledge our first lady, Michelle Obama, who this year is creating a national movement to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity and make kids healthier.

Thank you, honey. (She gets embarrassed.)

Our approach would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan. It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses.
And according to the Congressional Budget Office, the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress, our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades. Still, this is a complex issue. And the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering, "What's in it for me?"

But I also know this problem is not going away. By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small-business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.

As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed. There's a reason why many doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.

Let me know. Let me know.I'm eager to see it.

Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform, not now, not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done. Let's get it done.

Now, even as health care reform would reduce our deficit, it's not enough to dig us out of a massive fiscal hole in which we find ourselves. It's a challenge that makes all others that much harder to solve and one that's been subject to a lot of political posturing. So let me start the discussion of government spending by setting the record straight. At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.

Now -- just stating the facts. Now, if we had taken office in ordinary times, I would have liked nothing more than to start bringing down the deficit. But we took office amid a crisis, and our efforts to prevent a second depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt. That, too, is a fact. I'm absolutely convinced that was the right thing to do, but families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.

So tonight, I'm proposing specific steps to pay for the $1 trillion that it took to rescue the economy last year. Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected, but all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.

We will continue to go through the budget line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can't afford and don't work. We've already identified $20 billion in savings for next year.
To help working families, we'll extend our middle-class tax cuts. But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, for investment fund managers, and for those making over $250,000 a year. We just can't afford it.

Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we'll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office. More importantly, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will continue to skyrocket. That's why I've called for a bipartisan Fiscal Commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad.

This can't be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem. The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline. Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans. And when the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason for why we had record surpluses in the 1990s.

Now, I know that some in my own party will argue that we can't address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting. And I agree, which is why this freeze won't take effect until next year, when the economy is stronger.

That's how budgeting works.

But understand -- if we don't take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery, all of which would have an even worse effect on our job growth and family incomes. From some on the right, I expect we'll hear a different argument, that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts, including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away.

The problem is, that's what we did for eight years. That's what helped us into this crisis. It's what helped lead to these deficits. We can't do it again. Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it's time to try something new. Let's invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let's meet our responsibility to the citizens who sent us here. Let's try common sense, a novel concept.

Now, to do that, we have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust, deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap, we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, to end the outsized influence of lobbyists, to do our work openly, to give our people the government they deserve. That's what I came to Washington to do. That's why, for the first time in history, my administration posts our White House visitors online. That's why we've excluded lobbyists from policy- making jobs or seats on federal boards and commissions.
But we can't stop there. It's time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress. It's time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office.

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.

I'm also calling on Congress to continue down the path of earmark reform. Democrats and Republicans, you've trimmed some of this spending. You've embraced some meaningful change, but restoring the public trust demands more. For example, some members of Congress post some earmark requests online. Tonight, I'm calling on Congress to publish all earmark requests on a single Web site before there's a vote so that the American people can see how their money is being spent.

Of course, none of these reforms will even happen if we don't also reform how we work with one another. Now, I'm not naive. I never thought that the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony and some post-partisan era. I knew that both parties have fed divisions that are deeply entrenched. And on some issues, there are simply philosophical differences that will always cause us to part ways. These disagreements, about the role of government in our lives, about our national priorities and our national security, they've been taking place for over 200 years. They're the very essence of our democracy.

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side, a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. I'm speaking of both parties now. The confirmation of well- qualified public servants shouldn't be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators. Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it's precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet -- worse yet, it's sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.

So, no, I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics. I know it's an election year. And after last week, it's clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern. To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let's show the American people that we can do it together.

This week -- this week, I'll be addressing a meeting of the House Republicans. I'd like to begin monthly meetings with both Democratic and Republican leadership. I know you can't wait. Now, throughout our history, no issue has united this country more than our security. Sadly, some of the unity we felt after 9/11 has dissipated. And we can argue all we want about who's to blame for this, but I'm not interested in re-litigating the past.

I know that all of us love this country. All of us are committed to its defense. So let's put aside the schoolyard taunts about who's tough. Let's reject the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values. Let's leave behind the fear and division and do what it takes to defend our nation and forge a more hopeful future, for America and for the world. That's the work we began last year. Since the day I took office, we renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation. We've made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives. We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence. We've prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula. And in the last year, hundreds of Al Qaeda's fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed, far more than in 2008.
And in Afghanistan, we're increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011 and our troops can begin to come home.

We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans, men and women alike. We're joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitment and who'll come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead, but I am absolutely confident we will succeed.
As we take the fight to Al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as president.

We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.

We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and we will continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity. But make no mistake: This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.

Tonight, all of our men and women in uniform -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and around the world -- they have to know that we -- that they have our respect, our gratitude, our full support. And just as they must have the resources they need in war, we all have a responsibility to support them when they come home. That's why we made the largest increase in investments for veterans in decades last year. That's why we're building a 21st-century [Veterans Affairs] And that's why Michelle has joined with Jill Biden to forge a national commitment to support military families.

Now, even as we prosecute two wars, we're also confronting perhaps the greatest danger to the American people, the threat of nuclear weapons. I've embraced the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan through a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons and seeks a world without them. To reduce our stockpiles and launchers, while ensuring our deterrent, the United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades. And at April's Nuclear Security Summit, we will bring 44 nations together here in Washington, D.C., behind a clear goal: securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.

Now, these diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons. That's why North Korea now faces increased isolation and stronger sanctions, sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That's why the international community is more united and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.

That's the leadership we are providing: engagement that advances the common security and prosperity of all people. We're working through the G-20 to sustain a lasting global recovery. We're working with Muslim communities around the world to promote science and education and innovation.

We have gone from a bystander to a leader in the fight against climate change. We're helping developing countries to feed themselves and continuing the fight against HIV/AIDS. And we are launching a new initiative that will give us the capacity to respond faster and more effectively to bioterrorism or an infectious disease, a plan that will counter threats at home and strengthen public health abroad.

As we have for over 60 years, America takes these actions because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores. But we also do it because it is right. That's why, as we meet here tonight, over 10,000 Americans are working with many nations to help the people of Haiti recover and rebuild. That's why we stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan, why we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran, why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea, for America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity, always.

Abroad, America's greatest source of strength has always been our ideals. The same is true at home. We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution, the notion that we're all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law, you should be protected by it, if you adhere to our common values, you should be treated no different than anyone else.

We must continually renew this promise. My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination. We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate.

This year -- this year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do.

We're going to crack down on violations of equal pay laws, so that women get equal pay for an equal day's work.

And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system, to secure our borders, and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nations.

In the end, it's our ideals, our values that built America, values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe, values that drive our citizens still. Every day, Americans meet their responsibilities to their families and their employers. Time and again, they lend a hand to their neighbors and give back to their country. They take pride in their labor and are generous in spirit. These aren't Republican values or Democratic values that they're living by, business values or labor values. They're American values.

Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions -- our corporations, our media, and, yes, our government -- still reflect these same values. Each of these institutions are full of honorable men and women doing important work that helps our country prosper. But each time a CEO rewards himself for failure or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people's doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.

No wonder there's so much cynicism out there. No wonder there's so much disappointment. I campaigned on the promise of change, change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change, or that I can deliver it.

But remember this: I never suggested that change would be easy or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is. Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.

But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago or 100 years ago or 200 years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard, to do what was needed even when success was uncertain, to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.

Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved. But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year. And what keeps me going, what keeps me fighting, is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism, that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people, that lives on. It lives on in the struggling small-business owner who wrote to me of his company, "None of us," he said, "are willing to consider, even slightly, that we might fail." It lives on in the woman who said that, even though she and her neighbors have felt the pain of recession, "We are strong, we are resilient, we are American." It lives on in the 8-year-old boy in Louisiana who just sent me his allowance and asked if I would give it to the people of Haiti. And it lives on in all the Americans who've dropped everything to go some place they've never been and pull people they've never known from the rubble, prompting chants of "USA! USA! USA!" when another life was saved.

The spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in you, its people.
We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us.

We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment, to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America."

Et Tu, SOTU?

Not quite a year ago, Obama delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress. It was technically too early in his tenure to count as a "State of the Union" address, but it was effectively that. We still had not come down off the high of his electoral victory yet, and Obama's 2/25/09 speech was aimed to keep that exicitement alive in the face of an increasingly bleak picture of the situation he was inheriting. Obama did not shy away from painting the full darkness of that bleak picture for his audience, gently chastising us for allowing "critical debates and difficult decisions to be put off for some other time on some other day." Then, he said:

Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and it's time to take charge of our future.

That was a year ago, and it seems as if too many days of reckoning have come and gone in the interim. The economy is no better, health care reform has yet to be realized, Gitmo soldiers on, there is no end in sight to our war-involvement, accountability and responsibility are inconvenient afterthoughts-- and that's not even to mention the education and clean energy visions that still remain the stuff of dreams. Of course, Obama could never have, and still cannot, do it alone. Too many of his supporters checked-out after casting their votes for him. But we still need a change we can believe in.

Jonathan Cohn over at The New Republic writes that Obama needs to give "the speech of his life... again" tonight. I agree. But what worries me, more than a little, is that a year from now I will look back on this State of the Union with the same muted frustration. Like Cornel West, I desparately hope that Obama does not use his platform tonight to concede, to "cut deals," to recoil. Here's what I want to hear him say:

1. We haven't accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in my first year, and I am partially responsible for those failures. I'm not giving up. I need your help.

2. To the Congressmen and -women in the room, you are failing your constituents on health care reform. To the American men and women watching at home, you must hold them responsible for their failure. A public option is the only way to stop the hemorrhaging.

3. I compromised the moral integrity of this nation by not closing Guantanamo Bay, by suppressing the evidence of the previous administration's war crimes, by not taking a lead role in the promotion of fair trials for detainees, and by re-engaging us in wars for which we do not have clear exit strategies. I am committed to human rights and the rule of law. I will not slough off my responsibility for seeing those principles promoted and protected on my watch.

4. My love for poor and working people is deep. Deeper than my love for banks, corporations, or politicians.

5. Bipartisanship is a means to an end, not an end-in-itself. On some issues, one side or the other of the Aisle is wrong. I will not be afraid of a fight, and I will not govern for the sake of poll numbers.

I hope that President Obama says these things, and then makes good on them. Otherwise, I fear, tonight will be merely another "speech of his life." Et tu, SOTU?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Another Milestone

Thanks to a nice bump in traffic today, courtesy of our friends over at Daily Kos (who linked to this blog's transcript of Cornel West's note to Obama), we just topped 40K hits! So, let me take this opportunity to thank all of the regular and non-regular visitors to this site. Please keep coming back. If you haven't done so already, I invite you to take a moment to scroll down the column on your right and become a Follower of this blog.

And, of course, as always:
Read more. Write more. Think more. Be more.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cornel West's Note to Obama: "How Deep Is Your Love For Poor And Working People?"

Just a couple of days ago, BBC News posted a video message from Princeton Professor Cornel West to President Barack Obama, on the occasion of Obama's first anniversary in office. Unfortunately, the video itself cannot be embedded here, but if you click on West's picture to the left, it will take you to the BBC site where you can watch the video in its entirety. I've taken the liberty of providing a transcript of West's note to Obama below (and adding links where I thought they might be helpful).

"My Dear Brother President Barack Obama,

I salute your unprecedented, historic victory. Just a year ago, we were there celebrating on the Mall. And here we are 12 months later, and I must say that, despite your brilliance, despite your charisma, I'm disappointed when it comes to the fundamental question, which is a question of priorities, a question of urgency: How deep is your love for poor and working people?

We need democratic policies, not technocratic policies. Your
economic team has little or no concern about poor and working people. Job creation is an afterthought. You say the recession is over, but 10.2% of our precious citizens are still unemployed, and many of those have given up working. How deep is your love for poor and working people? Don't be seduced by the elite.

I applaud your brilliance; I applaud your charisma. You changed the image of America. But don't simply be the friendly face of the American Empire. Many lives hang on your courage, and you cannot do it alone. Like
Abraham Lincoln who needed the Abolitionist movement, like F.D.R. who needed the Labor movement, you need a Progressive movement to push you. That's what we, I, plan to do. But you have to be receptive.

You are in a tough situation. I understand that. But as you recall from a discussion that we had two years ago, if you cannot keep alive the legacy of
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Myles Horton and Dorothy Day and César Chávez, in the States, and connected to the empowerment of those Frantz Fanon called "the wretched of the earth," you will end up just another colorful caretaker of an Empire in decline and a culture in decay. I believe like Martin King that democracy can be reinvigorated, can be revitalized. But it takes courage. You can't just cut deals. You have to take a stand. You have to have backbone.

So I wish you well. Continue. I will continue to put pressure on you, loving pressure, because in the end it's not about you, it's not about me, it's not about any isolated set of individuals. It's about forces that will ensure that poor and working people live lives of decency and dignity. Bless you, my brother, and stay strong."

I doubt there are many people who could effectively execute this manner of "loving pressure" on the Leader of the Free World, and I am glad to see West do it. Sometimes speaking truth to power means speaking truth to one's friends-- a delicate, precarious, but obligatory challenge for the politically and critically engaged. The rhetorical force of West's question-- how deep is your love for poor and working people?-- is undeniable. Like West, like many, I too have been disappointed by the failure to accomplish a change I can believe in over the past year. But also like West, and I hope like many, I realize that Obama cannot effect that change alone. He does, in fact, need a Progressive movement to buttress him, to provoke him, and to hold him accountable. And any movement that does not promise itself, without reservation and without exception, to the care of poor and working people, that does not direct its activity at cultivating all of our potential to live lives of decency and dignity, that does not refuse the seduction of the elite, is not progressive.

Be strong, and stay strong, Mr. President.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rove at Rhodes: A Master Class in Sophistry

This past Wednesday evening, exactly one year to the day after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I attended "An Evening with Karl Rove" at Rhodes College. Rove was invited by the Student Lecture Board with support from the Young America's Foundation, and he delivered a "closed" address to Rhodes students, faculty, staff and alumni. As someone very criticial of Rove and the Bush Administration with which Rove was closely associated-- including (but not limited to) his highly questionable strategic involvement in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential campaigns, his manipulation of the Valerie Plame affair, his refusal to answer Congress' subpeona calling on him to account for his role in the suspicious dismissal of U.S. Attorneys, his role as one of the so-called "architects" of our war in Iraq, and his continued justification of the U.S. military's use of torture-- I was initially reluctant to attend his lecture. However, partly out of genuine curiosity and partly out of a desire to model for my students open-minded engagement, I went and stayed throughout the 45-minute-or-so lecture and the considerably longer Q&A session following.

First, I should say that Rove is, not surprisingly, a first-rate rhetorician. He took the podium promptly at 8pm, made a few self-effacing jokes about his status as a "controversial" figure, gave a shout-out to his Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers, graciously acknowledged his hosts, and generally set the tone for a warm and relaxed, "folksy" sort of meeting. He opened with a reference to the 2008 elections, a contest between what Rove called a "heroic" man (McCain) and a "historic" man (Obama). As evidence of his characterization of the first, Rove told the story of Colonel Bud Day, Vietnam War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, who was captured and tortured in North Vietnam along with John McCain. 2008 Presidential candidate McCain not only suffered the horror and indignity of the prisoner-of-war camp with Colonel Day, but also demonstrated tremendous courage and compassion towards his fellow-prisoners, at one point even fashioning a makeshift splint out of bamboo and rags for Day's severly injured arm. And so, Rove asked (on behalf of his audience), how did Obama win out over such a hero? Obama "set a tone," he was a "relentless centrist," he promised hope, healthcare and lower taxes. But, according to Rove, Obama was unqualified for the position and he misrepresented himself terribly. Now, we are paying the price for the electorate's error.

The better part of Rove's address (probably the next 30 minutes or so) was an issue-by-issue account of what has gone wrong since President Obama took office. All of the expected targets were there (our grown deficit, bank and auto industry bail-outs, the stimulus package, concession to unions, cap and trade, tax increases), but what struck me most about this portion of his address was the manner in which he framed his criticisms. Rove rolled out a machine-gun assault of statistics and figures-- almost none of them with corresponding reference to their source-- which gave his audience, myself included, the impression of a man with a masterful (even if dizzying) command of the issues at stake. Only, the more the numbers piled up-- 18 million!, 46 percent!, 6.2 billion!, 320 thousand!... dollars! people! losses! lives!-- the less clear it became that there was a perfect, isomorphic relation between a masterful command of the numbers and a masterful command of the issues that those numbers are meant to quantify. This became tragically evident when Rove turned to health care...

I'm not convinced that anyone has accurate figures on the number of Americans living without (more or less adequate) health insurance. In fact, I am completely convinced that the debate over health care is driven largely by the manipulation of (more or less mutable) statistics. The number that we hear most often these days is "46 million uninsured," which is the number put forth by the (presumably) politically-neutral U.S. Census Bureau. Health care advocacy groups will often put that number much higher, sometimes twice as much, noting that we also need to count people who have sporadic or insufficient healthcare coverage. Opponents of healthcare reform will, correspondingly, put the number much lower, insisting that illegal immigrants, people who "qualify" for federal insurance programs but have not opted-in, those under 35 who think they're too young and healthy to need coverage, and the very-wealthy who simply pay for healthcare out-of-pocket should not be counted. Not surprisingly, Rove sides with the latter. But what was surprising was that Rove's projected number of uninsured Americans lowballs even the most conservative estimates. After an arguably fast-and-loose barrage of calculations in his lecture, Rove claimed that there are only 5 million uninsured Americans. That is, hardly enough to warrant "reform."

Again, granting the fact that the number-of-uninsured-Americans all by itself is debatable, the problem with Rove's deployment of his chosen set of statistics was the inference drawn, namely, that we don't have a "healthcare problem" in this country. But, I fear, the audience had already been primed at this point in his lecture-- after the onslaught of numbers accompanied by his alternate appeals to authority ("I actually read these boring documents in their entirety, people") and folksy self-effacement ("I'm from Texas, we're simple people, and we can just do the math")-- to accede that, sure, 5 million uninsured in a country of over 300 million really doesn't constitute a "problem." Nevermind that half of all bankruptcies filed in the U.S. are the result of healthcare costs. Nevermind that the healthcare industry's annual profit margin has grown to an astounding $200 billion. And nevermind that a good portion of those profits are funneled into politics, lobbying to keep us all gripped its ever-tightening vice. That is to say, nevermind that, even if you want to make this a mere matter of numbers, there are other relevant numbers to consider. No, the inference that Rove implored us to accept along with him is that we're being hoodwinked into believing that the "is" of healthcare implies an "ought." Move along people, there is nothing here to be done.

This is exactly the sort of rhetoric of which I spend my days (and, too often, my nights) trying to covince my students to be passionately, vigilantly, suspicious. It's Sophistry 101: the subordination of moral, political, and philosophical truth to what Mark Twain called "lies, damned lies, and statistics." It reminds me of Frantz Fanon's claim, near the beginning of Black Skin, White Masks, that rhetorics like these are, ironically, alienating both for the "duped" targets who suffer the consequences of its funhouse-mirror claims and also for the "duped and duping" perpetuators of those canards. And speaking of funhouse mirrors...

As regular readers of this blog might anticipate, I was most interested to hear whether or not Rove would address the issue of torture, a.k.a. "enhanced interrogation techniques," and whether or not he would defend torture as morally, politically or legally permissable (despite all of the evidence to the contrary, I mean all of it, and still more if it, and more, by everyone, not just me, but even people you wouldn't expect to say so). Rove, without apology or any apparent reservation, did just that. One of President Obama's biggest mistakes, according to Rove, is "treating terrorism as a crime and not a war." I cannot exaggerate how quickly my jaw dropped when Rove, in reference to both appeals for Gitmo detainees to receive trials and the recent arrest of terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the "underwear bomber"), claimed that giving terrorist suspects a fair trial is "treating them like they were trying to knock over a 7-11 and not like they were trying to destroy a country." The only way to keep America safe, according to Rove, is to use whatever methods we have at our disposal-- including torture-- to keep enemy combatants (not citizens, not foreign nationals, not prisoners of war... that is, people completely without status or protection) "singing like canaries." According to Rove, Obama simply doesn't understand this, and despite what Obama has promised, Rove speculates that Gitmo and all other detention centers like it will still be open and operational a year from now, if not longer.

(On that last point, unfortunately, I think Rove is probably right. Not because Obama is wrong about wanting detention centers like Guantanamo Bay closed, but because fearmongerers like Rove, with absolutely no respect for the rule of law, still prevail over reasoned discourse on the matter. CLOSE GITMO!)

I've said more than my fair share about human rights and torture on this blog, so let me just note for the record that the most egregriously offensive part of Rove's address was his defense (again) of torture in the name of American democracy. Especially given the fact that he bookended his talk with two anecdotes of the tragic moral, political and personal casualties of war. I think that national security is an important issue in these days of terrorism and non-state actors, and I think that it shows a profound lack of appreciation for the demands of realpolitik when the Left denies that, but that acknowledgement is a far cry from what I saw as Rove's reckless abandonment of many of the core principles of modern, and more specifically, American democracy. If we can so quickly disavow our obligation to the principle of the rule of law for the sake of (erroneously speculative) consequentialist gains, then we ought to explicitly own the consequences of that kind of consequentialism as well. A democracy with no self-imposed and self-regulated obligation to the rule of law or human rights is not a democracy. Full stop.

In conclusion, let me say that Rove's address certainly gave me more insight into the affective appeal of radical conservative discourse, and I was (despite myself) initially impressed with the skill and ease-- not to mention self-assured bravado-- with which Rove performatively enacted the role of a Republican "strategist." But, upon reflection, I think that to describe Rove as a "strategist" is a mistake. He is tactical, not strategic. His are the tools and weapons of the battle, not the war. He sees the trees, not the forest. And so, in the end, his role is but a bit part in the small picture, not the big one. As freshman philosophy students are fond of saying, it's all a matter of one's opinion, really, since no one can legitimately make any claims to "truth." There is, of course, some merit to that claim, inasmuch as it allows us a manner of establishing critical leverage on what we take to be "received" truths, what the Greeks would call doxa (δόξα). But every doxa has a place in some larger logos (λόγος), and it is ultimately that larger structure of Reason, of reason-giving, and of those for-the-sakes-of-which-reasons-are-given that finally constitute the substance of what one takes to be truth that governs action. It is there, in the very heart of the for-the-sake-of-which that I hear Rove as, finally, a charlatan, a sophist, and a deceiver. And it is also there that I heard Rove advocate the very opposite of his host's vision, Rhodes College's Vision, for what it means to be an engaged intellectual and citizen.

According to that vision, we are not ever or only self-interested individuals. We are deeply embedded in, and profondly obligated to, the social and political communities in which we find ourselves. That means, at the very least, that we must steady ourselves to view every human loss as a loss that cannot be counterbalanced, every abrogation of the rule of law as an allowance for injustice, every moral compromise on the basis of calculation as a threat to principled vigilance, and every concession to sophistic persuasion as an abandonment of intellectual integrity. That is to say, we must steady ourselves to see the big picture, in which the idiosyncracies of our individual, personal, or partisan concerns will be judged by history, which dwarfs and ultimately erases the singularity of each of us.

To that end, I think we in the Rhodes community are obligated view Rove's visit as the introduction of an enemy combatant into our midst. By virtue of our own principles, that means we are obligated to treat him with impartiality and fairness... but also to judge him, negatively in the final analysis, for his violations of those same principles.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dark Side of Theory

A few days ago, I posted an entry on this blog ("The Orchid Hypothesis") about an article I had read in The Atlantic and found interesting. The Atlantic article was about a series of experiments and theoretical speculations that seemed to challenge some of our orthodox assumptions about the relationship between genetics and behavior, and offered in their stead an alternative understanding of human "vulnerability" as a kind of "plasticity and sensitivity"that may itself account for the success of our species. (The original article is here.) As many of us are prone to do, I suspect, I read the article through the filter of my own interests, and found my interest piqued by the possibility that some of the claims in the article might be compatible with (and even helpful for) some of my own research work. No harm there, right?

Wrong.

Let me just start off here by thanking my readers-- especially Scu, Brunson, and Anotherpanacea-- for reminding me that for every silver lining there is a dark cloud. I was so juiced about how I might potentially extract some of the broadest implications of the article's claims that I, quite regrettably, overlooked many of the details. Important details. Like, as Brunson pointed out, that the same claims could be used (and have been used) to support arguments in favor of the genetic superiority of males. AnPan seconded this suspicion by reminding me that the disciplinary frame of the article I was so enamoured with was still evolutionary psychology, which has a long and storied record of naturalizing (and, consequently justifying) gender inequities in the name of good "science." Perhaps more disturbingly, I also overlooked the details of the experiments themselves-- on both children and animals-- that were forwarding the research being heralded in the article. Scu posted a kind of exposé of that research over on his own blog (in a post titled "Vulnerability and Animal Experimentation") that, first, shocked and horrified me with its account of the scientists' utter cruelty and indifference to animal vulnerability and, second, embarrassed me for so quickly glossing over these experiments in the course of hurrying on to praise their results. After reading their comments, I felt a bit like the kid in A Christmas Story, who was so impressed with his shiny new Red Ryder BB gun (with a compass in the stock) that he ignored its very real danger of shooting his eye out.

If one learns anything at all from deconstruction, it first must be that every system, structure, theory, text or context of meaning has many hidden nooks and crannies that, quite often, harbor all varieties of contradictions, countermemories, aporias and other means for its own undoing. So, mea culpa. I did not read (or think) carefully enough in this instance, and I am deeply appreciative of my critical readers for reminding me so. But I am also inclined to say that this is a hazard of the occupation in which we are engaged, that is, the occupation of thinking through, perhaps even thinking beyond, the narratives handed over to us. An unavoidable hazard, even. I do not offer that as an apology so much as an observation, a reminder to myself and others that the work we do is sometimes perilous, sometimes strange, often unpredictable.

In a comment to his own post, Scu remarked on his "frustration" with the erasure of details (in both the Atlantic article and my post) about the horrors of animal experimentation. He writes:
Frustrated is a good word, I think. Frustrated and sympathetic in a way. As a fellow nerd I understand the desire to be caught up in the cool science and nifty implications. But if we are going to be ethical and political beings, if we are going to reconceive the basis of rights on the grounds of vulnerability and precariousness, we need to cultivate an awareness of what is being done in the name of understanding our humanity.
There is a part of me that suspects that, in this case, I am one of the people "caught up in the cool science and nifty implications" to which Scu is referring. And, I suppose, that's an at least partially accurate description, in this case. But I could not agree with him more in his subsequent warning. I have never shied away, on this blog and elsewhere, from stating categorically that the chief concerns of my research concern human suffering, human vulnerability and precariousness, and human rights. And yet, I hope-- and I have also stated this, categorically, here and elsewhere-- that the work I am doing is not being undertaken in a kind of blissful ignorance of the manner in which our form of life and the life of other Others is co-implicated. And I could not agree more with Scu when he reminds us that, just as the Master cannot speak of his own superiority over the Slave without recognizing the Slave's empowering-power, so too can we not speak of the difference between our (human) suffering and the suffering of non-human animals without recognizing our co-participation in a shared community of sentient life.

I still intend to post another entry on the Orchid Hypothesis, which I still find a "cool science with nifty implications," but I obviously have some more thinking to do about it first. But I wanted to post this entry as a provocation for all of us to think more on the darker sides of the theories that claim our attention.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Quiet Desperation

The new film Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman of Juno and Thank You For Smoking fame, has gotten a lot of buzz lately, most of it surrounding George Clooney's performance as a "corporate downsizer" (he fires people for a living) and for-all-intents-and-purposes homeless, constantly "up in the air" business traveler (his greatest aim is to reach the 10-million-airline-miles mark). I just saw the film, and this is one instance in which I can say without reservation that all the hoopla is warranted. This is an excellent film, reminiscent of Lost in Translation, only deeper and, in the end, sadder.

[I'm going to toss out my usual rule about avoiding spoilers because, with this film, there's just too much to talk about and, with this director, I don't think that anyone who has seen his other films will be terribly surprised by anything that may be revealed in this post.]

There's a well-worn stereotype of our modern life that paints it as ultimately vacuous, disconnected, lonely and quietly desperate. For all of the social networking and up-to-the-minute information gathering and easy globetrotting at our disposal, we don't really connect in meaningful ways with other human beings around us. Clooney's character in Up in the Air (Ryan Bingham) is the very living, breathing confirmation of this suspicion. At the beginning of the film, we see the preternatural ability with which Bingham has mastered the art of travel. He packs his carry-on suitcase with the precision of a scientist, he navigates the minefield of airport security checks with ease and aplomb, he carries in his wallet every possible "perks" card, which he has dutifully earned by being a loyal customer of airlines, hotels, car-rental agencies, restaurants. He is efficient, professional, almost affectless in the execution of his routines. The airports, the hotels, the skies are his "home." In the voiceover narration, Bingham tells us: "Anyone who has flown with me has known me." And he appears to mean it.

But, think of that. What is the longest one is ever on a domestic flight? Six hours, tops? What does it mean to say that the people who really "know" you have had that little time with you? Bingham's self-description is further confirmed when the film lets us peek in on his sideline occupation as a "motivational" speaker. In his lectures, entitled "What's In Your Backpack?", Bingham asks his audience to imagine all of the things that matter to them, and to imagine putting all of those things into a backpack. First, we pack in the "stuff" of our lives: knick-knacks, furtniture, cars and homes, all the possessions that we value. Then, we pack in people: co-workers, friends, children and spouses. The backpack gets heavier. Bingham asks his audience if they can feel the straps of their backpacks cutting into their shoulders, burdening them in ways that make it almsot impossible to move forward. Something has to give... but what? Bingham advises:

Your relationships are the heaviest components in your life... We weigh ourselves down until we can't move... The slower we move, the faster we die. Make no mistake. Moving is living.

Because George Clooney plays Bingham and because, well, he's Goerge Clooney, there's something undeniably seductive about his no-attachments and no-baggage advice. (An aside: I highly recomment AnPan's recent post on the merits and demerits of "advice." Read it.) But it wouldn't really be a Reitman film if it didn't call into question our simultaneous attraction-to and revulsion-towards the "up in the air" life. Of course, we all think, life would be so much easier-- perhaps even happier-- if we weren't weighed down by all of the responsibilities and obligations that our connections with other people demand. If only our connections with other people were like connecting flights... just momentary stop-overs on our way to somewhere else. But for Bingham, the perpetual traveller, there is no ultimate "somewhere else," no telos, no final destination. They're all connecting flights.

Of course, these endless connections-without-connection eventually wear on Bingham. Forced to travel with a young, naively romantic co-worker (Anna Kendrick) who is placed under his cynical tutelage for a few weeks, and after hooking-up with a fellow-business-traveller (Vera Farmiga) who somehow manages to touch something needy in him, and after traveling home to his sister's (Melanie Lynsky) wedding to discover that he knows his own family only as well as the airport check-in agents, Bingham is finally forced to realize that his heretofore "quiet" desperation is beginning to roar. And so he resolves to do it differently, to make a real connection.

Here's what I absolutely loved about this film. (And here comes the spoiler, so stop reading if you don't want to know.) Unlike the connection that we are shown at the end of Lost in Translation, elusive and ambiguous as it may have been, Up in the Air doesn't resolve the existential crisis for us. What we see in Bingham's too-late realization that he wants more, and his devastating realization that the person he thought he could get that "more" with already has it, is the sad but simple truth of all self-realizations:

Wishing doesn't make it so. In fact, wishing can't make it so.

There are years and years, miles and miles, of habits and beliefs and practices and connections and missed-connections that cannot be simply undone the moment one realizes they have been done badly. If we invest in the solitary life, the life unencumbered, we reap its risks just as surely as we reap its rewards. There are rewards, to be sure, but in the end, Bingham seems to realize that, perhaps, the risks have outweighed the rewards, despite his motivational message that eliminating "weight" is its own reward. And so we find him at the end of the film still alone, staring at an enormous airport screen that dwarfs him and his existential crisis, utterly indifferent to both. He doesn't win, but he doesn't die, in the film, because that's not how real life happens. Real life happens in those moments of quiet desperation, often left unresolved, that are never really "desperate" in the tragic or epic sense. They're just lonely, idiosyncratic, lost in translation... and ever en route to somewhere else.

The Orchid Hypothesis

On my way back from the APA conference a week ago, I picked up a copy of The Atlantic in Laguardia to read on the plane ride home. In it, there was a fascinating article by David Dobbs called "The Science of Success," which discusses the influence of certain genetic factors on social/psychological development. Dobbs recounts the studies of Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, who set out to test a dominant hypothesis of psychistry and behavioral science known as the "stress diathesis" or "genetic vulnerability" model. That hypothesis speculates that people who suffer from mood, psychiatric or personality disorders do so because of variants in key behavioral genes that make the sufferers more susceptible to things like depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, increased risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic or violent behavior. However, according to the current understanding of the model, the mere possession of these gene variants is not enough to bring about the undesirable effects. Rather, the problems have been observed to ensue "if and only if the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life." Consequently, these psychological and behavioral phenomena are given a combination genetics-and-environment explanation.

The hypothesis that Bakersman-Kranenburg and her associates were going to challenge is known as the "vulnerability hypothesis," because what it hypothesizes is not about predetermined certainties in development, but rather risks and liabilities. But what if those same risks and vulnerabilities, which are disastrous if activated by negative life experiences, were also indicators of a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience? If the subjects' environment presented them with particularly positive nurturing or cultivating experiences, then wouldn't the "vulnerability' now present itself as a great strength? Bakersman-Kranenburg's studies seemed to show that this was, in fact, the case. As Dobbs explains, borrowing a metaphor from developmental psychologists Bruce Ellis and W. Thomas Boyce, most "healthy" or "normal" children-- they call these children "dandelion" children-- have pretty resilient genes, the consequence of human biological evolution. Dandelion children will do well almost anywhere, "whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden." But Ellis and Boyce argue that there are also "orchid" children, who "will wilt if ignored or mistreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care."

Dobbs claims, and I am inclined to agree, that this "orchid hypothesis" is more than just an addendum to the "vulnerability hypothesis" (merely tacking-on the observation that genes can steer a person up as well as down). Rather, this is a radically new way to think about the relationship between genetics and behavior, as well as a critical amendment to our dominant understandings of human evolution. Dobbs writes:

Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness. It’s one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

What's more, the orchid hypothesis (also called the "plasticity hypothesis," the "sensitivity hypothesis" or the "differential-susceptibility hypothesis") answers an important evolutionary question that the vulnerability hypothesis could not: if variants of certain genes create mainly dysfunction and trouble, how have they survived natural selection? Again, from Dobbs:

This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength. For more than a decade, proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation, cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.

Needless to say, the better part of Dobbs' article follows scientists' studies on children and Rhesus monkeys that seem to prove the validity of the orchid hypothesis. I won't go into the details of those studies, but I recommend your taking a look at them. What interests me in this story is the manner in which some scientists are recontextualizing human "risk" and "vulnerability" as possible strength. More specifically, what interests me is the posssibility of incorporating this hypothesis into my own work on weak humanism. So, take this post as a kind of precursor to an upcoming post, in which I think I may be able to recast some of my earlier speculations in terms of delicate flowers.

Monday, January 04, 2010

When Growing-Up Is NOT "The Bomb"

It's been a while since I've recommended a book on this blog, the last one being Junot Diaz's tragic and beautiful The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Part of the reason for the absence of good fiction here is because I went through a bit of a literary drought recently, reading several books that struck me as just, well, mediocre. (Among the ho-hums in the past few months: Don DeLillo's Falling Man, Richard Price's Lush Life, Philip Roth's Everyman, and David Ambrose's The Man Who Turned Into Himself. None of them bad really, just nothing to write home-- or on this blog-- about.) So, I was pleased to have been given cause to declare the end of the drought upon finishing Marshall Boswell's Alternative Atlanta, a kind of 30-something's coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of 1996 Atlanta, when that city hosted the Olympics... and, you might recall, somebody set off a bomb.

[Full disclosure: Boswell is a friend and colleague of mine. But as friends and colleagues of mine near and far can attest, that fact alone doesn't win anyone any favors when it comes to my evaluating their work. That is to say, the favor expressed in this review is not derivative of my knowing the author in advance.]

First, let me say that Boswell couldn't have embedded his protagonist (Gerald Brinkman) in a more perfect milieu. Because we readers all know that a bomb went off at the Atlanta Olympics, and because we all know that there's no way it's not going to go off in the story somewhere, the novel moves through the paces of Brinkman's bildungsroman carefully holding in suspense the expectation that something momentous, and possibly something terrible, is about to happen. Of course, that feeling is a marker of all good bildungsroman stories, I suppose, or at least all of them that manage to cultivate real interest in the protagonist. But given the thoroughly non-interesting character of Brinkman, as Boswell initially presents him anyway, the Atlanta background is an especially clever device. As one of Brinkman's (and, I suspect, Boswell's) heroes, John Lennon, once said: "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." Sometimes, as is the case with the protagonist in Alternative Atlanta, life is what happens when you're avoiding making plans at all.

Brinkman is the archetype of a thirty-something underachiever. He works at a job that he is (and thinks he is) better than. He dodges filial, familial and romantic relationships with a kind of haphazardness that is (and he knows is) lazily pathological. He invests the lion's share of his time and attention in pop culture and alternative-music-scene obsessions that are (and he secretly fears are) indications of his abiding adolescence. He misses too many appointments, he sleeps too late, he smokes too much pot, he barely cleans his meager hovel of an apartment, he intentionally overlooks social trangressions like his mismatched socks, his wrinkled shirts, his otherwise disheveled presentation, his un-returned phone calls. He is overeducated and undermotivated. He is that guy. And he needs to get his sh*t together.

What Boswell captures so nicely in Brinkman's story is something that is, inviolably, a fundamental law of one's thirties: it's time to get your sh*t together. It's the time when one faces, with more or less acceptance, that one is an adult. It's the time when friends (some of them exes) get married, have kids, find success. It's the time when parents begin to show their age, slow down, get sick, need their (adult) children. It's the time to slip on the garments of a semi-stable identity, to write the concluding paragraphs to the finding-oneself story of one's twenties. Or, at least, it's the time that we are habituated to believe that all of those things should happen. Only for Brinkman, like for many of us who feel like we just woke up one day to find we were there, that project of growing-up doesn't look so easy, or so interesting.

Because Alternative Atlanta includes several plot-twists, I don't want to give away any spoilers. So I'll just say that Brinkman's journey through the minefield of his life that summer in 1996 is wrought with both unexpected peril and unexpected joy. And for all his attempts to lay the filter of his truncated graduate school education on top of it-- Heidegger, Derrida, and other so-called "postmodern" references abound-- it is an utterly familiar, utterly common, and (to use Nietzsche's phrase) utterly human-all-too human life. Boswell compellingly captures the hit-or-miss project of meaning-making, of becoming-a-subject, of fashioning something solid and enduring out of the transient, elusive and ambiguous vicissitudes of a human life. And that is why, despite all of his feigned disinterest, we can find Brinkman so interesting nonetheless.

One last thing: the epigraph to Boswell's novel is a quote from Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, in which The Tragic Dane speculates "If I am able to apprehend God, objectively, I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this, I must have faith." As far as I can tell, that's pretty much the last mention of God in the text. Like the Olympic bomb, I read much of the novel waiting for God to show up as well. But this is not, in the end, a novel about God or the bomb or any of the other myriad "events" that constitute the elements of Brinkman's summer in Atlanta. It's a story about what those things mean, or don't mean, and how the determination of meaning in the existential sense-- which is the only sense that really matters, isn't it?-- is not a science and cannot ever give us objective value. For that, I would put Boswell squarely in the camp of writers (like Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, David Foster Wallace and, well, Kierkegaard) who dare to undertake the "big" questions by traversing the "small" lives and events that make those questions matter. It's an "alternative" route to (some kind of) Truth, to be sure, but sometimes you have to get off the highway to see what there is to be seen.