Last night’s state of the union address by the U.S. President evoked responses that were less about what the president said and more about the ongoing competition between opposing forces desiring control over the future of America. Those on the left used the opportunity to either bolster their man in the executive branch or nitpick about how their pet issue didn’t receive its due portion of attention. Those on the right used the opportunity to bolster their various claims about what is wrong with the man in the oval office.
It was a good speech. It ran a little long for my taste, but it emphasized positive things and points on which most everyone could agree. I don’t always listen to state of the union addresses, and I’m pretty sure that most of America tuned out of this one as well. Most would rather digest it after its been properly chewed by our favorite pundits. These pundits reinforce our own opinions and prejudices while injecting enough sensationalism to keep us listening, watching, or reading.
Our addiction to easy and processed narratives about our society turns the job of governing into a sport between political forces. Policy and civics are boring, but a good fight is always entertaining and invigorating. Nobody watches C-SPAN; everybody’s watching Fox or ESPN. The biggest problem with the sports metaphor for civics in America is that our energies are focused on tackling our political opponents rather than tackling America’s problems.
There are moments (like the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords) that cause us to pause, but such pauses last only as long as the news cycle that keeps that moment alive. Such pauses don’t reflect sincere reflection; they are a fleeting reaction to the latest water-cooler topic. We should do better than this, but I am at a loss as to figure out what might motivate us.
I fear we demand a common enemy in order to unite. And historically that enemy has always been a political power that threatens us. In other words, we tend to unite as a reaction to a threat. We should do better than this. We should find a way to unite in a proactive way rather than a reactive way.