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SOTU: America vs. the World

January 27th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

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After watching President Obama’s State of the Union Address, I didn’t think there was anything about it particularly worth writing about, and that any opinions I had would be expressed by other bloggers and commentators a million times over. But after a few days of reading and hearing others’ commentary it seems I do have something to say that nobody else is really saying.

Obviously there was much praise directed at Obama for how centrist and bipartisan the speech was, a perception greatly augmented by the fact that Republicans and Democrats had a mixed seating arrangement so it wasn’t as easy to tell as in previous years which policies were supported only by one party or the other (which in my opinion also made it much less interesting). And the speech-writer himself did a great job of lumping liberal ideas together with conservative ideas, often in the same sentence (as the mention of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was followed immediately by a call to college campuses to open their doors again to ROTC recruiters). One thing almost everyone can agree on is that Obama laid out a vision for America that transcends the partisan divide.

Obama’s essential idea was this: the most important battle of our time is not that of Republicans vs. Democrats or conservatives vs. liberals, but rather America vs. the rest of the world.

America, the president basically said, is losing its edge. Foreign countries—China in particular—are catching up with us rapidly and unless we come together and find solutions that can push us ahead again, we are in danger of falling behind. We should think of this as a “Sputnik moment” in which Americans of all political stripes join forces against the real enemy: foreign countries.

“What’s wrong with that?” many might say. It seems a perfectly acceptable tactic—the best way to unite two foes is by invoking a bigger foe that both have in common. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, we would all like for America to remain top-dog on the world stage, wouldn’t we? Heaven forbid we become some kind of second-rate world power like those countries in…ugh…Europe. We all know how miserable those Europeans are.

I live in Europe and every day I hear people lamenting their non-superpower status. “I can barely make myself get up in the morning,” they say. “What’s the point of living if your country isn’t the most powerful nation in the world?” Sure, they work shorter hours, take longer vacations, enjoy guaranteed affordable health care and the comfort of knowing that losing their job won’t mean financial ruin, but none of that matters when their country can’t kick every other country’s ass economically and militarily. Yes, their existence is pretty dismal.

But in all seriousness, there are far more important things than being Numero Uno. There are far more important divisions than those of nation-states. Yes, conservatives and liberals share more common ground than we think, but so too do average Americans have more in common with average citizens of other nations than most of us think.

It seemed to me that the president was drawing a line across a battlefield with both Democrats and Republicans on one side and other nations on the other. In my mind, this is not where the line should be drawn at all. America is perfectly capable of out-competing the rest of the world without the middle class reaping any of the benefits from our nation’s success, which is the way things are going now. As the president said, we still have the world’s largest and strongest economy. We also have incredibly high rates of unemployment and poverty. American-based corporations are kicking ass on the world-stage (usually by hiring workers from other countries) but that doesn’t translate to more prosperity for the people.

In my mind, the most important line on the battlefield is between the haves and the have-nots in every country in the world. As a member of the middle-class, my interests are far more closely aligned with a German factory worker or Chinese schoolteacher than with the CEO of General Motors or the president of Wal-Mart. Everywhere it’s the top 2% vs. the bottom 98%, and everywhere that top 2% are cooperating to keep the other 98% down. Most corporations we think of as “American” are actually multi-national corporations, and they’ll cooperate with any foreign business leaders they can to increase the bottom line regardless of the effect on the overall prosperity of average Americans.

It’s the same old scene from the oft-referenced film Network in which the chairman of the network explains to his top news anchor how the world really works:

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no Third Worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems. One vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-varied, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels…We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.

In a way, the mixed seating arrangement at this year’s State of the Union was the most honest representation of our government we’ve ever actually seen. The Democrats and Republicans in our government are not enemies—they are two different parts of the same system. While one party may be more overtly pro-corporate than the other, both parties essentially work to advance the interests of multi-national corporations ahead of the interests of average citizens, be they Chinese, Russian, German or American.

I have to give the president credit for bringing people together. In the wake of the tragedy in Arizona I think it’s just what the country needed. I think the speech he gave in Tucson was highly appropriate and I was glad to see the partisan rancor toned down a bit in recent weeks.

But what good is coming together if we’re just going to be marched out to fight the wrong kind of battle? Are we just going to wave our miniature American flags and cheer on the success of our most successful institutions while ignoring the plight of the unsuccessful? Are we going to be the inverse-Europeans, working longer hours, taking shorter vacations, unable to pay our medical bills and being forced out on the street if we lose our jobs, yet unfazed by any of this because we can still cheer “we’re number one!”?

I’d like to see this question asked in a poll: “Which would you prefer: 1- America’s standing in the world goes down but the quality of life for the bottom 98% of Americans goes up, or 2- America remains the world’s most powerful nation but the quality of life for the bottom 98% of Americans goes down?”

Of course this is a false dichotomy—both our corporations and our average citizens can prosper, but not if we set ourselves apart from the rest of the world. Corporations would have to sacrifice some of their profits in order to share their wealth with the general population (most of whom do the nitty-gritty work which allows them to become successful in the first place), and if they did that the corporations in other countries unrestrained by social conscience would pull ahead.

Global cooperation is the only way forward if we’re to start bridging the gap between the enormously wealthy and everyone else. The common good, rather than the unrestrained pursuit of profit, must be the guiding principle for all businesses all over the world. That is the vision I wish a president would lay out, but I’m not holding my breath. “America vs. the world” is a much easier vision to get people behind, and it’s much better for the corporate bottom line.

[If you share my vision of global cooperation among the underprivileged citizens of the world, I hope you’ll consider joining Revolution Earth.]

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