The State of Our Union - Listening to Nobody

I watched President Bush and Governor Kaine last night in total shock and awe. Surely, they can’t believe the American people buy what they’re peddling. And members of Congress who keep howling and standing and clapping, surely they must know their posturing is silly. What about the real America? There were three phrases that framed last night’s speeches: “There is no honor in retreat;” America is a “hopeful society;” and there is “no higher calling than serving others.” Wow! Too bad each of these phrases was maligned, abused, mangled, and appropriated.

The problem is this: I’ve crisscrossed the nation now six times in the last 15 years, and these three phrases, as they were used, simply distort people’s reality. Let’s take each phrase one at a time:

  1. “There is no honor in retreat” – true enough. This phrase framed a huge portion of the president’s message. Unfortunately, much of America is in retreat. As I’ve outlined in Hope Unraveled, Americans have told me that over the last 15 years they have retreated from public life and politics into close-knit circles of family and friends. They have done so because they feel their reality is not reflected in public life and politics and that it is often purposefully distorted by, among others, politicians seeking their own gain.

    The phrase, “There is no honor in retreat” should have applied here at home. In fact, it reminded me of when someone turns a phrase on you in an argument – trying to get the upper hand. Last night the president should have engaged Americans in a conversation about how we can reverse our own retreat – here at home.

  2. America is a “hopeful society” – not in the way this phrase distorted people’s reality last night. In many respects, people’s hope has greatly diminished over the past 15 years or so. Too much “false hope” is peddled in our society – overblown expectations, inflated achievements, unrealistic timelines, and manufactured heroes. Americans want to be hopeful – but that will require reflecting their reality, engaging them on a purposeful path, and acknowledging the real challenges they face in their daily lives.

    People will not be hopeful simply because we proclaim that they are, or because there is a litany of new proposals on the table. Understanding people’s reality, accurately reflecting it, and showing how one’s ideas relate to that reality are all necessary steps to move forward. Few of these could be heard last night.

  3. “There is no higher calling than serving others” – yes, but too bad that neither the president nor the governor really talked about this. They discussed what government needs to do, what the private sector needs to do, but never really what each of us as citizens need to do. Let’s face it; there was no higher calling last night. Instead, the call went out that each of us should expect to get all we want, when we want it, all at a low cost – and with good, government efficiency!

    A hopeful society, a society not in retreat – these require each of us to step up and engage as citizens, to think about our common challenges, to consider how we each must contribute, to see how we are inextricably connected to one another.

Finally, consider this point: Hurricane Katrina was one of the most significant domestic challenges we faced last year and continue to face today. Where was it last night? Were they hiding it? Think about the three phrases above, and connect them to the fundamental challenges raised by Hurricane Katrina – about poverty, about race, about pubic schools, about infrastructure, about how levels of government must work together.

I know that Americans want a hopeful society. They believe they must not be in retreat. And they also believe that serving others is a higher calling. So why don’t we start to truly act on those sentiments?

What did you think of the speeches last night? I’d love to hear your thoughts.