The State of the Union and the State of the "Homeland"
Claire Danes in "Homeland."
In our home the State of the Union address was not followed by the Republican reply. We skipped Marco Rubio’s rebuttal in favor of watching a DVD of old “Homeland” episodes. We’re finally catching up on the first season of the “CIA versus terrorists” drama that everyone else has been watching and raving about for the past two years.
The incongruity of watching the SOTU and “Homeland” in the same evening was a stark reminder of how much has changed in America in just a few years. “Homeland” would have made a wholly congruous nightcap to any SOTU speech by George W. Bush.
That’s not to say Obama’s “war on terror” policies are so different from W.’s. The similarities as well as differences have been parsed at length by the pundits, and similarities there are a-plenty. But the tone of American life has changed so much now that we have a “hope and change” president instead of a “war president.”
“Homeland” takes us back to the dramatic world that W. invited us into: a world where evildoers lurk unseen beneath the surface of American life, a life that is constantly (if sometimes only slightly) on edge, because no one knows for sure where and when sudden death may strike again, as it did on September 11, 2001. W. fit easily as an actor in that world. Indeed he gave himself a leading role in the drama.
We may not have been happier in that world of so recent yesteryear. But “Homeland” reminds us why so many Americans found it gripping and exciting: It seemed like a matter of life and death. That’s the stuff great theater is made of.
Barack Obama’s SOTU, like every SOTU, was meant to be great theater too. Yet there was something less than satisfying about the show. Watching “Homeland” made it clear what was missing in Obama’s show: The death-dealing bad guys were nearly invisible. The “terrorists” got a very brief mention, mostly to assure us that they could be defeated by technical means, like any other technical problem, without any compromise of our cherished American values.
The real bad guys lurking constantly between the lines of the speech were the Republicans. But they were never called out by name. And their evil -- the fact that their proposed policies would kill many more Americans than “terrorists” ever will -- was hidden so deeply between the lines, it was practically invisible. So they could hardly perform effectively as the villains in the piece.
The Republicans’ evil had to be hidden because the world that the president created in his address was such a utopian world, where everything wrong in American life is just a technical problem that can be fixed with relatively little effort. In Obama’s world evil is simply a temporary error, a lapse in clear thinking, easily corrected under the guidance of a skillful tutor.
Obama took us back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, when all we had to do was to reason together. We would surely recognize the logic of his proffered solutions, he seemed to say with every breath. Then, with only the slightest application of good will, all our problems could be quickly resolved. He made it all sound so simple, so obvious.
The world of “Homeland” -- W.’s world -- is the world of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and Winston Churchill), where evil is far more than a mistake in logic. It is a permanent, intractable element of human life. We cannot reason together, because some of us are moved by an impulse to evil that defies all reason. So evil is not a problem to be solved. It is an enemy to be defeated by any means necessary -- perhaps even extra-constitutional means, though that remains a matter for debate.
Few Americans watched the SOTU and “Homeland” in the same evening. But all got a taste of this stark contrast in national narratives when they watched the evening news, where Obama had to share the headlines with an evildoer defeated in the mountains outside Los Angeles. Any TV news editor worth his or her professional salt would probably lead with the story of the dead LA ex-cop, not the SOTU. The battle of good against evil is the heart and soul of all television drama, even on the news.
Yet the utopian impulse can create great theater, too. After all, it rests on imagination and fantasy, which are the root not only of theater but of all entertainment. Utopia is only entertaining, though, if it offers a vision of a completely perfect world that can be attained some day, no matter how distant, without compromise.
Barack Obama will not give us that emotional satisfaction. He is a self-confessed disciple of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who battled fiercely against the utopian political impulse -- created largely by Christians -- that flourished in the days of TR and Wilson. Niebuhr accused Christians of being “unrealistic” because they ignored the classical doctrine of original sin: evil is a permanent fact of life, which we must wrestle with forever. It’s a testament to Niebuhr’s enduring influence that being “unrealistic” and “utopian” remains the cardinal sin of American political life.
Obama danced on the edge of that sin in his SOTU. The tone he set left an unmistakable sense of utopian aspiration. Yet it remained merely a vague impression because every time he approached the edge of utopia he backed away, as he always does, for the sake of “realistic” compromise with the GOP evildoers.
The question Obama's SOTU speech poses is whether the utopian impulse can be resurrected in a nation that has been gripped for so long by the drama of good against evil, a nation that has made the war against evildoers the essence of its national narrative.
Obama himself can never be the agent of utopia’s resurrection. But John F. Kennedy was certainly far from a true utopian either. And his rhetoric played a role -- a major role, some historians think -- in creating the brief era of the late 1960s, when the utopian impulse flourished throughout the land once again.
Of course JFK had MLK to do the heavy utopian rhetorical lifting. Dr. King had studied Niebuhr carefully, and he too asserted the reality of evil. But he threw in his lot with the faith of the Christian utopians who were convinced that some day evil will be overcome, not by war but by the reason and good will of humanity. No one can say how long it will take. The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice and the perfection of the beloved community.
Obama has no one with nearly the stature of MLK to offer such a message to America today. So his tantalizing hints of utopia must do their work on their own. We don’t yet know what that work will be. Just as no one in the days of JFK could predict what effect his words would have, so we cannot predict the long term effects of Obama's turn toward utopian imagination.
Stay tuned for our next exciting episode.
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