We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.—Abraham Lincoln, State of the Union address, 1862
This is a reality check. If you look at this picture and think this represents the United States as it is now, the state of our union, you’re living within a pipe dream. For that matter, if you think today’s picture ever truly represented who we really are, you are a poor student of history. The idyllic, white-bread, everything-is-wonderful world so often attributed to the Kennedy administration never really existed. Just as this photograph is a work of fiction, so is the concept that somewhere back there, between the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, everything was fine and America was perfect.
We are reticent to realize that the state of our union has never been as perfect as it appears when we look back through rose tinted glasses. That era of your parents or grandparents wasn’t nearly as cheerful and happy as some today would make it seem. Theirs was a generation that lived in constant fear, jumping at every sound, constantly diligent in watching the skies and regarding with suspicion anyone who spoke with a non-coloquial accent. Children of that generation, myself included, would have bomb raid drills at school where we would hide under our desks in the vain hope that would prevent us from dying in a nuclear attack. Segregation was real, and inforced. I was in eighth grade before I didn’t have the darkest skin in my classroom. Millions were hopelessly addicted to the cigarettes their doctors told them to smoke for their nerves and they dropped dead in equal number between the ages of 65-70 without understanding why. Retirement was feared because it meant death wasn’t far off.
Do we really want to go back to those days? No, I didn’t think so. America wasn’t as great as we like to pretend.
When the framers of the Constiution decided it would be a good idea for the President to annualy update Congress on how the nation is doing, there was almost certainly an implied sense that if the country wasn’t doing well the Executive just might be replaced. While the impeachment clause was never used until 1868, the threat was always there and with feelings between the Legislative and Executive branches having often been contentious the habit was quickly developed wherein the State of the Union address was made to sound as positive and cheerful as possible, while also being used as a tool for laying out the President’s agenda for the next year.
When President Obama speaks this evening, he’s not going to give us a hard-edged look at reality. He will tout his considerable accomplishments, mention that unempoloyment is down and that manufacturing is up, that the automotive industry is no longer on the brink of collapse as it was when he took office eight years ago. He’ll take about civil rights advancements, specifically the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. and he’ll talk about health care. He’ll give a nod to gun reform but he won’t say anything there he hasn’t said before. Instead, he’ll try to make a case for making his replacement a Democrat so that the country might keep moving forward. In some form or fashion, he’ll say that the state of our union is good, and strong, because that’s what we want Presidents to do: give us a cheery, tinted-glass view of a reality we know doesn’t exist.
Were the President to lay it all out on the table for us, here are some of the points he would have to address:
- We remain a nation steeped in racism just as severely as we were in 1860. We don’t like to think we are, but our actions prove differently not only in Ferguson and Charleston, but in the very way we’ve treated this President from the moment he was elected. Anyone who says this country isn’t racist is a fucking liar and deserves to be slapped.
- The gains we’ve made economically are being undermined by global forces larger than we are. Our mistake is a mounting debt, primarily owned by China, at a time when the Chinese economy isn’t doing so well itself. We’re not alone. The EU, Russia, and most of South America is in exactly the same condition if not worse. We’re looking at a pending global economic collapse the like of which we’ve never seen, and we’re largely powerless to stop it.
- The United States is the most violent industrialized nation in the world. Let’s be clear that we’re making a distinction among industrialized nations. What that designation means, though, is that we should know better. We don’t have any reason to be killing each other at the rate we are. This is more than a gun issue, which is a significant matter on its own. We are actually stupid enough to think that violence solves anything. We teach our children, if not through our words then through our actions, that violence is a solution. Not only is our murder rate inexcusable, incidents of domestic violence and rape are even higher, and we still have some members of Congress who think those matters aren’t really crimes at all.
- We still pay and treat women as second class citizens. If it happens at all, it happens too much. We should be beyond this.
- 17.5 million households, approximately one in seven, are food insecure. In 2014, there were 46.7 million people in poverty and that number has been rising steadily despite decreasing unemployment numbers. What that tells us is that the jobs people have are not enough to pay for housing, food, and clothing, let alone transportation, education, Internet service, and other things necessary to actually improve one’s condition. Even some members of our own military live well below the poverty line.(Source: World Hunger Education Services Associates)
- We remain stuck in the Middle East with escalating situations not only in Syria but in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Israel. We talk big, but the frightening reality is that we’ve tried solutions from both Republican and Democratic administrations and neither have worked. One has to seriously wonder if anyone in Washington actually has a viable solution.
With all due respect Mr. President, the state of our union is not good, is not strong, and it hasn’t been for a very, very long time. What’s important, though, is that this is not a nation that gives up. We may get things wrong more often than we get them right, but at least we keep trying, we keep tilting with that windmill with all the conviction of a knight convinced he can slay any dragon.
We actually think we can improve our country, and perhaps we can. But first, we must remove the tinted glasses through which we’ve been looking, recognize this picture for the myth it is, and then flood the polls this year, including the primaries, with an attitude that we have no choice but to progress and move forward.