It's commencement season, when universities around the country ring with platitudinous oratory. The occasion almost demands it. At the University of Michigan, President Barack Obama did not disappoint. His commencement address was amusing, gracious, and, in his choice of platitudes, very revealing. As a snapshot of a thoughtful liberal unpacking his working assumptions, Obama's speech is worth pondering.
He introduced his theme in Art Linkletter fashion, borrowing from a letter sent by a kindergarten class. They asked the darndest questions. Do you work a lot? Do you live next to a volcano? (They probably spotted the miasma emanating from the health care bill.) And the one the president settled on: Are people being nice?
Short answer: No, they're not, especially to me and my administration. He earnestly wants the lions to lie down with the lambs, and vice versa. Yet he understands—with that comprehensive but painfully condescending empathy of his—that this is unlikely to happen so long as "changes" and "challenges" cause "tension in the body politic." Unemployment, globalization, having to "live and work with more people who don't look like you or think like you or come from where you do"—no wonder Americans cling to their God and guns these days! Obama loves to contextualize, put into perspective, and thus ignore every opponent's argument. He cuts everyone down to sociological size, except himself.
To be sure, he told the class of 2010 that politics is historically a messy, contentious business, that "great debates" stir "great passions." He implied under his breath that if people are ever to be nice, America needs to stop having such great debates or, failing that, needs to suppress the attendant passions. In effect, he explored each option.
The "first Americans," who threw off British tyranny, were "understandably skeptical of government," Obama allowed—contextualizing, again—and conceded that their preference for individual freedom remains "a strand of our nation's DNA." But he made clear this wasn't the dominant strand, because the nation had developed its own growing needs, and to service them "government must keep pace with the times."
In other words, Americans may continue to have debates about the proper role of government, but these won't be rollicking, history-changing arguments anymore because History has already spoken on the subject. Decisive challenges to the liberal state, to the government that follows the progressive Zeitgeist, are ruled out as anachronistic, dangerous, intolerable. There's no going back to the founders' individualism. Nostalgia for the old freedom only leads to confusion, such as exhibited in a sign during the health care debate: "Keep Your Government Hands Out of My Medicare!"
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Though this could be a healthy confusion, Obama dismissed it instead as a sign of irrational hatred of government. "In our democracy," he explained patiently, "government is us." Government is "We the People," our firefighters, police officers, soldiers, regulators, and public university teachers. It never occurred to him that public employee unions-or for that matter, government itself-might develop an interest opposed to that of taxpayers and citizens. Nor did he acknowledge that "We the People" made a Constitution precisely so that the people's will, incorporating every moral and rational safeguard, could prevail over the government's.
To repress whatever great passions still manage to challenge progressive politics, Obama recommended to his audience civility. This was the part of the speech the media noticed, and in it he offered some sensible advice on civic friendship: stop shouting; listen; don't demonize your opponents; and so forth. But even here his blinders were showing.
Incivility robs Americans of the "rational and serious debate...we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation," he said. He meant: the debate my opponents want to have over limiting the size and purposes of government, is getting in the way of the debate I want to have over how to expand government in a smarter, better, and faster way. That is, the debate is first of all over which debate to have, with Obama firmly but less than candidly condemning conservatives' proposed topic as illegitimate. That debate over limited government was held-and lost-a long time ago, he claimed in effect. Let's move on.
For liberals, being nice usually comes down to that banality: "let's move on." Above all, don't ever question their motives, because that might lead to questioning their principles. And that's not nice-or permitted.