In his State of the Union address the other night (January 24) the President speaks of American values, or at least he refers to them (whatever they may be) three times. Here is what he says:
“What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.”
“Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last -– an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.”
“Now, a return to the American values of fair play and shared responsibility will help protect our people and our economy.”
But nowhere in his address does he tell us exactly what he means by these values, although in the third excerpt above he does name fair play and shared responsibility as being two of them.
The President’s tendency to use what I’ll call “motherhood and apple pie” like language, that is the perfectly “safe” words and phrases that make us feel comfortable and on familiar ground, illustrates, I believe, this President’s (who is by no means alone in this respect) greatest weakness.
By the way, motherhood and apple pie, are they American values that need to be recalled and reclaimed? Well you see the problem with this kind of question and with the President’s language.
The President is clearly in love with his own rhetoric, his own choice of words. And the “turn of phrase,” such as this one, “a renewal of American values,” seems to interest him more than whatever, if anything, the phrase may mean or represent.
All too often, here in the State of the Union, and elsewhere on innumerable occasions, the President makes use of his real rhetorical gifts to address our nation’s and the world’s problems and it doesn’t work. Rhetoric may make us feel good, but no matter how superlative will never provide an answer to a real problem.
Our real problems, such as the burgeoning cost of our health care, that without action on the government’s part will bankrupt the country, such as the failure of so many of our young people to learn useful skills while in school, that which has already resulted in companies going elsewhere to look for a skilled workforce,— these problems and others cry out for substantive proposals and action.
In respect to the latter we’re still waiting. And the very last thing we needed the other night was a lecture or sermon on renewing our values.
I’d like to know if anyone who heard or read the State of the Union address on Tuesday knows what the President may have meant by American values? Sure, like motherhood and apple pie we need to protect and defend our American values. But what are these values? Are they real? Apple pie is real, motherhood too. Maybe he should have talked about them because then we might have known what he meant.
I heard the address and I don’t know what he meant. If a visitor from another planet, or even from Shanghai, were to ask me to tell him what we valued, that is those values of which the President spoke, I wouldn’t know where to begin, nor if ever I did begin where to stop.
In fact there is very little agreement among us about what we value most, American values or other values, and it is probably for this reason that the President never tried to say what these (imaginary?) values were.
This has to be a kind of a third rail for the politician. For anything said publicly in regard to our values, with of course important exceptions such as NFL football, the military’s use of killer drones in the North Western provinces of Pakistan, and the burial at sea of Bin Laden, would have found more disagreement than agreement among his listeners.
Perhaps all one can safely say is that American values are the values that Americans hold dear, and that there may be as many of these as there are Americans. What about you, do you even have a brother with the same values as yourself?
Well OK, I’m not entirely correct about that for most of us, including you and your brother, probably do share some values, maybe not apple pie, but probably motherhood?
Finally, there are things that we all value (things that still need to be identified) and these, whatever they are, may have been what the President meant? Well yes, there are certainly things that we can agree upon — the rule of law, innocent until proven guilty, the use of red and green lights at a crossing, sidewalks of course, and thousands of others.
But aren’t these types of things not so much values as customs and strategies that we have devised and then adopted to make our lives more secure and more stable and comfortable? Again you can see the problem we are facing to understand the President’s language.
Regarding most things that we value isn’t it because they work? They are helpful, they help us to bring about the result that we want to achieve? Apple pie and ice cream at the end of a good meal? There may be an American who doesn’t value that although I haven’t met him or her.
But here’s a value, one that just occurs to me. Perhaps this is one of the very ones that the President had in mind. I think of the value of hard work. And in fact the expression does occur once and early on in his address:
“An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.”
Now I agree that this is a value, or rather that this is valuable, or, again, that I myself value working hard at something. But in my some 80 years of living I have never noticed that this “value” was particularly American, more so, say, than Chinese.
In fact, isn’t the value of hard work something we Americans often tend to associate with newcomers, with immigrants to our country, with all those who are working hard for themselves and their families in order to get ahead in the new country? And because we are, after all, a nation of immigrants, we may very well mistakenly attribute to America what they bring with them, and then once here we call what they’ve brought, and may not even have found here, an American value.
Although, and here’s the rub, even for that nice American value of hard work, doesn’t it often happen that after years of living among us those once immigrants to our shores, probably like us before them, abandon their own values, including that of hard work, and become much like the rest of us, or at least no longer work as hard as at the time of their coming, when only by their hard work could they obtain a good life for themselves and their families.
I will say one thing for our President —unlike nearly all of the Republican candidates for national office, he is not trying to send the most recent generations of “hard workers” back to where they came from. He correctly recognizes their “value” to our country and is wisely proposing to help them to remain here.
Although, once again, as if not being secure and comfortable in his own office with almost going it alone in regard to immigration policy, with actually helping illegals to remain in the country, and probably ever in love with his own rhetoric and turn of phrase, he throws into the portion of his address when he discusses immigration these harsh words:
“I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That’s why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before.”
Alas! Too bad! And he was doing so well.
“Boots on the border?” What’s that mean? Putting on your boots and kicking people out? Whatever it means, and whatever it is, it’s certainly not an American value. And for all that we’ve said about hard work and the immigrants to our shores it’s a terrible strategy. Once again he evidently got carried away by his own rhetoric.