The State of the Union Address: An Exercise in Moral Illiteracy

gty_barack_obama_state_union1_wy_140128_16x9_992Presidential statements should always be treated with a great deal of skepticism. The capacity to obscure, fabricate or lie is a skill that comes easily to political elites and the commissars who construct the required narratives to insulate them from public scrutiny. For this reason, anyone with a minimal interest in democratic governance will not passively accept the pronouncements of the powerful. President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to this ideal, a commitment that should be treated with a high degree of seriousness and urgency. Generally, press responses to the State of the Union speech conformed to the typical pattern of distortion and deceit. Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey of the Los Angeles Times published an article shortly after Obama’s address titled State of the Union: Obama asks Congress to reverse economic inequality. The most revealing aspect of this article is its willingness to accept presidential statements at face-value. Obama “promised to flex his power to boost wages, protect the environment and channel resources to education …,” Parsons and Hennessey remarked.

More independent minds would be compelled to inspect the accuracy of this statement. How exactly did President Obama vow to “protect the environment”? The president conveyed this by “[reminding] listeners of his power to regulate power-plant emissions, noting that the shift to cleaner energy would require ‘tough choices,'” or to cite one of the more dramatic phrases from Obama’s address: “climate change is a fact.” Without a doubt, climate change is an undeniable fact, not only to the President of the United States but to all serious climate scientists as well, which makes Obama’s other statements nothing short of alarming. Hailing the prospect of “energy independence”, Obama went on to endorse oil production and the highly destructive process of hydraulic fracturing. “The ‘all the above’ energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working,” the president gushed. “And today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades … One of the reasons why is natural gas. If extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change,” and “it’s not just oil and natural gas production that’s booming; we’re becoming a global leader in solar too.”

cartoon frackingIn response to Obama’s glorification of the “booming” oil and natural gas industry founder Bill McKibben published a harsh critique in which he stated “Fracking isn’t a solution,” but “a disaster for communities and the climate.” Characterizing Obama’s address as “lip service”, McKibben went on to note “you can’t say you care about ending cancer and then go buy a carton of cigarettes–and you can’t say you care about the climate and then go dig up more fossil fuels.” Executive Director of Greenpeace Phil Radford responded to Obama’s address by acknowledging while it was “good to hear that President Obama plans to move forward with his plan to address climate change,” (a curious preface) “his administration continues to undermine this plan by encouraging the extraction of coal, oil and gas from our public lands and waters, unlocking huge quantities of carbon pollution.” None of these grim realities are likely to penetrate the president’s entrepreneurial cocoon where the “booming” profits of oil giants override grave issues of collective survival. Incidentally, it’s not difficult to imagine the majority of the international community joining McKibben and Radford in their protests.

Last November the Obama administration demonstrated its willingness to “protect the environment” when they dispatched a team of diplomats to “delay emission cut commitments” at the UN climate conference in Warsaw. Details of this policy was revealed by Nitin Sethi of The Hindu. Sethi cited a leaked memo which instructed US diplomats to resist any effort on the part of the international community to bring the US into a system “where there is a legal compensation mechanism available for small, vulnerable countries, who otherwise don’t have [a] voice …” in global climate policy. In a message to US diplomats prior to the conference Secretary of State John Kerry warned that “A central issue will be whether loss and damage continues to fall within adaptation or whether it becomes a separate, third pillar … which we believe would lead the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] to focus increasingly on blame and liability, which in turn would be counterproductive.” Contemplating the consequences of ignoring the risk of environmental catastrophe, President Obama expressed his desire “to be able to say yes we did” when “our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world …,” but for the children of Bangladesh, the Philippines or the Maldives such desires would be “counterproductive”, an impediment to satisfying the higher needs of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other beneficiaries of the nation’s flourishing fossil fuel mafia.
drone_protest_pti_reuters_670Similar tendencies characterized the very limited attention devoted to matters of US foreign policy. Maybe the most glaring omission was the decision not to talk about what Noam Chomsky has accurately described as “the most extreme terrorist campaign going on in the world today”, the drone assassination program. Obama vowed to “[impose] prudent limits” on the drone program, a toothless proposal as it leaves unaddressed the fact that the program is clearly illegal. Drone strikes not only violate Pakistani sovereignty but they also violate the long-standing prohibition against extrajudicial assassinations as articulated in Executive Order 12036 and the Hague Conventions. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, arguably the leading authority on drone strikes, has reported that more than 2,400 people have been murdered in these attacks in the last five years. Bureau analysis also confirmed that following Obama’s high-profile speech on constraining drone strikes “more people were killed in Pakistan and Yemen in the six months after the speech than the six months before. And the casualty rate also rose over the same period.”

With the exception of a small minority of countries, global public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to drone strikes. Pew Research reports “in 31 of 39 countries surveyed last spring, at least half of the public disapproved of the attacks.” This past December the Yemeni the parliament passed a law banning drone strikes citing “the importance of protecting all citizens from any aggression” and “preserving the sovereignty of Yemeni air space.” Pakistan’s High Court in Peshawar raised similar legal objections in their ruling that drone strikes constitute “criminal offenses” carried out in violation of Pakistani sovereignty and present a challenge to Pakistan’s “autonomy and independence.” For President Obama to call for the imposition of more “prudent limits” on a policy the Yemeni parliament and a Pakistani judicial body have accurately condemned as military “aggression” (more bluntly, international terrorism) is about as morally and legally sensible as an al-Shabab fighter or a Taliban warlord suggesting more “prudent limits” on acid attacks and car bombings.  Investigate journalist Jeremy Scahill said it best in a tweet shortly after Obama’s address: ” Translation: I will only bomb *some* wedding parties.”
edward-snowden-interview-vom-ndr-german-engli-L-EGmgvuWhere drone terrorism received sparse coverage, other topics were ignored almost entirely. Since his revelations last June, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has fundamentally transformed the national conversation about privacy, security, journalism and the role of state-corporate forces in our lives. So profound has Snowden’s impact been that even the New York Times, the epitome of establishment journalism, published an editorial demanding that President Obama “tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.” Norwegian politicians Baard Vegar Solhjell and Snorre Valen have now nominated Snowden for a Nobel Peace Prize citing his “[contribution] to a more stable and peaceful world order.”  Furthermore, public opinion polls have been critical of NSA programs. According to a recent USA Today / Pew Research Center poll “most Americans now disapprove of the NSA’s sweeping collection of phone metadata,” and “they’re inclined to think there aren’t adequate limits in place to what the government can collect.” 70% of Americans “say they shouldn’t have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism,” and 45% of the American public think Snowden’s exposures have “helped … the public interest” (43% say the disclosures “harm” public interest).To limit discussion of this highly consequential topic to an extremely brief and meaningless comment on “reform” evinces a contempt for democracy that eludes rational explanation. The limited treatment of this topic also exhibits a seething hatred of the “community of nations” victimized by the NSA, a community Obama hypocritically claimed Iranians would be able to “rejoin” if they are able to “convince” the godfather they “not building a nuclear bomb”, a nuclear bomb that only exists in the warped imaginations of western political elites and their loyalists in the commissar class (there is ample evidence of this).

In a recent interview with Edward Snowden broadcast on German television he responded to allegations within elite circles that his act of dissent was treasonous by making the following statement: “If I am a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to the American public, to American journalists who were reporting on American issues. If they see that as treason I think people really need to consider who do they think they are working for. The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy.” It’s this conception–that the public should be the boss of state and corporate power and not its servants–that President Obama, Congress and their associates in corporate America find so threatening and it’s this threat that compels them to force unpleasant facts about American political culture into the margins whether it be about climate change, state-terrorism or mass surveillance. Quite apart from preserving the state of the union by attending to the needs of the public, Washington elites and their corporate backers would much rather enrich themselves at any cost. The gap between official rhetoric and actual policy makes this transparently obvious. In its entirety, this year’s State of the Union address can best be described as an exercise in moral illiteracy, the hallmark of a political and intellectual culture that is either unable or unwilling to examine its own crimes in an honest and constructive fashion. Nothing about the current predicament we find ourselves in is graven in stone. Societies in the past have gone through worse forms of oppression. President Obama demanded that 2014 be a “year of action.” Putting aside the sincerity of this sentiment, it will be up to an informed and morally courageous public to ensure that this “year of action” doesn’t leave behind the wreckage that inevitably follows in societies that avoid serious self-reflection.


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