Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Altered states

So many things happened last week that set me off to reading and thinking. I had planned to write about the State of the Union address, not just President Obama’s speech but others as well—the concept of the annual address. But then Howard Zinn died—now there’s a man I wish I could have met. And then J.D. Salinger died—a man many people wish they could have met or at least glimpsed. And suddenly my week threatened to be one in which I was chasing multiple tangents and losing myself in books. (Or in searches for books—I’m sure I have a copy of Catcher in the Rye around here somewhere.)

Not a bad thing to do, mind you, but it does present a challenge when there are other items on the list of Things To Do. So, since I spent more time reading (and pondering), I’ll have to spend a little less time writing this post.

Howard Zinn makes me wish I could call myself a historian. Not just a dabbler in history. He was no stuffy academic poking away in secret archives and musty libraries. He was busy digging into the world around him, making history even as he taught it. History was a jumping off place, so he could dive into the present and the future. He was a writer interested in action verbs. Just look at photographs of him—have you ever seen anyone so animated even in a still shot?

And J.D. Salinger died on the same day. How different the lives they lived! If they bumped into each other as they started their afterlife journeys, I wonder what they talked about. Zinn, who was so much out and about in the world, and Salinger, who kept so much to himself for so long.

It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write that these two individuals illustrate the two conflicting halves of my personality and approach to the world. Part of me wants to jump in and mix it up and figure out how where we’ve been relates to where we are and where we might be going. And the other part would be perfectly happy to move to a secluded place and write for the love of it and deal with as few people as possible.

Fortunately, I wasn’t thinking about that last Wednesday night or I my mind would have been wandering to all sorts of uncharted frontiers when I was watching the State of the Union address. Instead I was wondering about the tradition of the address and how various presidents approached it.

In contemporary America, of course, we make big deal out of it. We make a big deal out of everything. The audience (thanks to television and other instant media) is bigger than in the past. The fallout—from the Republican response to all sorts of analysis (yes, look they’re wearing purple)—is bigger. And the speeches themselves are bigger.

President Obama’s speech was over a hundred paragraphs long. George Washington’s first State of the Union address was seventeen. Granted, he didn’t have to do much more than say, “Hey, isn’t this cool? We actually started a nation.” But he hit the same general topics that most of the addresses do: the economy, national defense, education.

Washington didn’t have to compare himself and his work to anyone before him; that was a definite advantage. He didn’t have to use the word “change” when everything was just beginning. And Congress hadn’t had time to get itself entrenched in fixed positions—most of those gents were probably still enjoying the novelty of their new jobs. This is what Washington said to them:

“The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed, and I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.” (Jan. 1790)

Can you imagine? I don’t think presidents or politicians in general use the word “satisfaction” let alone “cooperation” to describe their work. And “pleasing though arduous task”? We definitely hear about “arduous” tasks—they might even be described as “Sisyphean” if anybody understood references to Greek mythology any more—but rarely about “pleasing” ones.

Here’s an interesting site to explore State of the Union addresses through history. Language has certainly changed. So have attitudes, but you have to read between the lines for those.

Recycling some the messages from earlier addresses might not be a bad idea. Perhaps the language can inspire the attitude. By Washington’s second State of the Union the nation was facing conflicts on the frontier and concerned about growing tensions in Europe and how a war might impact US trade. The first President’s words to Congress then could apply to almost any issue—and it would be heartening to hear such a message.

 “In pursuing the various and weighty business of the present session I indulge the fullest persuasion that your consultation will be equally marked with wisdom and animated by the love of your country.” (Dec. 1790)

Sure, there’s lots of lip service paid to love of country, but how often do we see real marks of wisdom? Here’s hoping.

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