Why I’m Not Watching the State of the Union Address

No, it’s not because the Venture Brothers is on. They’re not. I used to tune in for Pres. Bush’s SOTU messages, but that was mostly to find out—half in jest, half in terror—what crazy thing they were going to propose next. A ban on chimeras? Invading Mars or some other hapless, Third-world dictatorship? You never quite knew what you were going to get, which made the investment of time worthwhile.

But I haven’t bothered with the past couple of speeches, and I’ll probably settle for transcripts and news reports as long as Obama’s in the White House. I was reminded of why when I stumbled across a couple of paragraphs from Walter Brueggemann’s book Hope Within History while writing my last post. I hope you will excuse Brueggemann’s occasional foray into academic-speak while he tries to make a larger point:

I am so bold as to suggest that third enemy of hope is technique, the capacity to figure out, analyze, and problem-solve. I understand that people of hope cannot live without technique. For that reason, the relationship between hope and technique is a delicate and complex problem, and I do not oversimplify. But, because my theme is hope, I am driven to consider the ways in which technique may nullify hope. In the Bible, technique, the capacity to reduce life’s mysteries to manageable, discrete elements, is embodied in the wise men of Pharaoh (Exod. 8) who are called magicians, in the wise men and magicians in the Joseph narrative (Gen. 41) who are to interpret dreams, in the wise men of Nebuchadnezzar who fail (Dan. 2), and in the religious experts who are condemned (Deut. 18:9-11), who manage the religious system. There may be other examples, but this is a fair sample. Notice the representatives of technique include both religious and secular political experts who believe that the data on hand will provide sufficient knowledge and power, when rightly read, to handle the future.

My comments in regard to hope and technique are not so much about knowledge as they are about a sociology of knowledge. That is, where do the technocrats live, how do they discern, and for whom? They tend to live in the patronage of the established order. Technique is never democratically distributed nor is its use neutral. It is always funded and sponsored by the “big house,” and so, predictably, it is likely to serve those ends. Not only are the wise funded by the established patronage, but also the knowledge so derived is always in the interest of royal policy. Technique is never disinterested. Its interest is to domesticate and harness the future for “reasons of state.”

Mention of the big house calls for an immediate clarification: I am not in any way accusing Obama of being an Uncle Tom. Brueggemann wrote this in 1987, back when the future president was still a community organizer on Chicago’s south side.

In fact, I don’t think Obama is a sellout or a Wall-Street lapdog, as some people have suggested. I believe that he is a generally moderate-to-liberal technocrat who honestly believes that he can do right by both big money and the little folks. And therein lies the problem. When your vision of economic leadership involves buzzwords like “competitiveness” and “investment,” you’re speaking the language of corporate technique, not populist hope.

That puts Obama 2.0 at some odds with the guy who campaigned on the themes of change and hope, of course, but I could forgive him that, at least for the purposes of deciding whether or not to tune in. It’s not exactly a surprise that since taking office, Obama has distanced himself from his populist campaign rhetoric and moved toward “royal policy.” The guy installed Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, for crying out loud. Nobody should be surprised that he seems to be more on the side of Wall Street than that of the little people.

But that’s just it. Barring an announcement that the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, or that Obama has decided to nationalize JPMorgan Chase, there’s literally not a thing I can think of that would surprise me in this speech. I am 99% confident that the president will not say anything that will change my life in any kind of ultimate sense. Sure, he may put forward some noble challenge to inspire the nation—after Kennedy, all the presidents think they have to do that—and he may make some rhetorical nod toward truth, justice, Mom and apple pie. But the bulk of the speech, and probably the vast majority of its important content, will be dedicated to figuring out, analyzing, and problem-solving, to “reducing life’s mysteries to manageable, discrete elements” that poll well.

That serves the established order, but it’s nothing new. Seen it. Heard it. Bored by it. If I want to see some interesting technique, I can always watch “Holmes on Homes,” and if I want to get outraged, maybe there’ll be a “Bridalplasty” rerun on.

But if I want to be surprised by politics tonight, I won’t bother with the president. Not Paul Ryan, either. I’ll tune in for Michele Bachmann‘s response to the SOTU. That woman will say anything.