State of the Union Jingoism: We Are Not Family

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>Like so many platitudinous politicians seeking to inspire, in his SOTU President Obama characterized the nation as "the American family," and I suppose Americans are a family in one sense -- all 300 million of us are stuck with each other. We surely don't all like each other or wish each other well; some of us assume others of us belong in hell, quite literally; we don't share the same fundamental values or ideals, much less the "common creed" referenced by Obama.

We don't "all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution," obviously. We differ vigorously and sometimes viciously over freedom of speech and religion, abortion and gay rights, the rights of criminal (or terror) suspects, property rights and unqualified Second Amendment rights, among others. We regularly sabotage, assault, rob, kill each other, and lock each other up. (Some seven million of us are in prison or on probation or parole.) If we are any sort of family we are a highly dysfunctional one, riddled with domestic abuse.
    
Yes I realize the President was trafficking in metaphor, not intended to be taken literally, but his familiar, familial rhetoric is intended to resonate emotionally. I realize too the futility of railing against such trite and childish sentimentality -- it's like objecting to the now inevitable SOTU anecdotes about ordinary yet exemplary Americans displayed in the gallery -- but I am nostalgic for the Obama who once spoke to us as if were adults (mainly in his speech about race). 

And I fantasize about a time when childish appeals to American exceptionalism are no longer obligatory, when presidential addresses are no longer rife with jingoism, when they no longer rely on illusions, or outright lies, about our allegiance to liberty. If the President were genuinely committed to setting a "moral example ... for all those who yearn for freedom, justice, and dignity," he would not have found favor with Dick Cheney for embracing the Bush/Cheney war on terror. If he were committed to "open government," his Administration would not have invoked the state secrets doctrine to avoid accountability for torture and illegal surveillance. If "American leadership (had) been renewed" and America's standing (had) been restored," the U.N. might not be investigating the arguably torturous treatment of Bradley Manning, who has yet to be convicted of a crime. If the President really believed were were a family, he might show some mercy to all of its members. If he really aspired to lead a morally exemplary country, he might have more regard for justice.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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