"Written In Courage": An Analysis of the 2006 State of the Union Address | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 3, 2006
"We have served America through one of the most consequential periods of our history. And it has been my honor to serve with you (the Congress)."
"Yet, the destination of history is determined by human action, and every great movement of history comes to a point of choosing.... Before history is written down in books, it is written in courage." George Bush, State of the Union Address, 2006.
The Washington Post (A14-15, February 1, 2006) printed the full text of President Bushs fifth State of the Union Address. At the very top of the printed address was an inserted time-line measure giving the comparative number of minutes given to various topics in an address that lasted from 9:12 p.m. to 10:06 pm. The president talked of freedom, terrorism, radical Islam, Iraq, Iran, homeland security, surveillance, the economy, tax cuts, federal spending, social security, energy, health care, alternative energy, the competitiveness initiative, education, social values, the character of the country, hurricanes, and AIDS. He also spoke of a number of noble issues contained in the opening and closing remarks that were not specifically mentioned on the time-line.
The main page one headline in the New York Times read: "Bush, Resetting Agenda, Says U.S. Must Cut Reliance on Oil." The NYT headline above the text of the talk itself read, as a citation from the document, "We Strive to Be a Compassionate, Decent, Hopeful Society." The Washington Posts headline above its copy of the text, again a quote, and not to be outdone by the Times, read "America Is Addicted to Oil."
My reading of these Post and Times headlines suggests that those who wrote them think the American people are somehow more concerned with oil than anything else. Though the President did speak of developing alternate energy sources to reduce dependence on Mideast oil, and by implication undermining the financial basis of terrorism, he does not buy the oft-cited thesis, frequently heard in Europe, that this war is about "oil" and nothing else. The fact is that the war is about a self-declared enemy who uses oil riches to promote his version of his religion. The President, however, did finally say, in so many words, that the root problem was "Islamic terrorists." Just what their relation to "Islamic non-terrorists" is remains one of the great unanswered questions of our timeone that few will really address.
Both papers ran a subject matter word count comparing the number to times the President used certain buzz words in all of his State of the Union addresses. For instance, he mentioned "freedom" 8 times in 2001, 14 times in 2002, 5 times in 2003, 8 times in 2004, 20 times in 2005, and 17 times in 2006. Just what this proves, I am not sure. The word "truth," as far as I can recall, almost never comes up in any of the talks. I would be reluctant to say that this nation, "under God," is founded on a version of freedom that is indifferent or inimical to truth.
But in todays world, any claim to truth, it is said, readily translates into "fundamentalism," which, in turn, is but another word for terrorism. So we end up with the curious proposition that any claim to truth, especially religious truth, is a claim to the right to terrorism. This sequence is nonsense, but it is the ideology of much of our times. A liberty meaning nothing but its own definition of liberty manifests, as Aristotle already saw, a disordered society and hence disordered soul.
In general, this State of the Union Address was clear, forceful, and well thought out. The President recognizes that decisions must be made and that it is his constitutional duty to make them. "In this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the character of our country." Clearly, the choices can be bad; otherwise there is not much sense in worrying about them. But one of the fundamental strengths of our constitution is that it recognizes, particularly in dangerous times, the fundamental need of a personal decision-making authority that can act. It is striking that the President would use this very classically sounding word "action" in this context"the destination of history is determined by human action." This affirmation does not necessarily mean that there is no divine action also in history, including in our history. But divine action, as Benedict XVI said in his recent encyclical, is often itself a prod and a stimulus to human thought and action.
The President spends a good deal of time in affirming again that we are at wara war that we did not choosewith a determined and elusive enemy. The President is very aware that others, particularly our troops, are protecting us and that we are often only vaguely aware of what is at stake, though military often see it at first hand. "And as we honor our brave troops, let us never forget the sacrifices of American military families." If we forget them, we begin to have a two-tiered nation in which those who are protected have no truck, even in honor, with those who do the protecting.
The alternative to choose isolationism is open to us, the President notes, but it would be a disaster for everyone. "Our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world. Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it." This is not utopianism but conceived as a very practical necessity to prevent further attacks on our society and that of others. These attacks continue to take place. Many attacks are also prevented from taking place by our military and security efforts.
The President provides justification for this position on ending tyranny: "On September 11, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country." I have some problem with this explanation. It implies that somehow this particular attack and those like it planned for the future can be analyzed in terms of political science theory about "failed" states rather than in terms of the zeal and stated goals of believers in a particular religion in their mission to carry out a world-wide conquest.
The men who conceived and carried out this mission against us, as far as I can tell, did not come from under-privileged or backward classes. They may be dangerous and they may be wrong, but they are doing what their religion indicates to them. And if some within that religion do not "agree" that this mission is the proper "interpretation" of that religion, this does not deter those who in fact attack us from seeking to establish a state, a caliphate, that can successfully do so. Even the term "Islamic terrorists," which the President does use, does not get to the bottom of the problem.
The cure for the advance of such "terrorists," in the Presidents view, is familiar: "democracy." Even without the Hamas election, everyone is aware that democracy must be more than just a voting mechanism. The fear of promoting "democratic tyranny" (something in our literature at least since the French Revolution) has long been explicitly mentioned in papal documents on the general subject of modern movements. Some are now even accusing the President of promoting democracy and then refusing to deal with duly elected terrorists.
But President Bush remains insistent that this democratic factor is at least part of the issue and that it does work. "At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And we do not forget the other halfin places like Syria and Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iranbecause the demands of justice and the peace of this world require their freedom as well." One cannot help but note that China is no longer mentioned in such a list, though few (except itself) would call it an exemplar democracy. Chinawhich seems to make most of our baseball hats and gadgetsis mentioned, with India, as a new economic "competitor." One wonders which of the Muslim countries would be called "democratic." But of course, the President does not say that the efforts have yet succeeded, only that things look better.
The President is quite realistic in the need to keep track of potential terrorists already within our frontiers. We simply have to know about them. They ought not to be free to use our freedoms to destroy us. Furthermore, "if we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores." It does not take a genius to see that this is undoubtedly what would happen. The President thus is a realist who will not be deflected from what is the most serious issue facing us. He is not somehow a stubborn man acting on his own inner needs. He is clear-sighted, observing what is there. He saw what did happen. He knows what can happen.
And he has a streak of the Declaration of Independence in him: "Yet, liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity." The words are also mindful of Ciceros famous lines about natural law and its scope: "There will not be one law in Rome, one at Athens, or one now and one later, but all nations will be subject all the time to this one changeless and everlasting law." We may wait some time yet for such a condition, but it is not wrong to want itprovided it retains a careful understanding of actual and fallen human nature.
Probably the most dramatic part of the evening was the presence of Judge Alito, who had just been confirmed that day to the Supreme Court (seemingly against the combined efforts of many Catholic senators worried evidently about protecting abortion, among other unpleasant things). From a pro-life point of view, the Presidents most forceful passage was this: "Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our creator, and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale." This is not a passage out of a papal encyclical (though it could be), or out of the playbook of said senators, but one uttered by the President of the United States. More is to be done, no doubt, but this passage is forceful.
Often on the basis of proposals in the bio-ethics field, many writers worry about radical changes in human genes, bodily form, life span, eliminating sexual reproduction, and other areas that suggest the whole culture is in decline. Culture wars, they are called. It is the function of a President to speak of what we ought to be, not naively, but still with the awareness that many of the problems that we encounter are self-chosen. We can turn off from wrong paths. "America is a great force for freedom and prosperity. Yet our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat one another. So we strive to be compassionate, decent, hopeful society." This is the sentence the New York Timeswhich had chosen oil for its front-page summary of the addresscited on the 20th page with the text. But it is a powerful sentence, one that again mirrors the notion that a nation is not just about laws and justice and productivity, but of compassion, decency, hope. As the Pope also said in his encyclical, it does matter how we individually, personally, treat one another.
After looking at the many problems, the President added, "we must never give in to the belief that America is in decline or that our culture is doomed to unravel. The American people know better than that. We have proven the pessimists wrong before and we will do so again." The words of encouragement are needed precisely when we realize the seriousness of our situation, both within us and beyond our shores. "We have entered a great ideological conflict we did nothing to invite. We see great changes in science and commerce that will influence all our lives." The conflict is probably more than ideological, and the changes in scienceat least some of themportend changes in our very being if we do not understand what this being is and from whence it originated.
Finally, the President, after his reflections on domestic issues, briefly returns to the theme of action and history. "We will renew the defining moral commitments of this land." And also, "every great movement of history comes to a point of choosing." These are not "pro-choice" words, as we have come to know them. The word "choice" must always have an objecta choosing of a what? In the context of the life issues, "pro-choice" does not refer primarily to the will but to what is chosen to do about some definite, concrete, individual object. This is indeed one "point of choosing" of a great movement of historythe movement to keep us alive, all of us, in what we are. We do have "defining moral commitments."
The only time that the word "God" appears in this address, in this land where we often sing "God bless America," is the last sentence, "May God bless America." We probably have to realize that God will bless not whatever we do, but what actions and choices are for the good that He has given us in creation, in the good in othersincluding the good, the real good, of those who have declared themselves our enemies.
The Presidents State of the Union Address is, pace the headlines, not about "oil," but about the issues that define us, that make us great. "Before history is written down in books, it is written down in courage." And like "choice," courage must also be directed to the right object about which we are to be, in this land, courageous, brave, truthful, and free.
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Archives of IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his website.
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