Friday, September 04, 2009

"Do you have Calvin Coolidge in a can?": Some musing on texts and contexts

Words are of vital importance. Knowing who says or writes them is of vital importance. So also is/are the context(s) within which they are spoken or written--"context" here meaning not just the other words that surround them but also the larger historical circumstances under which they are spoken; if we do not know them, we cannot, in the fullest sense of the word, read anything. Before someone complains that I'm about to head into a kind of Derridian relativism here, I'll just say this by way of a preemptive strike: I believe there are absolute truths to be discovered and affirmed; I also believe they are few and hard to find and, once found, talked about. That which is absolutely true is that which stands up to repeated examinations of its iterations in various texts and contexts. It is that to which people find themselves returning, ever returning.

Here's an example of what I mean by the importance of texts and contexts. My teaching mentor back in my MA days once wrote the following on the board in his Freshman Comp class: "Who said, 'A little rebellion now and then is a good thing'? A) Axl Rose; B) Thomas Jefferson; C) Vladimir Lenin." The correct answer, most of us know, is "B", but my teacher's larger point was to impress on the class that the mouth in whom we put words will shape our attitudes regarding those words because we're not assessing solely the words themselves. Words have meaning for their users and their hearers and readers only because of the circumstances under which they are spoken.

"Coolidge," you are saying. Okay.

Over at Atlantic Avenue, Amy responds to President Obama's upcoming September 8th address to public school kids (which, just to be clear, schools can opt in or out of as they see fit) with this post in which she imagines Calvin Coolidge offering a response to that address. It's clever and well-written, which I find true of just about everything Amy posts. (Full disclosure: Amy and I do not agree on politics, but I believe that she debates in good faith and so genuinely respect her and her opinions; indeed, if I didn't, I wouldn't be writing this post.) What follows is what Amy describes as a preview of Coolidge's address: a collection of actual quotes from Coolidge. Amy's collection appears in full here:

• Duty is not collective; it is personal.

• The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.

• Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.

• Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.

• The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the government. Every dollar we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.

• There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no one independence quite so important, as living within your means.

• Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.

• Don't expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.

• Some principles are so constant and so obvious that we do not need to change them, but we need rather to observe them.

• One with the law is a majority.

• Ultimately property rights and personal rights are the same thing.

• If all the folks in the United States would do the few simple things they know they ought to do, most of our big problems would take care of themselves.

• The words of a President have enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.

• To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.

• Patriotism is easy to understand in America; it means looking out for yourself by looking after your country.

• The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.

• You can't know too much, but you can say too much.
Another full disclosure: I don't know a whole lot about Coolidge or his presidency. But so I am honest enough to admit that future reading might change some of what follows. On the other hand, my essential ignorance of Coolidge, I'd argue, is a legitimate thing to bring to the task of reading these quotes. They are, after all, removed from their contexts: I have no idea where or how Amy (or her source(s)) found them, but she presents them here as being worthy of our approval devoid of those contexts. That's not something I can fault too much, seeing as I and everyone reading this does this sort of thing--not, I hasten to add, with the intention of tricking the reader, but as a sort of semaphoric conveying to the reader how we think about certain things. The other reason I can't fault what Amy does here is that, considered here as she presents them, I find myself in greater or lesser agreement with just about every item here--as, I suspect, just about everyone else, independent of their politics, would. The vast, vast majority of Americans express admiration for our Constitution. Personal responsibility is indeed a virtue, most all would say. Industry, thrift, and self-control indeed build character--no question.

So what's the problem? you ask. Well, maybe the problem is with me: Amy's list was not completely devoid of context--she supplied the dates of Coolidge's presidency, 1923-1929--and so as I read this list, I kept matching up Coolidge's words with the events of those years and, perhaps not so surprisingly, the decade after, as I understand them. Thus, as I read the list I kept finding myself saying some variation of "Yeah, but . . . " No matter the virtues inherent in Coolidge's words, it's clearly true that not all businesspeople and investors of his day were acting in accordance with them--and the combination of that fact and the Coolidge administration's desire to hew to these principles even if Wall Street was not was clearly, at the very least, a contributing factor in causing the Great Depression. Knowing this, then, makes some of these quotes seem, shall we say, a bit ominous.

None of this is to say that Coolidge is necessarily wrong for saying these things or that Amy is wrong for admiring them--as I say above, when considered in the abstract there is much wisdom in these statements. It is to say, though, that these work better for us as individuals in guiding our behavior than they do as principles by which to govern a nation filled with people who use their wealth to engage in behavior that, though legal (in the sense of "unregulated"), is less than virtuous, or salutary for the very markets and economy in which they participate and on whose health we all depend.

There's another context I'd like to address quickly: As I mention above, Amy wrote this post in part to critique President Obama's address to public school kids next week. It's fair to ask whether such a thing is appropriate for a President to do; speaking for myself, I say it's appropriate for any President to espouse the importance of education, but (agreeing with Amy here) I'd like to think that's a self-evident truth. Even so, it does no one any harm to state the obvious. At any rate, other conservative types I have read who have been critical of Obama's address have said something along the lines of, "I can't remember another President doing this sort of thing; at the very least, then, we should be suspicious of Obama's doing this."

The kindest thing I can think to say by way of rebuttal is that these folks have short memories:
In 1988, then-President Reagan spoke to students nationwide via C-SPAN telecast. Among other things, he talked about his positions on political issues of the day. Three years later, then-President Bush addressed school kids in a speech broadcast live to school classrooms nationwide. Among other things, he promoted his own administration's education policies. [More details on this here.]

President Obama wants to deliver a message to students next week emphasizing hard work, encouraging young people to do their best in school. The temper tantrum the right is throwing in response only helps reinforce how far gone 21st-century conservatives really are.


I can appreciate there's a question of whether the Department of Education erred in the wording of one sentence in the supplementary materials. It's reasonable to think officials should have been more cautious.

But that's not what this is about. The administration not only edited the supplementary materials, but has offered to make the text of the address available in advance, just so everyone can see how innocuous it is. It's made no difference. Conservatives don't want school kids to hear a message from their president. Those who claim superiority on American patriotism have decided to throw yet another tantrum over the idea that the president of the United States might encourage young people to do well in schools.

This is what American politics has come to in 2009.
Skepticism of government is a virtue--no question. But surely even fair-minded folks who didn't vote for Obama can see that what's going on here far transcends skepticism. Their disappointment and/or anger over the results of the 2008 election have so blinded them that they have great difficulty remembering the previous eight years, or can only see Ronald Reagan when illuminated by his "Government is the problem" halo, or, most perversely of all, simply refuse to accept the possibility that Obama and his administration and supporters, misguided or mistaken though they may be, genuinely have the best interests and values of the nation--as they understand those interests and values--at heart . . . and that those interests are ones all of us would understand as "American" in nature: that they are governing in good faith and will listen to reasoned and reasonable objections, in other words. I mean, much as I disagreed with the Bush administration, I believed it governed in good faith. Well, okay: I wanted to believe that of them. If I were a Freudian, I'd argue that much of that disappointment and anger is actually a projecting of their feelings about the GOP's abject failure to govern either responsibly (my complaint) or in accordance with its own stated policies regarding fiscal responsibility (the base's complaint). But whatever the case, it's absurd, not to mention dangerous, to behave as though Obama's acts as President so completely run counter to those of previous presidents that their precedents--the context of the office of President--become erased in the resulting critique of his presidency. It's also foolish to ignore another context when wondering, as some do, about the extent to which the Obama administration's actions in the marketplace are some sort of dictatorial consolidation of power: the fact that our nation's economy was and remains in very dire straits--the market, having self-regulated us into this pretty state, lacked the ability to self-regulate us out of it--and, most economists across the political spectrum agreed, only the government was big enough to get us out of those straits or at least make them less dire. Yes: we can quibble about particulars, not all of which I'm all that thrilled about. But the government has taken extraordinary actions because the times required such actions, and immediately. Celebrations of self-reliance and economic sobriety, no matter who's doing the celebrating, weren't sufficient in Coolidge's time, and they weren't and aren't now.

I have some ideas as to why Obama is being criticized by some on the right in the way that he is, but that will have to wait for a while yet. But in the meantime I'd like to direct those curious about what I have to say to this one-sentence statement and really ponder it.


R. Sherman said...

As I understand the bru-ha-ha, the criticism was directed more at the accompanying study guide than the idea of the speech itself, which as you point out, is neither unprecedented nor particularly political.

Of course, this points out the difficulty we Americans have with our form of government, which combines the functions of "head of state" with "chief executive officer," unlike say, the UK, where the queen presides over parliament but the Prime Minister runs the show. This speech is more the function of the "head of state," than the chief politician. Thus, people ought to lighten up a bit.

That said, I don't like personality cults of any sort, whether religious or political, but they never seem to lead to anything good.


John B. said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to reply to this, Randall.

Re "cults of personality": Perhaps for the very reasons you cite above, the U.S. President is in a damned-if-he-appears-damned-if-he-doesn't dilemma, no matter the perceived importance of a given event because said appearance can be read through two simultaneous lenses. The corollary of that is that those with deep suspicions of a President in his role as head of state will tend to read his actions through the more unflattering (that is, the political) lens. This happened with the previous President, and it's happening now.

What's weird is that, in small but telling instances in which Obama is continuing traditions and policies begun by his predecessor or his administration that at the time attracted little attention, much less criticism, suddenly these things are now Big News among some, accompanied either by some self-satisfied cluck-clucking or, as with the school speech, hyperbolic fear. As I alluded to at the end of my post, I have a couple of ideas as to why that is; as soon as circumstances permit, I'll post something about it.