The State of the Union: an old fartish complaint

[From my radio commentary this week.]

A few words on the State of the Union address. What a plodding, tedious affair—enlivened only by its unresolved contradictions. Obama spoke against austerity—“we can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” the qualifier “just” being a tipoff that a confidence trick was being perpetrated—but quickly made it clear he wanted to cut Medicare and Social Security, lest, as he put it, “our retirement programs…crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.” In the euphemistic language is Washington, you see, cuts to these popular and successful programs are portrayed as “strengthening” them.

Obama approvingly dropped the names of Simpson and Bowles, the austerity-minded co-chairs of the deficit reduction commission he created and staffed. He devoted a couple of paragraphs to climate change, which almost sounded like he was taking it seriously—but then celebrated the rise in domestic oil and gas production, which means fracking. He talked about making college debt “sustainable”—but of course he’d never want to make college free, which we could easily afford. He promoted quality education for all, yet touted his Race to the Top program, which is a way to force states to adhere even more passionately to the testing agenda that both parties are in love with, despite its lack of results. And so on.

And what rhetoric. Obama is a highly literate and thoughtful guy, yet this speech adhered to the depressingly low standards of American public discourse. It was written at a 10th grade level, slightly below the 11th grade level of his 2009 speech, and even more below the 12th grade level of Clinton’s 1993 state of the union. At least it was above George W’s 9th grade level speech in 2001. (See here for the texts of all State of the Union addresses; see here for the grade level analyzer.) Remember, 87% of Americans over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or more, and over 30% have college degrees (Census source), so the president isn’t addressing a nation of dropouts.

How we’ve come down in our expectations. As recently as 1961, when only 41% of Americans had completed high school, John F. Kennedy’s address was at a reading level associated with a year of college. Back in 1934, a time when fewer than 20% had completed high school, FDR’s first state of the union was at a level associated with three years of college. In 1861, when 20% of the population was illiterate, Lincoln’s first State of the Union (which admittedly was written and not spoken) was composed at a level comparable to a college graduate’s.

As for content, a devolution there as well. Imagine a modern president saying this, as Lincoln did in his 1861 address: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Certainly our Kenyan socialist would never say such a thing.

Ever since Reagan, it’s become de rigeur to conclude the State of the Union with a “God bless America,” as if the nation were experiencing a recurrent sneezing fit. What a change from the conclusion of Warren Harding’s 1921 State of the Union: “A most gratifying world-accomplishment is not improbable.” No doubt that would not play well on TV.

7 Comments on “The State of the Union: an old fartish complaint

  1. Doug, if you reconsider the state of the union in that it has to fit several criteria, it makes a lot more sense: You have to consider certain phrases or words as utter lies or fabrications, but obviously so. Beyond that will tell the ‘truth’; it must vaguely suggest what’s going to happen (your appraisal decodes it well-enough); it’s a bunch of bs cooked up to try to placate groups which aren’t doing well, and specifically aren’t doing well right now.

  2. A college graduate today is probably less literate than someone with a 9th grade education hundred years ago. Read the newspapers of that time, which were numerous, and not the domain of a privileged elite. As opposed to today, when the NYT is pretty much read only by the hyper-educated (and mostly illiterate) VSP and their dedicated critics – and yet whose language is simplistic and crude in comparison with newspapers of yore.

    TV , among other things, has made us seriously stupid.

  3. Pingback: Weekend Roundup 02/16/13

  4. I’ll agree with purple. A while back a local paper published an 8th grade math test from 100 years earlier that the editors had dug up. It was surprisingly tough. No one in my office of college grads and MBAs answered more than 2 out of 10 questions right.

    Also, I’m always astounded by the letters home from ordinary Civil War soldiers that you run across from time to time in print or on TV, as in Ken Burns’ series. Discounting for the sometimes florid flourishes of the times, these letters can be wonderfully complex and moving. And even the florid touches reveal a mastery of the language that eludes most of us today, I’m afraid.

    Finally, I really don’t see much evidence of Obama’s brilliance. For one thing, his speeches are written for him — as they are for most presidents. And for another, he has a record that demonstrates a complete absence of original or bold thinking or even responsible stewardship in a time of crisis.

  5. Doug,

    Regarding standardized testing, Paul Tough’s new book makes the observation that the testing doctrine has played into the hands of conservative cognitive determinists. As you may know, they finally obtained the hard data to “prove” that certain segments of the population are incurably inferior. He could complement your previous radio show guests on education.

  6. Interesting that so much of your response has to do with the rhetoric. I’m not so sure 2013 can be compared with years when the majority of voters and/or college graduates were white men or exactly what an acceptable “standard of American discourse” might be.

    Regardless, level of education and literacy should not be confused (see: diploma mills). Giving the President the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume that he actually wanted most of the population to understand him which is why he didn’t use any five-dollar words. Even 10th grade seems a bit high, but he’d have to give an Academy Award level performance to go any lower. Anyway, by “most of the population,” I’ll use the example of health information materials. They’re written for adults at a 5th-7th grade level as standard operating procedure since, according to the OECD, the majority of adults in the US read at a Level 3 (of 5). In addition, word choice is vital in exam rooms as many folks don’t understand what “once,” “twice,” “daily,” etc. mean. Really. The chances of someone asking for clarification are slim to none and slim’s outta town. Thus, providers can’t speak to patients as though they’re med school grads if they’d like to be understood.

    Unfortunately, I fully understood the neoliberal agenda/laundry list that the President unveiled. For shame.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: