Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, February 8, 2008

Beyond the Chortle

I saw a clip of President Bush today; he was giving a speech to conservatives in his party, attempting "to rally the base" behind the next Republican candidate. Whenever any politician speaks, not just Bush, I tend to think of e.e. cummings' poem that parodies political speech:

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water


(I seem to have landed myself in a different font.) Bush himself seems
to have lost interest in his own speeches.In the speech today, and
the
State of the Union, he seemed almost too relaxed--burned out, fatalistic.
He
seems to be a man who has done whatever it was he was
going to do, a man
who thinks this pageant, life, is a bit of a joke.
Who can blame him if he feels this way? He seems tohave become
president in spite of himself. When I saw the clip of him
speaking, I chortled.

He did say one thing that interested me. He encouraged the audience
to stand up for
"faith in our values." I assume he meant "conservative"
values,but I decided to
broaden the term and assume, further, that
he meant "American values." Then I asked
myself, "What are American
values?" Of course,some ironic, sarcastic, answers
spring to mind.
But if I had to try to answer the question straight up, without a chortle,
I'd say
the following:

1. Work. Americans value work, and statistics show we tend to
work ourselves to death,
at least in comparison to folks in Europe,
for example. We tend to drive ourselves.


2. Consumption. We're mad for things. We make millions of things,
or have them made
abroad, and we sell them to each other. Gadgets,
cars, stuff. "Home improvements."
Clothes, shoes, trinkets. Little boxes
of entertainment. I've spent some time in
Germany and Sweden, two
industrialized countries, and while they're certainly modern

nations with all the "amenities," they simply aren't as obsessed with
things as
we are. I don't think any nation is as obsessed as ours is with
things.And the statistics in this case don't lie: we consume the most
fuel and produce the most waste, per capita, of any nation.

3. Control. How we got to the place where we think we can and should
control global
politics is a complicated story, but I think that's the place
we're in, for better
or worse. Nobody's business globally is not our
business. We can always rationalize
its being our business because
of "national security" or "human rights" or "the
global economy" or "the
spread of freedom." But these pieces of language really don't
get at
why we Americans love control so much. I think it's more than just
greed and
more than the fact that we're convinced our way is the way.
We have imperial instincts,
in my opinion, but they're different from
those of England, for example. The net
effect, however, may look the
same to those countries we try to control.


4. Immaturity. Europeans are fond of saying that Americans never grow
up (somewhat
ironic, given the trouble some Europeans get into, but
nonetheless . . .). We tend to
try to extend youth perhaps even more
frantically than the rest of humanity.


5. Privilege. We like imagining that we are on top of the world. Lord
knows a lot of
Americans are not privileged, to say the least, but still
I think there's an American
way of looking at the world, one that sees
America at the top of a hierarchy.


I don't know, for sure, what President Bush meant when he spoke of
"values." In private,
he may say something like, "It was just a speech,
okay? Grow up." Or he may really
mean something, or at least believe
he means something, when he says "values." He
may mean "freedom"
or "individuality" or whatever, but these are empty signifiers. As
far
as I know, he never deigns to complicate such terms, to reflect on
them, even
to define them. He says "values," and he counts on the
fact that his audience will
read the code-word correctly. In this respect,
he's just like every other politician. Politicians speak in code.


And so, once more, I think of cummings' poem.
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