July 02, 2008
The Meta-Messages in Obama's Patriotism Speech
By Lee Cary
meta-message: A term, widely credited to Gerard Nierenberg, used to refer to messages that are not directly delivered but emerge from between the written or spoken lines. Senator Obama's "The America We Love" speech, delivered in Independence, Missouri on June 30, might be more accurately entitled, "My Definition of Patriotism." It was as much about him as America, and it was full of meta-messages.
A close reading of his 3,000-words address reveals meta-messages at various depth levels. Here are several listed in their order of appearance:
1. The unfair labeling of me as unpatriotic is a Republican scare tactic.
"I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged...more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for." [The unnamed targets of this accusation represent Obama's frequent tactical use of the Straw Man attack on shadow opposition, as he continues to play the victim.]
2. I stand with other great Americans whose patriotism has been challenged.
"Thomas Jefferson was accused by the Federalists...John Adams was [said to be] in cahoots with the British..."
3. In my long-standing opposition to the Iraq War, I stand with others who have patriotically opposed bad government policies and behaviors. "[Patriotic opposition includes those who were against] Adams' Alien and Sedition Act, Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans..." and "...during our recent debates about the war in Iraq, when those who opposed administration policy were tagged by some as unpatriotic.
"But when our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism." [Examples include] "...Martin Luther King, Jr. who led a movement to help America...the young soldier who first spoke about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib."
4. I come from a traditionally patriotic family.
"...sitting on my grandfather's shoulders and watching the astronauts...grandmother telling stories about her work on a bomber assembly-line during World War II...grandfather handing me his dog-taps from his time in Patton's Army...mother reading me the first lines of the Declaration of Independence"
5. I appreciate the sacrifice of wounded veterans including John McCain, and am not responsible for Gen. Wesley Clark's recent remarks about him.
"... no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides." [What military service of his own does Obama imply?]
6. As president I will call on Americans to display their patriotism through community service.
"...those who are fighting for a better America here at home, by teaching in underserved schools, or caring for the sick in understaffed hospitals, or promoting more sustainable energy policies in their local communities
"I believe one of the tasks of the next Administration is to ensure that the movement towards service grows and sustains itself in the years to come."
7. Sustaining America's patriotism will require a major federal initiative to improve public education.
"The loss of quality civic education from so many of our classrooms has left too many young Americans without the most basic knowledge of [American history]."
Meta-messages 6 and 7 are best understood in the context of the most important, yet least discussed, official campaign document of this entire presidential campaign: The Blueprint For Change: Barack Obama's Plan For America. Obama's clear intention stated therein, and complemented by linked speeches, is to increase taxes, decrease defense spending (and gut NASA's budget), and dramatically increase expenditures on social programs, to include an unprecedented level of federal government intrusion into public education.
In this speech Obama gave us a preview of the patriotism case he'll make, if elected, to push a comprehensive redistribution of tax dollars toward federally-sponsored, community social activism. And ultimately, there will be no international boundaries to his definition of "community."
Although it's not a major theme in this speech, another deep level meta-message is also noteworthy:
I will not only end the Iraq War, but deemphasize the war on terrorism.
Obama stated that "we are in the midst of war" and tallied the casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan. He made no reference to the war on terrorism, nor uses any of its alternative labels. Neither does he mention the casualties of 9/11. His only reference to that event was in the context of how the Bush administration called for no sacrifice from Americans in its wake except to go shopping.
Another deep level meta-message is aligned with his sponsorship of Senate Bill 2344, the Global Poverty Act of 2007. In his speech he asked,
"How do we ensure that in an increasingly global economy, the winners maintain allegiance to the less fortunate?"
Part of his answer to his own question is in his proposed bill to allocate $845,000,000,000 of foreign aid to be dispensed over 13 years in cooperation with the United Nations.
The meta-message here is:
We have a patriotic responsibility to the world's improverished as well as to our own.
Finally, his speech was not without inconsistencies. For example, he stated,
"Still, what is striking about today's patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960's."
Yet, throughout his campaign, Obama has made very frequent direct and indirect references to the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60's. One wonders -- can he deliver a major speech without mentioning Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Also, he suggested that General David Petraeus was the target of unfair criticism when "a general providing his best counsel on how to move forward in Iraq was accused of betrayal."
Yes, Obama was silent when the Senate addressed this episode.
"In the latest round of maneuvers over last week's MoveOn.org ad attacking Gen. David Petraeus, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chris Dodd today voted against a Senate resolution that condemned the ad and supported Petraeus. Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, two other Democrats running for president, did not vote on the measure." (USA Today)
And this final disconnect: Obama used the occasion of a July 4th speech to criticize Zimbabwe and Burma. Then, to those despotic regimes, he linked Iraq,
"[W]here despite the heroic efforts of our military, and the courage of many ordinary Iraqis, even limited cooperation between various factions remains far too elusive."
Yet, in the very next paragraph, he said,
"I believe those who attack America's flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals, and their proven capacity to inspire a better world, do no truly understand America."
Is this not a curious juxtaposition? He equated cultural dysfunction within Iraq to the tyranny with Burma and Zimbabwe. Then he criticized those who don't understand America's ability to inspire others. Apparently, Obama recognizes no inspired progress toward freedom among the Iraqi people.
If you're an Iraqi listening to this speech, risking your life to establish order within your country, how do you hear that statement from one of two people who will be the next POTUS?
At the end of his speech on patriotism, I'm left wondering about Obama's own understanding of America.