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What is interesting in this instance is the stark contrast in how the two political

camps in the same election cycle rhetorically crafted their message through their

spouses. Whether or not one believes Ann Romney was speaking plainly, or

speaking down to her target audience is one for the pundits to debate.

 

 

America the Greatest Nation on Earth

A ChickenBones Commentary by Rudolph Lewis

9 September 2012

 

Michele and Barack Obama are recent converts to the civil religion of a revitalized imperial America. You might come to similar conclusions if you contrast five 2012 DNC speeches, e.g., those of Michele, Barack, Joe Biden, Deval Patrick, and Bill Clinton. Only Biden and the Obamas used a form of the word "great" to refer the United States of America or its people:

Every day, the people I meet inspire me . . . every day, they make me proud . . . every day they remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth.—Michele, 2012 DNC speech Obama

We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.—Barack Obama, 2012 DNC speech

And at its core, the difference is, we have incredible faith in the decency, and the hard work of the American people. And we know what has made this country great—its people.—Joe Biden, 2012 DNC speech

You may note that Michele and Barack only ones who used the expression of America as "the greatest nation on the earth." I do not think that it is mere coincident. I am almost certain that they discussed beforehand the impact that the expression "greatest nation on earth" might have on skeptical Americans who might doubt their patriotic devotion to the American creed in its sentimental vagueness. I brought notice to my own unease of this patriotic expression in my initial response to Michele's speech. Their singular use of such patriotic language still unsettles me and I am still trying to make sense of  what it really means to be a "great nation" and even more so what it means to be "the greatest nation on earth." Clearly, both Michele and Barack, partially because they are well-schooled in law, are very sophisticated in the use of language, and they had something significant in mind in its use, not once, but twice.

The First Lady's speech has gained a great deal of attention. It was reported that her speech went "viral" in China. Some question whether her speech will "change history." Others suggest that her DNC performance will "redefine black women." After her electrifying speech, Bill Clinton commented that he is glad that Barack had the good sense to marry her. Gordon Stewart of CNN wrote:

The first lady was not afraid to use the word love openly and often, in relation to working people of all classes, armed services families, immigrants, parents and especially to her husband and her children. And she was not afraid to show an emotional connection to her words in a performance that was as remarkable for its passion and sincerity as for its many quotable lines. . . . his wife with the singular American title of first lady may have opened a path for her husband back into the hearts of those who had such high hopes for his audacity.—cnn

Eric Ostermeier's article "Michelle Obama's DNC Speech Written at 7 Grade Levels Above Ann Romney's" analyzed the complexity and readability of Michele's speech. It was delivered at a grade level of 12.84, higher than her 2008 speech which was slightly greater than a 9th grade level, and in both cases the highest of any First Lady or wife of a candidate. Her sentences tended to be about thirty words long and the reading ease was the lowest of any First Lady as well. In contrast, Ann Romney's 2012 speech was at the lowest grade level, less than a 6th grade level and her sentences tended to be clipped around fifteen words or less with the highest reading ease of over 80. Thus, the sophisticated Michele aimed her unique remarks at a rather sophisticated audience. Ostermeier concludes in this fashion:

What is interesting in this instance is the stark contrast in how the two political camps in the same election cycle rhetorically crafted their message through their spouses. Whether or not one believes Ann Romney was speaking plainly, or speaking down to her target audience is one for the pundits to debate.

My view, again, is that a certain craft (or craftiness) went into Michele and Barack making use of the super-patriotic expression of America as "the greatest nation on earth." What then do Michele and Barack mean by the notion of "great nation," especially in the superlative form of "greatest nation." To explore the notion I did a web search on "great nation.” None of the hits was definitive, especially with regard to the expression "the greatest nation," of what qualifies a nation to be the "greatest." Some allow there are great nations both ancient and modern. Others emphasize only the most recent nations of the last three centuries, including Russia and England.  All in some way impressed me with the view that the criteria are personal and  subjective.

A Russian fellow pointed out that the welfare or the prosperity of a nation's citizen is one criteria, but suggested that wealth ebbs and flows and declines. And concludes that it is the legacy of a nation that ultimately determines its greatness. That legacy could be in successful warfare (e.g., England, Russia, and France; Alexander or Caesar), or in its exceptional individuals or its systems and ideas..

A Chinese writer would exclude quantitative criteria such as size, economy, or military power as a way of ranking the greatness of nations. And on this basis would exclude "clean, efficient, and safe Singapore" as a great nation. And although ancient China invented gunpowder, he excludes it from great nation status, as well. Chinese inventions would not raise that nation sufficiently to be included on his great nation list because of its lack of ideas influencing our present day world. That is true too, for him, of modern China, during the Mao and post-Mao periods. The Chinese legacy in the fields of science, technology, business, and government are inadequate, lacking world-class influence.

This writer however includes Israel because of its politicians and bankers, and its development of science and technologies. For this writer, it is “ideas” that truly determine the greatness of nations, and how those ideas change the world and make a difference. For him, Great Britain and America stand higher than other great nations. As for Britain, its language, system of law and justice, science and technology have made a difference in the world, as well as in its former colonies that became independent developing nations.

America is known as a “land of opportunity,” this Chinese writer reminds us, possessing a system that allows its immigrants to succeed. Its contributions to the world include rebuilding Europe and Japan after World War II. Its ideals of freedom, liberty, and human rights have been exported to influence the world’s developing nations, along with its scientific and business inventions. Like the Jews of Israel it has the right system and spirit which lays a foundation for it to "bounce back" from crises and disaster, “stronger and better than ever.” Though this writer does not say it specifically, he seems to suggest that America is indeed “the greatest nation on earth.”

Another web site, highlighted by a Christ figure, enumerates “17 Reasons” why America is a great nation by listing  quantitative criteria dismissed by the Chinese writer, enumerating America's size in geography, population, military power, economy, natural resources, manufacturing,  and technology with an additional emphasis on free education, other systems and ideas. What is not emphasized in this list of greatness is America’s economic concerns for the poor of its nation or the programs that have been created since the 1930s New Deal (FDR) and the mid 1960s Great Society (LBJ) programs, including Social Security and Medicare, as well as the development of a middle class that consumes what it makes and that of other exporting countries. No sites emphasizes America as a great consumer market.

As early as 1839, American columnist and editor John L. O'Sullivan coined the term "Manifest Destiny" in 1845 to boost America's image of itself as a country destined for great nation status, even in the midst of having several million people enslaved with racism as prominent as the ideal of human equality. He spoke in superlatives of America’s future greatness: 

Yes, we are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Equality of rights is the cynosure of our union of States, the grand exemplar of the correlative equality of individuals . . . . We must onward to the fulfilment of our mission—to the entire development of the principle of our organization—freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality. . . . All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man—the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity? (Excerpted from "The Great Nation of Futurity")—mtholyoke

What may be more directly helpful is revisiting an article by John Podhertz, a steadfast Bush supporter and Jewish neoconservative, written 14 April 2011 (NY Post), titled “'Great big' mistake is confusing a 'great' nation with 'big' gov't,” interpreting a 40-minute speech by President Obama on the “nation's long-term debt” and countering Congressman Paul Ryan and the Republicans ability to handle the nation's debt/deficit crisis fairly to serve America's middle class. As you know the Wisconsin congressman as Budget Committee Chairman for the House Republican Tea Party drew up plans to privatize within the next ten years Medicare and Social Security in order to reduce taxes on the wealthy, believing that a gain in the wealth of these financial elites will trickle down to create low paid/low benefit jobs.

In this article, Podhertz concludes that Obama defines "great nation" by the size of government:

This idea—that America's greatness is to be found in the ever-expanding size of its social safety net—may be the most radical thing Obama (or any president) has ever said. It was once commonly understood that America's greatness comes from its unique and unprecedented political system—a system of limited government that preserves individual liberties through a system of checks and balances against centralized power.

That system permitted the greatest and most enduring flowering of human ingenuity and personal accomplishment the world has ever known—and because of its nobility, compelled the elimination of its own built-in injustices, like slavery.  Now here we are, in 2011, and our president is arguing that some programs created in the 1930s and 1960s—150 years after Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin, and 70 years after Lincoln—are what define America as a great nation. . . . I think yesterday he showed us the very core of his conviction—that America is to be morally judged solely on the basis of the services its government delivers. In choosing to stand his ground and fight on these terms, he is ensuring that the 2012 election will provide profound clarity about the nation's direction in the decades to come.”—nypost

From other articles and positions, we know, Podhertz is a Jefferson/Madison small government-state's rights advocate, rather than a Washington-Hamilton-Adams-Lincoln Republican Democrat strong federal government advocate. Podhertz thus slants Obama's stance in an odd time warp that defies what has occurred to world economies in the last 75 years. Podhertz leaves out Obama's federal views with regard to homeland security, military power, education,  research/technology development and training, as if Obama has no other federal government concerns than health care and other safety net programs for America’s aging and disadvantaged populations.

According to Glen Ford, BlackAgendaReport, Obama is moving more toward the right-wing Republicans than the liberal/ radical left. And that in setting up the Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission, led by a conservative Republican and a conservative Democrat, Obama intended to introduce austerity measures to the social net programs as a means of reducing government, but that plan however would include taxes on wealth, which was rejected by Congressman Ryan and the Republican Tea Party. Ford explains the history of the political struggle:

The fact of the matter, the real history of healthcare is that Obama’s bill was actually born in the Heritage Foundation—that’s a right-wing Republican think tank—in the late 80s. Essentially the same bill was a Republican bill in 1993. Bob Dole ran on that bill in 1996. Mitt Romney picked up that bill for Massachusetts later on. And it then emerged as the Obama bill. The year 2009 was the year for single payer. What Obama actually did was to browbeat, isolate the part of the Democratic Party, which was a majority of the Democratic Party—and the Republicans took no part in this—in order to impose this regime, which in fact puts the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies in the money flow for billions and billions of dollars and does not reduce the rising costs of healthcare. It can't, because their profits are all tied to it. And as those costs of healthcare continue to increase, the pressures for austerity then increase. And they are already being used as excuses for austerity. And then Obama comes with his model for austerity and his $4 trillion cuts, introduced by his hand-picked commission for deficit reduction.—democracynow

Looking back on what we have learned by our web search and experience, we gather sense of what the Obamas mean by “great nation,” a nation that cares about the welfare of its citizens, the rights of women and immigrants and its minorities, a nation that is prosperous and capable of leading other nations in numerous fields, e.g., education, technology, science, exports and overall economic, political. and military power. But that does not get us closer to understanding the Obamas' assessment that America is “the greatest nation on earth.”

Does that mean that the USA is superlative in all fields of endeavor (e.g. safeguards of rights of citizens, criminal justice, health and welfare, national morality in relation to the sovereignty of nations and other peoples? We must ask as well when did America first become "the greatest nation on earth"? Was it on the ratification of its Constitution, the Reconstruction era, the Jim Crow era, the civil rights era with the voting rights act of 1965. Or did it become the greatest nation with the fall of the Soviet Union. In a recent Guardian article, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa wrote:

Leadership and morality are indivisible. Good leaders are the custodians of morality. The question is not whether Saddam Hussein was good or bad or how many of his people he massacred. The point is that Mr Bush and Mr Blair should not have allowed themselves to stoop to his immoral level. . . . If it is acceptable for leaders to take drastic action on the basis of a lie, without an acknowledgement or an apology when they are found out, what should we teach our children? My appeal to Mr Blair is not to talk about leadership, but to demonstrate it. You are a member of our family, God's family. You are made for goodness, for honesty, for morality, for love; so are our brothers and sisters in Iraq, in the US, in Syria, in Israel and Iran—guardian

Should not the “greatest nation” be judged by the quality of its leadership? Was America the greatest nation when Andrew Johnson was president or when federal troops were withdrawn from the South, which facilitated racist terror against former slaves and and the ending of the beginning of a postracist America? Was the racist terror and torture of Filipinos by McKinley's army in the Philippines and the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines and the delay of Cuban independence what made America the greatest nation? Do 170 military bases around the globe with additional ones being added in Africa what makes America "the greatest nation." Was America "the greatest nation" during the Abu Ghraib scandal? Did it become a rogue nation for a moment and then elevated itself again as " greatest nation, though causing hundreds of thousands of deaths on a lie of WMDs? Or did it become the greatest nation in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president. We need some clarification on these issues.

Should "the greatest nation" abide by international law? Certainly, that was not the case in Iraq or in Pakistan or in Libya. America locks up a larger number of its citizens than any nation on the face of the earth and the prison industrial complex grows as crime declines. Stop-and-Frisk on a race-gender basis is still an applauded police program in New York City. Fifty millions of its citizens go to bed hungry. Nearly 50 million Americans do not have adequate healthcare coverage. Half of working-age black men are unable to find employment, while white unemployment is only 7.1 percent. In 1870 over a million black men were granted the franchise. In 2012, over a million black men have been disenfranchised by numerous states north/south/east/west. In Israel, even prisoners/convicted murderers have the franchise.

In short,  does stating that one's own country is "the greatest nation on earth" show some arrogance, overweening pride, some brass in the face of other horrors and tragedies committed by one's country. I remain quite uneasy with the jingoistic remark of America as the “greatest nation on earth,” while prominent Obama defenders remain silent on the worst political and economic aspects of past and present American public policies. Not in the catbird seat, I am unable to express the pride the Obamas have recently acquired in America.

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#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
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#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

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#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed

 

This is a scholar's book: serious, thick, complex. It's also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived.

So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves' lives and the nature of the choices they had to make—when they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed's genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work.—Publishers Weekly

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The New New Deal

The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era

By Michael Grunwald

Time senior correspondent Michael Grunwald tells the secret history of the stimulus bill, the purest distillation of Change We Can Believe In, a microcosm of Obama’s policy successes and political failures. Though it is reviled by the right and rejected by the left, it really is a new New Deal, larger than FDR’s and just as transformative. It prevented an imminent depression, while jump-starting Obama’s long-term agenda. The stimulus is pouring $90 billion into clean energy, reinventing the way America is powered and fueled; it includes unprecedented investments in renewables, efficiency, electric cars, a smarter grid, cleaner coal, and more. It’s carrying health care into the digital era. Its Race to the Top initiative may be the boldest education reform in U.S. history. It produced the biggest middle-class tax cuts in a generation, a broadband initiative reminiscent of rural electrification, and an overhaul of the New Deal’s unemployment insurance system. It’s revamping the way government addresses homelessness, fixes infrastructure, and spends money.

Grunwald reveals how Republicans have obscured these achievements through obstruction and distortion. The stimulus launched a genuine national comeback. It also saved millions of jobs, while creating legacies that could rival the Hoover Dam: the world’s largest wind farm, a new U.S. battery industry, a new high-speed rail network, the world’s highest-speed Internet network.  Its main legacy, like the New Deal’s, will be change.

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Race, Incarceration, and American Values

By Glenn C. Loury

In this pithy discussion, renowned scholars debate the American penal system through the lens—and as a legacy—of an ugly and violent racial past. Economist Loury argues that incarceration rises even as crime rates fall because we have become increasingly punitive. According to Loury, the disproportionately black and brown prison populations are the victims of civil rights opponents who successfully moved the country's race dialogue to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime. Loury's claims are well-supported with genuinely shocking statistics, and his argument is compelling that even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear.

Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an inert ballast in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people; and Harvard philosophy professor

Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington's political outlook on race. The group's respectful sparring results in an insightful look at the conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without being overwhelming.—Publishers Weekly

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Working in the Shadows

A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do

By Gabriel Thompson

Thompson spent a year working alongside Latino immigrants, who initially thought he was either crazy or an undercover immigration agent. He stooped over lettuce fields in Arizona, and worked the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse in rural Alabama. . . . Thompson shines a bright light on the underside of the American economy, exposing harsh working conditions, union busting, and lax government enforcement—while telling the stories of workers, undocumented immigrants, and desperate US citizens alike, forced to live with chronic pain in the pursuit of $8 an hour. Gabriel Thompson has contributed to New York, The Nation, New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, In These Times and others. He is the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media Award, and a collective Sidney Hillman Award. His writings are collected at Where The Silence Is .

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The River of No Return

The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC

By Cleveland Sellers with Robert Terrell

Among histories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s there are few personal narratives better than this one. Besides being an insider's account of the rise and fall of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, it is an eyewitness report of the strategies and the conflicts in the crucial battle zones as the fight for racial justice raged across the South.  This memoir by Cleveland Sellers, a SNCC volunteer, traces his zealous commitment to activism from the time of the sit-ins, demonstrations, and freedom rides in the early '60s. In a narrative encompassing the Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964), the historic march in Selma, the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, and the murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, he recounts the turbulent history of SNCC and tells the powerful story of his own no-return dedication to the cause of civil rights and social change.

The River of No Return is acclaimed as a book that is destined to become a standard text for those wishing to perceive the civil rights struggle from within the ranks of one of its key organizations and to note the divisive history of the movement as groups striving for common goals were embroiled in conflict and controversy.

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A Matter Of Law: A Memoir Of Struggle in the Cause Of Equal Rights

By Robert L. Carter and Foreword by John Hope Franklin

Robert Lee Carter (March 11, 1917 – January 3, 2012) insisted on using the research of the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark to attack segregated schools, a daring courtroom tactic in the eyes of some civil rights lawyers. Experiments by Mr. Clark and his wife, Mamie, showed that black children suffered in their learning and development by being segregated. Mr. Clark’s testimony proved crucial in persuading the court to act, Mr. Carter wrote in a 2004 book, “A Matter of Law: A Memoir of Struggle in the Cause of Equal Rights.” As chief deputy to the imposing Mr. Marshall, who was to become the first black Supreme Court justice, Mr. Carter labored for years in his shadow.

In the privacy of legal conferences, Mr. Carter was seen as the house radical, always urging his colleagues to push legal and constitutional positions to the limits. He recalled that Mr. Marshall had encouraged him to play the gadfly: “I was younger and more radical than many of the people Thurgood would have in, I guess. But he’d never let them shut me up.” Robert Lee Carter was born in Caryville, in the Florida Panhandle . . . . NYTimes   Oral History  Archive   / Pedagogical Uses of African Histories  /  Dedication to Human Rights and Human Kindness

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Related files: Ignorance, Facts, and Betrayal of the Dream  The Truth Matters (Michele Obama speech)    I Am the President   Mitt Romney Holds 'Extreme Views'