The Obama administration faces several challenges all at once. I don’t know what it should do about any of them.
I think I know what devices are needed, to move forward. They don’t have a good common name; let’s call them rhetorics, for now.
Consider a strange fact: Americans would have rioted if the government had ordered that all working people rise one hour earlier, that businesses begin operations an hour earlier, on a specific day. This is intrusion at a level we’re just not ok with. But call it “Daylight Saving Time,” and people go along – some happily, some grumpily, but everybody takes the change as a fact of nature: when the robins return, we adjust our clocks.
Another fact: Americans would have seen government as caving in entirely to Lenin had anyone said, in the Roosevelt years, that a tax should be imposed on working people and businesses to provide a welfare fund for the elderly. But Social Security, an insurance program, was a different thing altogether. (How an insurance program without any mechanism for enforcing payments, essentially revocable at any time, differs from a welfare program, is a matter for philosophers to ponder, after they get done with angels and pins.)
A third fact, perhaps a bit more sinister: the watchdogs of basic civil liberties would have bellowed loudly, had the U.S. government announced that the televisions of the poorest Americans would be rendered useless, forcing them to seek out and install new technology in a time of economic distress. This would be seen as cutting to the heart of people’s right to know, to remain informed, to remain part of the national community. But, call it “digital conversion,” and most people see the move as a benign adjustment to changing technology.
It is too easy to respond to such examples by saying, “It’s all just propaganda – what Goebbels was up to, basically.” It isn’t all just propaganda. There are a variety of possible descriptions of every policy and initiative and course of action. Each illuminates some features and obscures others; each has a different feel, a different motivational power, a different inflection. To live in an uninflected world is like getting all one’s communication from a digital voice reader; meaning requires selection and emphasis. (Intelligence requires that one figure out what trade-offs are behind each selection, each emphasis.)
Politics is largely a matter of finding descriptions that people can live with in the long run. Ethics requires more: that the descriptions not make anything important disappear. What we need from our leaders, and what we can help to shape, in a democratic system, is an ethical politics containing the necessary rhetorics for moving forward from the current crises of meaning.