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The State of the Union: an old fartish complaint

Ohanian Comment:Although I don't put much credence in 'reading levels,' Henwood makes a fascinating case. As reading levels of the citizenry rise, levels of Presidential official speeches fall. Put it another way, the louder a president complains about teachers and students, the lower the level of his own discourse.

by Doug Henwood

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 programsâ€Â¦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 1983 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 her 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 1961 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.

— Doug Henwood
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