Wheeling through the backwoods of northern Florida, the panhandle, and the northern part of the state’s, erm, shaft, flicking through the radio stations on the dial while driving — well, as Radio Girl was driving, I was inhaling snacks and counting roadkill — one soon falls into a familiar rhythm: Jesus station, country, classic rock, Jesus station. Florida is a northern state in the South, and the bottom of the deep South in the North.
On the western panhandle coast, another “redneck riviera” sprawls for tens of miles, to Panama City. Then farms and fishing towns begin, as poor and down-at-heel as the backwoods of Alabama, rotting shacks, and dead centres, then a town revived by hippies and alts, all B’n’Bs and antiques, and then more orchards, and long shut-down oyster houses.
They call the north-west “the forgotten coast”, and it’s an eerie and beguiling stretch — cheek-by-jowl with the metropolis, the roaring new cities of the eastern “space coast”, the foreclosure lands of Orlando — yet decades away from it. No convenience stores or schmick fast-food outlets here — the gas comes from ancient stations that sell nothing else, save for souvenir baskets made from shells, and Doritos.
The place even has its own time zone — central time, an hour behind the east coast, extending halfway into the state, stopping at the Apalachicola River, except where a town decides different. Go into an old weatherboard trading post for a burger, and the clock’ll show it an hour behind the place 10 minutes back along the road.
Given all that it was inevitable, perhaps, that the bursts of Christian rock (“come to our Creator/dude don’t wait till later”) and identikit nu-country (“I stopped driving my rig three years ago, when Cheryl-Anne got cancer/she said don’t ask ‘why us’ babe, cos you know we got the answer/ it’s those three sons we raised to men/it’s the flag we raise each evening, when …”) would be interspersed with warnings of disaster — of an America “we have four more years to save”, of a “country disappearing beneath our feet”, of the “trickery and manipulation” of the grand “community organiser in chief”, of Hitler and Stalin, of the income tax system being based on need and “from each according to their needs, to each …”.
Yes, every second or third station, beamed from Panama City, from Pensacola, from Carrabelle, there was measured panic from the paid ranters of the Right: from Rush Limbaugh, from Fox News Radio, and from crazed locals (“I’m so angry I can’t even speak right now! Here’s an ad for gold investing!”) stirred up by what Limbaugh called the “class warfare rally”, otherwise known as President Obama’s 2012 state of the union speech.
While Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich went at it hammer and tongs up and down the peninsula, Obama had launched his 2012 re-election campaign, with an address that liberal commentators assessed as less partisan than previous years, but which, to me, had the distinct feel of the President rolling his tanks onto the GOP’s country-club lawns.
Wrapping his remarks in the killing of bin Laden, at the opening and closing of the speech, Obama presented a combative politics, emphasising the idea that “fairness” should be at the centre of American life, that as a principle, “no one earning more than a million dollars should pay less than 30% in tax”, and laying claim to the notion of “teamwork” as part of the American experience, relating it to the teamwork of the Navy SEALS team. If you’re of an internationalist leftish persuasion I wouldn’t read this bit while consuming liquids:
“Which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Asian, Latino, Native American, conservative, liberal, rich, poor, gay, straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind. You know, one of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats; some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates, a man who was George Bush’s defence secretary, and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.
“All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves.
“One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job: the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other, because you can’t charge up those stairs into darkness and danger unless you know that there’s somebody behind you watching your back.
“So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our union will always be strong.
“Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.”
Well, I did warn you, didn’t I? Now you need a new laptop.
The speech was the first time that Obama has really laid claim to the bin Laden raid, and to the fact that, through his lethal drone wars, he has effectively crippled al-Qaeda far more effectively than Bush, etc, managed to do. But it’s linking it back to the domestic fight that is particularly audacious — and effective, because it gives him a way of anchoring his centre-right social market politics — or Marxist communism, to use the Right’s technical term — in American traditions.
For years the Right have sought to claim ownership of individualism, and the collective purpose that any society craves, by assigning them to separate spheres — the military is the collective enterprise that protects borders and allows the individualist society to flourish.
That’s a simple story, and easily told. Obama pushed the military model into the centre of civilian life, which leaves the Right the unenviable task of clarifying their objection without insulting the notion of collective effort. At the centre of every story told by every vet, is always collective — of how you did what you did for your unit, your buddies, the man or woman next to you. By fusing that to the domestic effort, Obama creates a platform to make the contrived nature of the Right’s account of American life obvious. It was pretty audacious, I thought, and I was surprised that the US press made very little commentary on the manoeuvre.But it was also of course not merely a move to the Right, but a leapfrog across. When you start to use the military as a model for collective social action, you’re well into corporatism, and perhaps something more. I wouldn’t use the “F” word here, though I’m sure many will, because it is neither as neither accurate nor useful, even metaphorically. Really, it’s a form of liberal imperialism, maintain an empire abroad while slowly drawing back its borders and power projection, while extending collective aspects at home, through an appeal to patriotic unity.
The hope, I suspect, is that the emotions attached to power projection can be swung around to the domestic sphere. The Democrats can then own this energy, and leave the Right with very little.
Perhaps it is this that has the Right spitting chips about the speech. Watching the National Review twitter feed of the event was hilarious — 40 minutes of frat-boy jokes about what was a plain and unostentatious speech, followed by a flurry of concern about the military/teamwork analogy: “a democratic society can never be like a SEAL team” etc, etc. The next day, the ranty radio buzz across the back roads was all about “how this nation was built on the idea of the individual …” etc, etc. They really seemed to believe this would appeal to people and that Obama had in Limabugh’s words “given the Republicans a winning target”.
Amid their decrying of class warfare and envy and the like, they really have no idea how that “individualism” (an inaccurate portrayal of 1776, in any case) comes across to tens of millions: as atomisation, lawlessness and a wasteland where the strong rule the weak, inheritors rule workers, white black, native born immigrant, and the like. The whole military-civilian thing scares the bejesus out of me, and sets up for worse ahead, but I couldn’t suppress a cheer that he was taking the fight to them, and the notion that a mildly tilted tax system might be “communistic class envy”.
The fight is on, at least, the lines are clear, and the fight will be joined, across the hinterlands, the vast wastes of America, and on the forgotten coasts.