By no means the sole purview of any one party, platitudes are an inherent part of politics.
Adlai Stevenson quipped that the Republicans of his day were stroking platitudes until they purred like epigrams. In the hands of this nation’s current Democratic president, never before have platitudes purred so epigrammatically. Whether it is being announced that “change has come to America,” or we are being made aware for the very first time that “we are the change we have been waiting for,” what is required for such phrases to have any genuine significance is either a total lack of reflection or the fatuous excess of it.
When Chauncey Gardiner observed, “In the garden, growth has it seasons: First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter; and then we get spring and summer again,” no one could contend the haphazard horticulturist was wrong. But only the fool found him astute.
What is so galling about Obama’s platitudes is not that they are hollow and made to sound sententious, but that they are flagrantly duplicitous. When he proclaimed in his inaugural address that “the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” one could dismiss it as nothing more than empty rhetoric. But when every day thereafter is spent not addressing the question of whether it works but rather how government can be further and further aggrandized, the president’s platitudes can not be taken so lightly. The question of whether it works has yet to be answered, but still the government grows at an alarming rate.
This should be especially alarming for a people who once possessed the inestimable virtue of having little need for government.
When America’s most perspicuous observer toured this country, he was struck by the ostensible absence of any central administration. Tocqueville understood that the seat of government was found in Washington and that each state had its capital, but as he traveled the fledgling nation, the presence of a central authority remained wholly impalpable. To be affected by it one had to solicit it, and as the Frenchman observed, the Americans were not the least solicitous in that regard. When an individual conceived some social improvement (e.g., establishing a school or hospital), it never occurred to him to petition the government for aid. Even if these projects often were carried out less efficiently than if the government had been involved, a nation composed of such individuals could achieve far more than any central administration ever could. Moreover, the moral benefits accrued by a people that learned the value of responsibility and autonomy by taking charge of their own fate could not be underestimated.
The young French aristocrat was struck by this phenomenon and noted how extraordinarily rare it was for a people to be able to get on without government. So rare, in fact, that Tocqueville maintained there were but two types of people who could do so, and these existed at “the two extremities of civilization. … Savage man, having only physical needs to satisfy … counts only on himself; for a civilized man to do as much, he must have reached that social state where his intelligence permits him to perceive clearly what is useful, and where his passions do not prevent his executing it.”
Tocqueville may have found America’s men unrefined, its women unattractive, and the lot of them horrid musicians, but he had no misgivings about which extremity of civilization they belonged to.