History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.
           – Henry Ford, 1916

Barack Obama, in his keynote speech to the late, lamented 2008 National Convention of the Democratic Party of the United States of America, vowed: “We can be a better America”. No, I didn’t spend any time following the convention. But the line was splashed all over the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on the morning after Obama’s address, so I couldn’t help but see it. And spend fragments of the past several days thinking about it.

We can be a better America. Doesn’t have a lot of good to say about the history We the People have been making lately, does it? No, I won’t recite the list. I just hope that you haven’t lost a job to the recession, or property in the credit crunch, or loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan. To name three.

I was browsing through a San Francisco bookstore on the eve of my return to Honolulu, and ran across a volume of political cartoons entitled Blood, Debt, and Fears. A pun (a nasty one, given the history that We have been making lately) on Winston Churchill’s famous, historical (oops) “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech.

I would say to the House as I have said to those who have joined this Government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat, Churchill told the British House of Commons, and thereby the British people, on that 13th day of May, 1940. In case you aren’t one of those who makes a habit of watching the Hitler History Channel (I guess they call it just History now), there was a war on when Churchill strode to the podium, and the Brits were losing, big time. His speech was a frank appraisal of the situation that the already-bankrupt British Empire was in, and what needed to be done to save even a portion of it. Starting from the top; by 1945, Churchill would be so exhausted by the tasks of the Prime Ministership that he had to be carried to his office.

Barack Obama hasn’t said anything about blood, toil, tears, or sweat. In fact, he’s gotten himself a reputation for saying nothing, beautifully. Yes we can! Cool. Yes we can what?

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan

Or would we? What would happen if Obama did release his plan? Would it tell us what We want to hear, or what We need to? And if We heard what really needs doing to get a favorable outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stabilize the Middle East, uncrunch credit, provide health care, shrink the gap between rich and poor, and generally restore the good name of the United States of America in your local neighborhood, never mind the world, what would be Our response?

Whaddaya mean, $10/gallon gas?!?

We ain’t gonna take it
Never did and never will
We ain’t gonna take it
Gonna break it, gonna shake it,
Let’s forget it better still.

History tells us that, when the American system of republican government was established, it was called the Great Experiment. An Experiment that was considered both risky and dangerous. Risky, because every prior experiment in non-authoritarian governmental systems, such as the Athenian democracy and the Roman republic, had fallen of its own weight, to be replaced by some sort of dictatorship or monarchy. Dangerous, because if it worked, it would be Bad Karma for the world’s hereditary Lords and Ladies.

That the Experiment could and would work was the subject of the Federalist papers, a series of essays written in 1787-88 to support the recently-proposed Constitution of the United States of America, and show how the various hazards to the establishment and maintenance of republican government could be contained through the principles and practices set down by the Constitution.

For example, to answer a question whether the House of Representatives was sufficiently large and robust to protect the citizenry from the inroads of Presidential power, James Madison wrote, in Federalist Paper no. 55 (13 Feb. 1788):

I am unable to conceive that the people of America in their present temper, or under any circumstances which can speedily happen, will chuse, and every second year repeat the choice of sixty-five or an hundred men [the original size of the House; it now has 435 members], who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery.

Like the Patriot Act, Jimmy boy?

The Founders of the American republic recognized that the success of the system depended on the ability of all citizens (which, at the time, didn’t mean “all”, it meant “white men of property”, those being the only citizens who could vote; but let that be for now) to act for The Common Good. Madison wrote:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

And his final words on the subject:

Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

   – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2008 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. I would argue several things. 1) Obama has made the specific plans available a long time ago, and spoken on each issue several times. But how much easier is it to hear, remember, and repeat the phrase “Yes we can” and find out what we can do later, than remember the specific details for bringing 30,000 more teachers into high-risk school districts, or finding out the details of the Health Disparity Elimination Act? I am not one that rants and raves about that “damn mainstream media”, but how likely do you think they are to devote a lengthy segment to policy discussion, especially when people are too absorbed with who’s going to be on Dancing with the Stars to watch?

    But on the other side of the coin, there are real benefits to catchphrases. Martin Luther King Jr had no specifics for how to end racism, because the issue doesn’t lend itself to planning. Even Churchill, which you referenced above, did not give specific plans. There are times when things seem so insurmountable that you cannot do anything but dream, sweat and bleed, or hope.

    2) There has been more than one instance where Obama has stated a position that he knew was not going to be popular. From the gas tax holiday to his views on abortion, spoken at Saddleback Church, he tries to approach it from a manner that says he understands both sides of the agreement, but also ultimately states why he feels the way he does. Remember how well the tire gauge thing went over? He’s absolutely correct, and took a lot of crap over it. People did not want to hear that they are causing their own gas mileage to be lowered through something so simple, but he said it, and stood by it. Even his famous Iraq war vote was not done for the popularity, or he would have voted in lockstep with the others.

    3) All governments will ultimately fail. All politicians will disappoint. I would argue that the next stage of the Great Experiment is not whether we can come together as a nation, but divide further. With more political parties, there would be more diversity. And with more diversity, there is less likelihood of having a single party control everything.

    Now this isn’t a stump speech for Obama. I don’t care who you vote for, other than having to deal with the choices that we all make as a society. But I have heard an incredible number of people asking for the meat of Obama’s policies. But to poke you just a little, are you really looking, or is it easier to recall the catch phrase?

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