"State of..." speeches are supposed to be taken as grand civic convocations, celebrations of unity and shared purpose, but they're really no more than elites talking to one another - just like most other aspects of very small "d" democracy. You know how it works: the president or governor or mayor appears before the citizenry secondhand - quite literally mediated through the camera and microphone. His or her principal, if not exclusive audience is the assembly of legislators, political appointees, business leaders, and other powerbrokers, joined by certain invited guests who serve as rhetorical props when the Head of State must soften the script with a touch of humanity. Everything's carefully scripted, and the speaker is showcased to convince Everyman and Everywoman that he or she is the center of attention. But that's illusory. There's no real communication, no give and take, no opportunity for the voice of the powerless to be heard.
You're probably already seeing Dubya in your mind's eye - and indeed, he and his handlers are true professionals in this context. But the principles of the "State of..." speech apply even to the best of leaders. Take Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy's "State of the City" 2008, delivered at the Hochstein auditorium this week. I think Bob Duffy is an honest man - Rochester has been lucky in this regard, having had decent, honorable mayors in Tom Ryan, Bill Johnson, and now Duffy - but this year's address did not engage the community as it might have, nor did it go to the heart of the problems facing the city.
The venue itself was a confession of failure. Hochstein is a great place for music and theater, but it's not suitable for a true democratic mass gathering. The mayor should be energizing the multitudes from a downtown bridge, like the fireworks on New Year's. Or he could speak at the War Memorial or Frontier Field. Why is it that sports events attract people by the thousands, while actual civic events draw mere hundreds (and small radio and TV audiences)? I remember being at a grand public event commemorating the Triumph of the Revolution in Managua, Nicaragua, in the early 1990s. The Sandinista leadership spoke from a platform directly to 100,000 or more highly charged-up citizens. Why do such things never happen here?
They don't happen here because of a democracy deficit. And because of a string of analytical fallacies and dead ends. Consider, for example, what Bob Duffy didn't say the other night. He spoke about urban problems - you know the litany - but he didn't identify the source. He didn't speak about structural racism, even though his State of the City came only a few days after the much-observed 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. But isn't racism the core issue in places like Rochester and Monroe County? We live under an apartheid regime of impressive persistence. All the more so because it's generally unacknowledged - by whites, that is. Our leaders deplore poverty and violence, but they do nothing to change the paradigm.
Similarly, leaders never, never, never blame the corporate classes for regional decline. The manufacturing sector may have largely abandoned us - tens of thousands of jobs gone down the drain as whole industries left for sunnier climes and more easily exploited labor - but our political leaders won't even mildly criticize, much less sanction the business leaders who made it all happen. No, it's a lot easier to dwell on "entrepreneurship" and "innovation" - witness the bullshit campaign now in full flower at RIT under new President Bill Destler, a man who seems almost genetically wired to deliver empty speeches - and trash the public schools and generations of young people for their shortcomings.
And then there's the war and military spending. The plain fact is that American cities, most assuredly including Rochester, are suffering precisely because we're spending ourselves silly and mortgaging our future to keep the imperial legions operating at levels that would have embarrassed Hadrian and Trajan. What's the figure, 737 foreign military bases? And three-quarters of a trillion dollars in current annual military spending (including the Pentagon, the Dept. of Energy's weapons programs, the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and other incidentals)? Meanwhile, we're strangling every community that doesn't hop onto the hypermilitarist gravy train.
Shouldn't all decent, honorable mayors point out this little contradiction?