One of Barack Obama’s favorite linguistic devices is to express his displeasure by describing an action or event as “inconsistent with our values as a country.” He used this phrase yesterday when offering his opinion on the content of the Majority Report of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence which criticizes the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program after September 11th.
Recently, Obama employed similar language when describing an immigration deportation policy that separates families. Again, in his view, deportations having this effect are “inconsistent with our values.”
In using this phrase quite frequently, he raises an interesting question.
What exactly are our values as a country? Are they clear or are they in the eyes of the beholder?
For example, is it inconsistent with our values as a country to use a federal agency to intimidate and silence political enemies? If so, Obama should seriously examine what happened with the IRS and conservative groups prior to the 2012 election.
Also, is it inconsistent with our values as a country to sell a legislative program by knowingly misleading the public? That’s a nice Washington way of describing it. In the heartland, it’s called lying.
So when you stand up and say numerous times, “[i]f you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” but you know darn well that’s simply not true, are you behaving in a manner “inconsistent with our values as a country?”
As it pertains to the content of the Democrats’ Senate report on which Obama’s recent comment is based, this naturally leads to a bigger question.
Do our values change over time? How much can we condemn our ancestors for behavior we now deem “inconsistent with our values as a country?”
One of the criticisms of the Senate report is that it fails to address the atmosphere in the United States following the September 11th attack. Standing in George W. Bush’s shoes immediately after that horrific event, what would Obama have done? Would his actions have been “consistent with our values?” Would he have kept us safe? Is the current drone program which appears to be the centerpiece of his anti-terrorism efforts consistent with our values as a country?
Without context, judgments about our values at any given time are difficult to fairly make. For example, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Consequently, many Americans lost a fundamental right and languished for long periods of time in prison without charge in the interest of keeping the Union safe. Today, this move is highly criticized as being inconsistent with our values. At the time, however, it was understood by most people. The location of the capitol itself made this so. Washington sits just north across the Potomac River from Virginia and quite close to the Confederate capitol of Richmond. It’s located just south of Maryland, a border state, which throughout the war was teeming with Southern sympathizers. Today, it’s easy to say how utterly wrong it is to put someone in jail and essentially throw away the key without explanation. Back in Lincoln’s day, it wasn’t so clear.
Recently, I pulled a twenty dollar bill out of my wallet, and my thirteen-year-old son asked me, “Should we really have Andrew Jackson’s picture on that money?” Evidently, he’d just learned in his history class that Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans makes him a questionable character for Americans to admire today. I reminded him that one of Jackson’s notable goals as president was seeking to fight for the rights of poorer working people who had no power because they had no real voice in the political system. Clearly, making these value judgments isn’t easy.
It’s fine for Obama to pontificate about our values, but he shouldn’t be too surprised to realize that thirteen-year-old boys one hundred years from now may describe his own actions as president as “inconsistent with our values as a country.”