01/22/2015 09:43 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

State of the Union/States of Fear

The State of the Union (SOTU) address is a striking example of dramatic political theater that features mythic rhetoric in a lofty setting. It is certainly compelling to see someone like President Obama, who is a skilled wordsmith and author, speak before a joint session of Congress. True to form, President Obama eloquently touted a record of policies that seem to be working well (economic stewardship bolstered by good economic numbers and a system of heath care with (a) fewer uninsured people and (b) shrinking health care costs). The Republican responders, for their part, presented a gloomier economic picture and critiqued President Obama's direction of American foreign policy. Everyone talked about terrorism (check), jobs (check) and the American dream (check), and the values of hard work and a resilient can-do attitude (check). These themes are all inspiring mythic tales, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves to feel a good--about ourselves.

For this cultural critic, however, it is more interesting to consider what was left unsaid during SOTU's repartee of call and response. Here are a few issues that are perhaps too socially, culturally and politically sensitive for discussion in the SOTU public sphere:

1. States of Fear. The state of the union is strong, but we live in states of fear that betray our ignorance of the world. We fear potential terrorism in the homeland, which gives many of us license to preach hate and intolerance--especially of Islam, of whose basic peaceful principles most Americans are ignorant. We shudder at the images of terrorism in Paris only because they underscore the possibilities of similar acts in New York City, Boston, New Orleans or Chicago. As our media pundits mangle the names of the Parisian terrorists whose immigrant parents came from Algeria and Mali, we are reminded that fear is born of ignorance not only of Islam but of a particular set of historical and sociological circumstances in France, North Africa and West Africa, circumstances that trigger many kinds of extremism. Such ignorance also gives rise to increasingly widespread beliefs that Muslims are out to kill us and that average folk should fear Muslim "no-go zones," alleged neighborhoods in cities like Dearborn, Michigan, or Birmingham, England. To go there as a non-Muslim, it has been suggested, would provoke an attack. Although these baseless ideas have been debunked, they persist. Such ignorance also makes us believe that some lives--17 French citizens, for example--merit more attention than the 2,000 Nigerians who, during the same time frame, died at the hand of the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram. Our ignorance of history and social life obscures the reality that terror is an element of everyday life in many parts of the world. In the SOTU discussion, no one discussed our states of fear or our ignorance and what they mean for our future.

2. Social Class. The presence and persistence of class divisions in America is a subject that never gets thoroughly discussed in public discourse. We hear much talk from President Obama, among others, about income inequality and leveling the playing field so that everyone who makes the effort can have a chance of achieving the American dream. To level the playing field, President Obama wants to tax the rich, which is not likely to happen in current or future Congresses. Put bluntly, we live in a complex society marked by increasingly unequal access to wealth. As long as our economic system is a capitalist one, we will continue to have income inequality, which, in turn, reinforces social inequality. In a capitalist society the American dream is for most of us a wishful illusion.

3. Race. The issue of race makes us more uncomfortable than that of social class. In his SOTU address President Obama steered clear of any direct discussion of race. He didn't mention the Black Lives Matter movement or, for that matter, the centrality of racial dynamcis in the generation of income inequality and the construction of divisive social distinction. What's more, he didn't talk about how racial division and social inequality promote the development of attitudes about racial or religious "no-go zones." In addition President Obama made no mention of how race has been used to create and maintain separate and unequal segments of our society, segments that seem incomprehensibly alien to mainstream "middle-class" Americans."

4. Climate Change. In its infinite wisdom, the U.S. Senate yesterday passed a resolution that climates do, indeed, change, but that such change is not caused by human beings. Put another way, the U.S. Senate has rejected overwhelming and incontrovertible scientific evidence that human activity has provoked unprecedented climate warming. In his SOTU address, President Obama did discuss the issue of climate change, mentioning that 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded. He also expressed confidence in the scientific findings that climate change poses a threat to our "national security." He also mentioned his efforts to reduce carbon emissions to protect our Earth. Considering both the environmental and the intellectual challenges (in the Congress) we face, his proposals seem insufficient, if not timid. What's more, President Obama chose not point out the dynamic connections among fear, ignorance, social class, race, and climate change--all of which are caught in the ever-tightening web of capitalism. Given our finite resources, our production of pollutants, our melting ice capes and glaciers, and our rising oceans, capitalism, it seems, is fast becoming unsustainable.

Our fears, in short, are misplaced. It is understandable to fear the here and now of terrorism, especially if most of us have never directly experienced it. But our attention to it obscures a much more profound terror, a terror in which our continuing conquest of nature is destined to unleash a series of unimaginable social and environment disasters. If we do nothing to change our ways, these will create a living hell for our children and grandchildren.

How can we reconfigure our lives to make life sustainable in the future? Such a fundamental social and economic reconfiguration needs to begin right now if we are to bequeath to our children a planet on which viable life can be sustained.

From an anthropological vantage that looks toward the future, a new generation of social actors will need to be politically brave, economic bold, culturally creative and socially iconoclastic in order to set the world straight. If we continue along our tried, true and timid economic path, our children and grandchildren are certain to fall into an abyss from which there is no exit.

The drama of a political event may make us feel good for a brief moment, but the times require action rather than lofty rhetoric. Our fears should be directed toward the future. Time is of the essence.