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The State of the Union and the State of the "Homeland"

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By Ira Chernus

In our home the State of the Union address was not followed by the Republican reply. We skipped Marco Rubio's rebuttal in favor of watching a DVD of old "Homeland" episodes. We're finally catching up on the first season of the "CIA versus terrorists" drama that everyone else has been watching and raving about for the past two years.

The incongruity of watching the SOTU and "Homeland" in the same evening was a stark reminder of how much has changed in America in just a few years. "Homeland" would have made a wholly congruous nightcap to any SOTU speech by George W. Bush.

That's not to say Obama's "war on terror" policies are very different from W.'s. The depressing similarities are all too obvious and well known. But the tone of American life has changed noticeably now that we have a "hope and change" president instead of a "war president." And that does make a difference. In the long run it could make more difference than we now suspect.

"Homeland" takes us back to the dramatic world that W. invited us into: a world where evildoers lurk unseen beneath the surface of American life, a life that is constantly (if sometimes only slightly) on edge, because no one knows for sure where and when sudden death may strike again, as it did on September 11, 2001. W. fit easily as an actor in that world. Indeed he gave himself a leading role in the drama.

Americans may not have been happier in that world of so recent yesteryear. But "Homeland" reminds us why so many Americans found it gripping and exciting: It seemed like a matter of life and death. That's the stuff great theater is made of.

Barack Obama's SOTU, like every SOTU, was meant to be great theater too. Yet there was something less than satisfying about the show, judged purely as entertainment. Watching "Homeland" made it clear what was missing in Obama's show: The death-dealing bad guys were nearly invisible. Obama mentioned the "terrorists" very briefly, mostly to assure us that the problem could be solved by technical means, like any other technical problem, without any compromise of our cherished American values.

The real bad guys lurking constantly between the lines of the speech were the Republicans. But they were never called out by name. And their evil -- the fact that their proposed policies would kill many more Americans than "terrorists" ever will -- was hidden so deeply between the lines, it was practically invisible. So they could hardly perform effectively as the villains in the piece.

The Republicans' evil had to be hidden because the world that the president created in his address was such a utopian world, where everything wrong in American life is just a technical problem that can be fixed with relatively little effort. In the world of this year's SOTU evil is simply a temporary error, a lapse in clear thinking, easily corrected under the guidance of a skillful tutor.

Obama took us back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, when all we had to do was to reason together. We would surely recognize the logic of his proffered solutions, he seemed to say with every breath. Then, with only the slightest application of good will, all our problems could be quickly resolved. He made it all sound so simple, so obvious.

The world of "Homeland" -- W.'s world -- is the world of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and Winston Churchill), where evil is far more than a mistake in logic. It is a permanent, intractable element of human life. We cannot reason together, because some of us are moved by an impulse to evil that defies all reason. So evil is not a problem to be solved. It is an enemy to be defeated by any means necessary -- perhaps even extra-constitutional means, though that remains a matter for debate.