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

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Few Americans watched the SOTU and "Homeland" in the same evening. But all got a taste of this stark contrast in national narratives when they watched the evening news, where Obama had to share the headlines with an evildoer defeated in the mountains outside Los Angeles. Any TV news editor worth his or her professional salt would probably lead with the story of the dead LA ex-cop, not the SOTU. The battle of good against evil is the heart and soul of all television drama, even on the news.

Yet the utopian impulse can create great theater, too. After all, it rests on imagination and fantasy, which are the root not only of theater but of all entertainment. Utopia is only entertaining, though, if it offers a vision of a completely perfect world that can be attained some day, no matter how distant, without compromise.

Barack Obama would not give us that emotional satisfaction. Though the tone he set left an unmistakable sense of utopian aspiration, it remained nothing but a vague impression. Every time he approached the edge of utopia he backed away, as he always does, for the sake of "realistic" compromise with the GOP evildoers.

The question Obama's SOTU speech poses is whether the utopian impulse can be resurrected in a nation that has been gripped for so long by the drama of good against evil, a nation that has made the war against evildoers the essence of its national narrative.

Obama himself can never be the agent of utopia's resurrection. When he leaves the rhetoric behind and actually has to make policy, he is too much of a pragmatic "realist." But John F. Kennedy was certainly far from a true utopian either. And his rhetoric played a role -- a major role, some historians think -- in creating the brief era of the late 1960s, when the utopian impulse flourished throughout the land once again.

Of course JFK had MLK to do the heavy utopian rhetorical lifting. Dr. King echoed the faith of the Christian utopians of TR and Wilson's day. Like them, he preached that some day evil will be overcome, not by war but by the reason and good will of humanity. No one can say how long it will take. The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice and the perfection of the beloved community.

Obama has no one with nearly the stature of MLK to offer such a message to America today. But his tantalizing hints of utopian visions and his insistence that they are very real possibilities -- indeed the only logical course any thoughtful person would pursue -- are now stamped with the presidential seal of approval.

When JFK set his presidential seal on similarly utopian words, no one could predict the radical effect his words would eventually have. It all depended on what millions of ordinary Americans -- especially young Americans -- made of those words. Will Obama's words have a similar impact? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, to be written by we, the people.

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