Thursday, November 06, 2008

Post-election musings: On the value of words

I can’t quite wipe the smile off my face.

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a couple of posts dealing with the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, but none of them are coming together. I tried to articulate one of them to my 20thC U.S. novel class, as the election is quite germane to our subject matter—we’re focusing on issues of race and identity in American fiction—but didn’t quite manage it. Perhaps I will come back to these thoughts when the dust settles a bit more.

Suffice to say however that Tuesday night was a night to remember. I had an election night party, and my living room was crammed full of people glued to the television as the returns came in. Never before have I seen, or would really have ever dreamed of seeing, such an extraordinary international response to an American election. Here we were, a group of Canadians who had watched our own recent election pass with barely a murmur, mesmerized by this spectacle and joyful at the result. The posts I had been kicking around all speculate on the reason for Obama’s extraordinary international appeal, and the passions he has managed to excite both within and without the United States. Those thoughts, still embryonic, will wait … I will keep this one personal.

I imagine it’s an occupational hazard, combined with too many viewings of The West Wing and eight years in the wilderness of Bush malapropisms, but the mere fact of an exceptionally intelligent and articulate candidate who speaks to his audience like adults was like intellectual ambrosia. Still, I was skeptical about Obama’s lack of experience, and sat the fence for the first stretch of the democratic primaries. As things progressed however, and the Obama campaign showed its true mettle against one of the most ruthless political machines this side of the Potomac, I became more and more impressed. It wasn’t just that he was articulate—it was that he was calm, cool, and utterly unflappable, and seemed genuinely to hold himself above the fray.

And then there was this:

And I was sold. The revelations of Jeremiah’s jeremiads against America should have been the end of things for Obama, and for any other candidate in a comparable position, it probably would have. Though Obama had so long succeeded in keeping the issue of race out of his campaign, the appearance of Reverend Wright’s intemperate (though for any halfway serious student of race in America, hardly surprising or exaggerated) sermons effectively made continuing in this regard impossible. So what does he do but address the issue head-on, in a speech that will one day be read alongside Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” as pivotal moments of great oratory. If you haven’t already, watch the speech above or read the text of it here. It is at once honest and straightforward, and exceptionally intelligent: it threads an impossibly difficult needle and addresses an historically divisive topic in a way that respects its audience and challenges them to rise to the occasion.

I’d say that I’m a sucker for great oratory, but that would be at once understating and simplifying things for me. I am an English professor, a career choice that has not been arbitrary or accidental: it is rather one that proceeds from a deep and abiding investment in the belief that language and discourse are not only among the most powerful tools we have, but are the measure of what it means to be human—in both the positive and negative senses. Obama’s detractors have frequently attacked him for offering “mere words,” even suggesting that his eloquence and articulateness somehow disqualified from high office because they signified that he was a man of words and not action.

Perhaps it goes without saying that I consider the whole words vs. action equation something of a false dichotomy; once upon a time the advertising slogan of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario, was “Leading. Thinking.” As one of my favourite professors there was fond of observing: haven’t they got that in the wrong order? Thought (ideally) should precede action, and, as I tell my students, unarticulated thought exists nowhere but in your own mind. The larger our shared vocabulary, the more nuanced and subtle our understanding of the world is.

On the other hand, words and action have run in opposite directions in the Bush Administration. Besides “terrorist,” “freedom” and “liberty” were among the few words Bush could reliably wrap his lips around, but he effectively emptied them of content by mouthing them endlessly while suspending habeas corpus, endorsing domestic wire-tapping, and manufacturing evidence for a fraudulent war; his fulminations against “evildoers” lost whatever traction they might have had when the photographs from Abu Gharib surfaced.

Al Gore accused the Bush Administration of waging a “war on reason”; I consider that synonymous with a war on language. To be well-spoken was to be elitist. To be articulate was to be ineffectual. To be intelligently critical was to be anti-American. When I watch or read an Obama speech, I am reminded on one of the basic tenets of my discipline: language taken in all its subtlety and nuance moves toward inclusion, to the expansion of vocabularies of understanding; language reduced, simplified, and delimited excludes and divides, and infantilizes those who use it.

George Orwell taught us that. I’d like to think he’d be wearing a smile today, too.


Emily said...

Thank you. This is something that I, too, have been pondering since experiencing (yes, experiencing) Obama's victory speech the other night. While there's much more to a presidency than rhetorical skill, there's a lot to be said for it. There is a certain level of intellect required in order to put forward ideas that persuasively, and that ability demands respect. I never imagined that I would witness that I would witness that outside of the world of The West Wing.
You have articulated this wonderfully.

Emily said...

Typo! Ignore the second "that I would witness"...embarrassing...

Stop Smoking said...

History was made indeed - and it is wonderful to see hope in people's eyes again...

Vanessa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
airfair crew said...

The year was 1960. The unthinkable was a young 'Irish Catholic' voted in a President. So many memories come rushing back of Kennedy's ability to move us with language and present hope for our future. What a ride he took us on during his three years as President. May Obama be blessed with more time to make his and our visions of a better future be fully realized.

Hannah said...

My humble musical letter to our new president elect
Check it out:

All My Best,
Hannah Friedman

bullfighter6.2 said...

Well said.

mary said...

"...language reduced, simplified, and delimited excludes and divides, and infantilizes those who use it."

That right there is what has frustrated me most about being an American these past many years. We have not been encouraged to grow and to expand our minds and participate in society, but to remain as children, dependent on and blindly trusting of those in authority.

Even our entertainment is dumbed down for us, with simplistic themes fostering black-and-white views of the world and its peoples, ensuring that we'll always be able to distinguish the "good" and the "bad" on first glimpse rather than after any real thoughtful consideration.

With the miraculous election of Obama, I have hope that this may change, at last, and America may start to mature into a nation of thinking individuals.

Yeah, what you said. Thanks.

Chris in NF said...

Em: There's something to be said for the popularity of a show so unremittingly intelligent (and sometimes obscure) as The West Wing being as popular as it won ... Obama's victory points, if only in hindsight, to that segment of America and the world that craves intelligent and inspiring political discourse. And in another example of life imitating art, did you know that Rahm Emanuel -- Obama's new COS -- was Aaron Sorkin's model for Josh Lyman?

airfair crew (aka Mom): your words to God's ears.

bullfighter: thanks ... and how're things?

mary: A friend of mine had as his Facebook status the other day that he's "adjusting, but slowly, to living in the Conservative, hillbilly-half of northern North America." Congratulations on electing a more progressive government than we have here in Canada! (though we do still have gay marriage, government-paid medical care and medicinal marijuana ... hopefully the example of Obama will curtail Stephen Harper from his Bush-like tendencies).