Tuesday, July 29, 2008

There's Something About Obama and His Speeches

Actually, more like his rhetoric, that is drawing the attention of wordmeisters. When he first burst upon the scene, Obama's speeches- like the waters of the Red Sea- swept all before him on a veritable tsunami of verbiage. As time has progressed, however, more and more commentators have started crying "Wait, we've heard this before." More recently, it seems almost impossible to write about said oratorical exercises without trying to take them apart.

Witness the reaction to the Berlin Speech. In the midst of the many, many, many flattering reports, there are a few that take on the style, as well as the substance. This is the case, surprisingly, with David Brooks in no less a publication than the New York Times:

...he pulled out his “this is our moment” rhetoric and offered visions of a world transformed. Obama speeches almost always have the same narrative arc. Some problem threatens. The odds are against the forces of righteousness. But then people of good faith unite and walls come tumbling down. Obama used the word “walls” 16 times in the Berlin speech, and in 11 of those cases, he was talking about walls coming down.


When I first heard this sort of radically optimistic speech in Iowa, I have to confess my American soul was stirred. It seemed like the overture for a new yet quintessentially American campaign.
But now it is more than half a year on, and the post-partisanship of Iowa has given way to the post-nationalism of Berlin, and it turns out that the vague overture is the entire symphony. The golden rhetoric impresses less, the evasion of hard choices strikes one more.

For me, there has always been something nagging about it all, like something wasn't quite right. I've written about the hyperbole and the repetition. It goes beyond that. So when I came across some of his signature lines, I confess I parsed them a bit:

We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

First, there's the school marm in me that says you don't end a sentence on a preposition. But OK, my membership in the grammar police has lapsed. Still it sounds horribly awkward. That sentence is better the next one. After much thought, I realized what bothered me. "We" stands for people, concrete flesh and blood entities. "Change," on the other hand, is an abstraction. Therefore people cannot be "change." They may represent change; they may be agents of change, but they cannot be "change." Else, I am freedom, sin, stupidity. All of which might be true on a metaphorical level, but this is not poetry.

I find myself wanting like Gertrude "more matter and less art."

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