Thursday, July 23, 2009

Barack Obama and the Ethics of Narrative

From the time Barack Obama introduced himself to us in his 2004 DNC speech, to his announcement of Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court, he has relied heavily on narrative as a rhetorical tool – that is, he tells stories to persuade, to convince, to urge us to buy whatever he happens to be selling. Sometimes the stories are obvious and riddled with clichés. Other times they are subtle and sophisticated. Nearly always, though, they are effective. I think it’s important to look at the preferred rhetorical device of one of the world’s most influential people.


In the 04 DNC speech Obama was unapologetically selling himself (with a side order of John Kerry, in case anyone wanted him). What we remember from that speech is not that Obama didn’t yet have an office in Washington DC (he was still a state senator), or how starkly (and, to some, refreshingly) the speech contrasted with that of the Rev. Al Sharpton, but that Obama’s mom was white and his father was black, that he was raised by his mother and grandparents in Kansas and Hawaii and Indonesia, and that his grandfather fought in World War II. The story was both commonplace and remarkable, the former because it featured a kid of mixed racial heritage raised by a single mom who moved a lot, the latter because – oh shit! – he’s giving the keynote at the DNC! And he’s really good!


This common-remarkable mix was perfectly suited to the occasion because it’s the kind of American dream narrative that gets people without requiring much thought from them. In short, it’s a cliché, albeit with enough twists (the race factor being the biggest) to garner attention. And the speech itself is full of sappy, romantic images calculated for maximum effect. This isn’t to say that the speech is flawed. Far from it. Obama knew his time was limited, and clichés, despite their many shortcomings, are the liquor of the rhetorical world – they’re quicker. Here’s a passage as soaked as my Aunt Peg’s 90-proof rum cake:


“Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before. While studying here, my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression. The day after Pearl Harbor my grandfather signed up for duty; joined Patton’s army, marched across Europe. Back home, my grandmother raised a baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house thought F.H.A., and later moved west all the way to Hawaii in search of opportunity.”


This excerpt is positively Gumpian for what it chooses to include and all that it leaves out. But when you’re thinking in rhetorical terms, the primary question is, “Did it work?” Yes, it worked, and for a lot of reasons. First, it gives people something they’re already primed to hear, in a proven, tasty format. There’s nothing sophisticated about this aspect of the speech and its narratives – but they are no less effective for it. Second, it anticipates and answers the most obvious criticisms of its author: he’s inexperienced. There’s plenty that’s sophisticated about this. Generally, inexperienced politicians seeking office have to focus on the future (as Obama certainly did in his presidential campaign, with forward-oriented buzzwords like Hope and Change), but with his biography, subtly plugged-in as it is to so many important events of the past (WWII, Civil Rights movement, racial integration) Obama focused attention on his past away from governance and onto the common/remarkable nature of his story.


Some might say this is unethical, that telling stories when you should be discussing your qualifications, or the qualifications of the man actually running (Kerry) is openly deceitful. To those folks I would say that Obama, as a state senator speaking at the DNC, had very few rules he needed to abide by. In national terms, he wasn’t encumbered by the responsibilities of office. He was a rising star doing something important for his party and, of course, for himself.


But as he rose in prominence so rose his responsibility to the voting public. As a presidential candidate, Obama owed us more than he did as a state senator and DNC keynote speaker. Did he give us more, or did he continue to rely on stories we already knew? Probably the best speech to look at in this context is what Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod called, in an article in the November 17, 2008, issue of the New Yorker, “probably the most important moment of the whole campaign,” his “A More Perfect Union” speech, also called his speech on race, delivered in response to widely aired videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.


Without a doubt, the politics of the tight Democratic primary required Obama to distance himself from Wright, and to render Wright in three dimensions to contrast the 2-D version being shown in YouTube clips. For doing these things, Obama scores no ethical points. But for giving us our first nuanced, mature version of race in America from a Presidential contender, he did score. The political moment in which he found (or placed, if you prefer) himself did not require honesty about American race relations, certainly not thirty minutes of it, some of which was risky stuff, as when he equated black anger with white resentment, or retold the American creation myth so that it featured deeply flawed founding fathers who, despite all their ambitions, were slaveowners. I like a good story as much as the next person, and so my ears perk up when Obama plays the storyteller, as he often does. For me, this speech marked the ethical high-point of Obama-as-raconteur. I’m afraid he’s gone downhill since.


The most recent example is his shilling of Sonia Sotomayor. I’m sure she’s a fine judge, but what we really got from Obama was her heartwarming story, bread and butter American dream stuff a la the 04 DNC keynote. Of course it’s amazing that she’s accomplished all that she has, but our President emphasized it so much that it seemed to be her principal qualification. It was all he could talk about, and this was echoed as she was introduced at her confirmation hearings, when the two senators from New York gave what were essentially two versions of her wondrous life. If there were four senators we could’ve had the gospels.


It thrills me that our current president not only speaks well but thinks well, and that he understands that we more fully understand any issue or situation by being able to tell its story. But story as rhetoric is powerful stuff, and if we don’t watch what stories we buy we might find ourselves with very questionable merchandise.  

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sarah Palin and Two Views of Language

Right now, Sarah Palin is one of the most talked-about and polarizing figures in American culture. To break it down along simplified party lines, liberals hate her and conservatives love her – or, at least, they hate/love whatever it is she represents to them. But why is she so fascinating to both sides? I think it’s because Palin, like GW before her, represents a fundamental split among Americans over language and what it means to communicate successfully.


Palin’s detractors see a woman who enters into a sentence like a spelunker who hasn’t thought to wear a headlamp, losing her way in the sense-obliterating darkness of mixed metaphors, weak analogies, and verbs with no discernable subjects. Lets call these folks the Listeners. (In the interest of full disclosure, and if it’s not clear already, I belong to this camp.) But her supporters see someone who says what she feels in the unadorned, perfectly imperfect cadences of everyday people, someone who clearly values actions over words and can therefore be trusted to do what she thinks is right and to tell us about it in a way we can understand. Let’s call these folks the Watchers. For both groups she is utterly comprehensible. Each sees a set of values reflected in her use of language, and based on that set accepts or rejects her.  


Listeners think words are important enough to be viewed on their own, apart from the person speaking them. They like transcripts. They also believe that scrutinizing words, especially the words of powerful people or people who wish to be powerful, is a civic virtue. To Listeners, Palin’s infelicities with the English language amount to an ethical failing. They hear her compare herself to a point guard passing the ball in her recent resignation speech and extend the analogy until it breaks down completely, which, it turns out, isn’t very far at all: a point guard who passes the ball stays on the court, and is around for the next play; basketball fans who go to see a professional point guard aren’t interested in watching her replacement.


The Watchers, on the other hand, aren’t worried about her verbal miscues because they know what she means. Maybe the basketball analogy isn’t perfect, but who cares? She’s saying that she’s part of a team, and is doing what she thinks is best for the team as a whole, not just for herself. The Watchers feel that Palin’s words are less important than who she is, and that the two are separate. We can’t all be great speakers, but we can tell right from wrong and it’s our actions that count.


But the problem with the latter view is that, like it or not, the words we use are a fundamental and very large part of who we are as individuals in the world. I should qualify this: To our families and those with whom we’re intimate, we’re much more than our words. And no matter who we are, words without actions are empty signifiers. But if we aspire to any profession that requires public communication, words must be the currency of our trade. To be in such a position and to be careless with words is to invite others to shape our words for us.


GW stands as an example of this. Our first MBA president, lacking an appreciation for the nuance of language that comes from studying law, bumbled his way through press conferences while administration lawyers crafted some very tricky memos that allowed all sorts of horrible things to be done to people who were, more often than not, of little if any value to us as sources of information. And this is becoming his legacy, as more of their language and its consequences come to light.


A Palin presidency would be equally disastrous. We can tell from her words. Understand I’m not just talking about a disregard for proper grammar – public speakers, no matter how formal the occasion, aren’t held to the same standards as published writers, and this is as it should be. I’m talking about the fine line between carelessness and obfuscation that is all too easy to cross. As when Palin, in her resignation speech, gave us muddled and meandering reasons for her decision and then repeatedly said that she’d “candidly, truthfully” told us why she was quitting her job. Did she think she’d actually done this? Or did she think that by saying she had done this that it was so, or that we would believe it was so?


The good news for us is that the media, despite their many shortcomings, are good at unmasking this type of person. Teleprompted speeches can only take you so far when the 24-hour news cycle demands at least a moment of your unscripted self. If in that moment you claim to read “all” of the news publications (rough translation: “I read none of them”), viewers should discern your lack of respect for words, yourself, and the office you’re seeking.


The sad truth, though, is that the Watchers discern something else. They see a liberal media bullying someone whose values, as she has represented them, are similar to theirs. They are every bit as intelligent as the Listeners, but they value words much less. Because of this they resent it when people scrutinize Palin’s sentences, or see it as a waste of time. Like Plato, they see language as a murky reflection of the real, many times removed from concrete things and meaningful actions. But we can only compare the Watchers to Plato because he turned his thoughts into words and wrote them down. A hundred years from now, words are all that will remain of Palin. Americans will read them and be thankful that more of us chose to listen, instead of merely watching.