Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In which the Meridian finds harder and harder to resist the urge to jump on a particular bandwagon

Long, long ago, I posted something in which I (with lots of help) discussed some reasons for and implicitly despaired over the decline of political oratory in this country. I'm afraid that, as the just-completed political season showed us, when we're paying more attention to botched jokes and straw-man arguments than to what our representatives actually have to SAY that they want us to buy into, that decline would appear to continue apace.

But then last night I read this--and, in particular, this--

By his own accounts, [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] was a man frequently racked with doubt, a man not without flaws, a man who, like Moses before him, more than once questioned why he had been chosen for so arduous a task - the task of leading a people to freedom, the task of healing the festering wounds of a nation's original sin.

--that last phrase accurately and powerfully condensing into 12 words the history of race relations in this country from Jamestown to the present and why that history still matters--and I had to say, through very misty eyes, "WOW."

You don't just write stuff like that unless the image and idea behind it genuinely move you. This is not cheap language.

Read the whole thing, as they say: Obama's speech is not mere eulogy; it is as well a call to a nation's action, and just not a nation's politicians. And more: Obama clearly has the conclusion of King's "I have a dream" speech in mind as he imagines a future conversation about King with his own daughters.

This is rhetorically-brilliant stuff, loaded with good old American ethos and pathos like no other political speech in (my) recent memory.

Every time I think about the movement(s) to draft this man with the funny name to run for President two years hence and decide it's just too soon, he goes and delivers a speech like this, or deftly responds to the old "Experience" question by saying that what's more important is "judgment," that certain current Administration members have loads of "experience" which arguably hasn't served them very well. And then, dammit, I have to go and rethink all that all over again.

6 comments:

R. Sherman said...

I popped in here after posting one of my early morning, insomnia inspired musings. What you point to here, in the use of language to convey ideas, is precisely what we as a culture are losing, in my view. We are losing our literacy.

The television sound bite has replaced the letter from the Birmingham jail.

We're not the better for it.

Cheers.

John B. said...

Randall,
Thanks as always for stopping by.
I don't know if you clicked on the link to my earlier post, but it speaks to exactly that loss of cultural literacy and its consequences for political speech. I hope you'll go have a look, the next time insomnia strikes and you have nothing better to do . . . indeed, it might even bring on a fit of narcolepsy.

Andrew Simone said...

There is a great book and must read by John McWhorter who also, incidentally, is interested in race relation.

I HIGHLY recommend it.

Winston said...

When I first saw and heard Obama, I was positively impressed. Not just for what he said but the way he said it, the careful choice of words, the phrasing, the use of repetition for emphasis. It was then that I had these opposing thoughts: this guy is too young for anyone to seriously consider for President in the next couple of decades, and this guy demonstrates a wisdom and understanding beyond his apparent years. Oratorically he is indeed cast in the mold of Dr. MLK. Charismatically, he is up there with JFK. And intellectually, he is superior to any President we have had in my lifetime.

Yes he has a funny name. So do we all. I do believe he has the right combination to become President, and to excel in the duties of that office and show a teflon skin (gee, where have we heard that before?) second to none. The only question is whether the party fathers and mothers will endorse him over Hillary. That is politics. That is what is wrong with politics.

I lean left of center on most, but not all issues. I am not a Democrat. Neither am I a Republican. I would vote for Obama for President right now. And oh how nice it would be to vote FOR the best candidate for a change, rather than voting AGAINST the worst of the lot.

John B. said...

Winston,
Yessir. What is so compelling about Obama, even beyond his extraordinary eloquence, is that he's not seeking to score points with certain target audiences. You cannot help but listen and say, This man is not afraid to speak what we all know is true about our nation's past (nor, as I read this speech, does he let anyone off the hook with his "original sin" image--not even African-Americans) . . . and even more importantly, he's not afraid to speak of this nation's ideals in language that shows he's not pandering to some but truly believing on behalf of ALL of us--to get us to believe not in him but in ourselves, in our nation and what it stands for.

I'm thinking through a blog post that will elaborate on this in further detail, so I'll stop here for now. Suffice it to say that it is scary--in a thrilling way--just how inspiring I find this man. Finding inspiration among politicians these days being about as fruitful an enterprise as searching for hens' teeth, what I ask myself now is, Is Obama looking as good as he is because the competition looks so bad by comparison, or is he truly in a realm that no one else, competent and sincere though they may be, can come close to? That question I have to think on for a while longer so as to make sure that he's not just saying all the right things better than anyone else is, or seems able to.

John B. said...

Oh, and Andrew:
I've seen McWhorter's book before and have leafed through it, and liked what I read in it. Much as I felt uncomfortable about the project behind E.D. Hirsch's book Cultural Literacy, as a teacher (and, for that matter, as a citizen of this country) I can attest to the value of having a set of references held in common that most of us understand the basic significance of (so as to avoid their being manipulated to seduce/dupe the less-culturally-literate of us) so as to facilitate the discussion of ideas. Somewhere out there that new common language exists, I think. Well, okay: I'd like to think it does.