Monday, January 26, 2009

Inauguration Day

In this post, I plan to go to school on Barack Obama. Not as in "I'm going to school you, Barack!" but as in "Barack is going to school me..."

First let me apologize for not having a lot of pictures. I may wedge a shot of President Obama (it is fun to say that) or other speakers along the margin. But as this is a blog entry about words, I thought I would keep the focus on the text and the language itself.

I want to spend some time looking at words and how they are used. Words are, after all, the heart of my craft as a writer, teacher, and, in my limited way, public speaker. And so whenever I see someone (or even more pointedly, hear someone) with a gift for the language, I am drawn to their content and their methods. And President (I get to say that again) Obama is clearly one of those people worth looking at.

At one point during the inauguration speech, during the "hawkish" bit, I was wondering if Bush Jr. was sitting thinking, "Man, if I could talk like that, perhaps things would have gone better for me!" The simple fact is that Obama was doing hawk way better than Bush ever could. (If you would like a reminder of how ill-spoken Bush so often was, I direct you to David Letterman's top-ten list).

Now a bit of a thought on the power of words and speeches. Obama's often criticized as an "empty suit" -- a collection of great words but little in the way of concrete plans. That is perhaps true, but only if one listens only to the speeches. The thing is, though, that what is a speech supposed to be? A detailed policy statement? No, that is called a 200 page document that will put even the most caffeinated person to sleep. The point of a speech is to provide what the corporate types call a "high level overview" of the situation. To establish direction. To outline priorities. To communicate vision. And, at a time like this (massive national crappiness), perhaps above all to provide inspiration. These are tasks ill suited to long discussion.

Let us, for instance, look at one of the most hallowed of modern wartime speeches, that of Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. It is the fameous "we shall fight on the X, Y, Z" speech. An excerpt:

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

Even though large parts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

Now a couple of things are noteworty. There is no discussion of detailed planning and specific detail. To do so in a speech focused on military affairs is obviously ludicrous: "We shall continue to convoy our ships with ever increasing escort through the generosity of the lend-lease program. We shall deploy our forces to fight the enemy in Africa, then in Italy, and finally landing on the beaches of Normandy..."

But this was a speech given to a public teetering between depression and euphoria, staggered that the last British forces had just fled the continent but ecstatic that they had been rescued ("The Miracle at Dunkirk," FYI). It was vital to maintain a sober optimism throughout the nation, to maintain motivation through the privations and exertions that surely were to follow. And so Churchill brought out his best -- not of details and policy, but of consolation, confidence, and motivation.

Ok, that's out of the way. Now everyone who read's Fox News' commentary has been taken care of. By the way, I've realized what bugs me so much about Fox. It isn't their obviously (and frankly, to their credit, rather openly) biased coverage. Rather it is the way they try to bill themselves as some sort of underground alternative coverage with all that "mainstream media" lingo they use when attacking other people's viewpoints. I mean let's get serious. The FOX network isn't some dude with a talk show on AM radio during safe harbor hours or some guy broadcasting with an HF rig from the middle of Montana. It is one of the big four television networks with a carefully calculated strategy of playing to a particular market. Anyway, that's that. Just had to say something.

On to President Obama and his particular moves. For anyone interested, here are transcripts of two recent significant (and quite linked) speeches of his.

Presidential "victory" speech:

Inaugural speech:

Read (or better yet, listen to) both of them. Or just read on if you want to. But my first thought here is a compare and contrast. A commentator (didn't catch the name) on NPR was talking about the comparitively somber tone of the inaugural speech, devoid as it was of the flourishes ("singing" as the commentator kept confusingly putting it) and tricks like the repeating "yes we can" motif used in the victor speech. The acceptance speech is a celebration -- while it acknowledges the challenges ahead, they are as yet distant (months away). This is the time to look back on what has been done, the transformation that this nation has undergone, the progress the world has made, and the remarkable place in history which we all inhabit.

It was, in many ways, an introverted and retrospective speech. When we are successful, we tend to look to ourselves (and those close to us) and say "well done!" We tend to look back on the moments that helped define that success. The crowd is excited, because they have given their time and energy to this cause, and so they deserve time to celebrate. It is their night and it is Barack Obama's night.

The second speech, the inaugural speech, differs in several ways. It is shorter. It is more somber (count the applause -- and notice that there are situations where Obama speaks over the crowd, silencing potential cheers, rather than letting them go or even encouraging them as he did the other night). Personally, I'm not sure somber is exactly the word, though I know it is a descriptor other analysts have used. It is more workmanlike, I suppose. It is a speech used as a tool, much as Churchill would have. It is a speech intended to set a tone and a tenor for the coming four years.

Party time's over, that much is clear. The victory now lies months back and the challenge is immediate. The speech is concise so that it may be quoted, read, and repeated. It is extraverted in as much as it is sending a message OUT from the president to the people of his nation and to the peoples and nations of the world in general. It is forward looking in as much as it seeks to define what will come, and not what has passed. History plays a role, but as a reference to which the challenges of the present and future are compared. "We overcame those, therefore I know we can overcome these" instead of "we overcame those, ain't we grand!"

It is also not a speech by Barack Obama, as the "victory" speech was. It was a speech by the President of the United States, and as such a tool of statescraft carrying messages of cooperation, strength, hope, and threat to people, idiologies (to get a little Huntington-esque), and governments around the world. The difference is subtle but important, and the presence of this shift tells me a lot about Obama's attitude towards his job. The Office of the President may be the most consuming, identity devouring job in the world, but it remains important to separate personal feelings from the necessary decisions of the head of state. We elect our presidents partially because of their values and attitudes, but I at least also hope that they possess a certain professional distance, a degree of cool remove and objective analysis.

This speech was also an attempt to turn the page on an old presidency, years of war, and months of economic decline (feel free to say "years of economic decline" if you want, there is much evidence and argument to support you, but the real hit of the crisis only came to most of us within 2008). The speech turns this page with an admonishment -- a risky move I think. No one likes to be told (even indirectly) that they were irresponsible or careless. But to have your errors pointed out is also to have the path to recovery illuminated.

So setting up the "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some" and "collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age" as elements of the past enables the confinement of the sources of the current crisis to the pages of history. It sets the present up as a time of self improvement and reconstruction. As the speech progresses, we are told that "our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unplesant decisions -- that time has surely passed." And finally, "that the ground has shifted..."

This is a speech that, tough as it is, pushes the underlying source problems to the past. The future is to be a time of hard work, but a time of building something new. It is as if we've all just moved into a new house. The previous tenants took lousy care of it, left a lot of problems behind. But it is our house, and we can look at the things those old tenants did and remind ourselves not to do them (not forgetting that those old tenants were, in fact, us). But that was then and this is now and we'd better get started with the work at hand. It'll be a lot of pizzas in on the kitchen floor before the new range gets installed and the upstairs toilet may act funny for a while yet, but it is a grand old house with good bones.

We are the new tenants and we (and this house) will shine again.

Probing the details there are a few more points in the inaugural speech that drew my eye, some linguistic, some stylistic, some politic.

While enunciating the sacrifices of the past, four battles were named. I was struck by the choice: Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Khe Sahn.

Revolutionary, Civil, Second World, and Vietnam Wars.

Why these? Battles of the distant past are easy to pick out by name -- armies moved in such a way that set piece contact was almost inevitable. Concord and Gettysburg, of that easily named sort, show the growth of the nation and, as such, are essential inclusions. Normandy, the most recognizable single battlefield of the Second World War, points to one of the true high points of the United States as a world power, wielding economic bounty and military might in the cause of freedom. It is the oldest conflict of which significant numbers of veterans still survive (by the way, did anyone notice the cutaways to the Tuskegee Airmen during the speech? Badass bunch of fliers, and certainly an appropriate group to show!).

But more modern wars are tougher, more controvertial. I was surprised to see Korea skipped (Chosin would have fit nicely in there), but there is always a slippery slope factor that a speech writer must face. Four is a good number, three better, five worse, six untenable, seven obscenely rococo. Selecting a battle from the Vietnam war cast a much wider and more recognizable net than one from Korea would have. It is also a very symbolic move (though one that is perhaps more about the times and the march of history than any particular Obama-ism). The Vietnam War, controversial and regrettable, is now listed alongside some of the greatest times of our history. We have moved on (or at least the years have done so) enough that the errors of the politics and the fight no longer need prevent us from letting those who served stand up and be counted and recognized for what they gave.

Incidentally, I have long maintained that we would never elect a president who served in Vietnam and, I suspect, I will be proven right as Obama's election neatly lets us leapfrog that troublesome period of foreign policy.

More contemporary wars are difficult to identify by battle -- the low casualties of the Gulf War make its inclusion in company with the others rediculous and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diffuse and lacking in the foci of named battles. Besides, they are current and ongoing things, and have therefore not yet earned the full right to be held as hallowed symbols of sacrifice. But to include Khe Sahn is to say that yes, the Vietnam War is now a part of our history. We can move on from it. We can look at the veterans who served there and include them along side those who fought in more nobly held wars.

Much of the speech was pointedly addressed -- and often not to the American public but to "the Muslim world" or "the people of poor nations" or "those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror or slaughtering innocents." Again, this is a speech not as much from Barack Obama as it is a speech to This was a message.

Oh, and that phrase "inducing terror or slaughtering innocents" is an interesting one, as is the phrase "far reaching network of violence and hatred." No specific ideology or organization (i.e. Al Qaeda) named. This is an interestingly inclusive act -- in several levels of the word. By not identifying the ends of those called out as our foes, the speech avoids catching supporters (or potential supporters) in an excessively large bursting radius. Instead, it is those who employ a method who are singled out -- and by this approach, the innocent Pakistani villager (caught in the middle of the fight as much as anyone) gets a bye but the Somali pirate gets called to the carpet.

Choice shows up a lot in this speech. First, as that which we failed to do. Second, as an indicator of what we (the people) have done with this election ("hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord"). And finally as what we must do in the future, "choose our better history." The theme of responsibility (choice) continues, and builds, across these three. We shirked choice. Then we chose (well). Now we must choose again (and it will be a hard choice, but we are reminded that it is a choice we have made before).

The phrase "better history" is one of my three favorites in the speech. It implies the existence of multiple histories. One is a history of freedom, ambition, sacrifice, and success. The other is a history of oppression, exploitation, selfishness, and ignorance. Any nation has these dichotomous histories, some even more dramatically divergent than ours. It is all a matter of models, the speech tells us, all a matter of which model we select as our inspiration. And our success in the future is a matter of letting that better vision of the past, those times that we have aspired to and reached our goals, be the one that guides us.

No one who knows me will be surprised that the guy who cheered at the line "We will restore science to its rightful place" is now one of my personal heroes. Now I'm not quite sure what the rightful place Obama envisions is, but I'm hoping that it has something to do with being a place of observation, study, and openness. Science, at least for those of us who care about science, had been a totem for those many things that the Bush administration handled poorly. Few now dispute the allegations of politically based suppression of individuals and findings, hiring pressures and preferences, and other ways in wich the free pursuit of knowledge was tied to maintaining a particular political agenda. This little nod was, to me at least, a nice acknowledgement. And that was, from me, a little rant.

From a political standpoint, the idea that we "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" is a powerful jab. It is a dismissal of the entirely zero-sum, with-me-or-against-me attitude of the past administration. It is instead a look to the complexity of the world, that there are no simple black and white choices and that, as a corollary of that fact, there are better pathways than those reflected by the extremes.

My other favorite phrases? "That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood." Genius. Compare with the standard construction of that phrase, "It is now well understood that we are in the midst of a crisis." Notice the emphasis shift? The former (Barack's) emphasis the crisis, and even more pointedly that we are in the midst of it. The second is comparatively pedantic, emphasizing our clear understanding of the situation. It is from little moments like this, the sort of moments that I aspire to, that brilliant communication is made.

The last favorite turn of phrase is "Men and women, obscure in their labor." This is another deconstructable one. Not "Men and women, laboring obscurely" or "Obscurely laboring men and women." The last one is just horrible, cumbersome. The other option has that icky is-it-a-split-infinitive-or-not thing going on. But it also shifts the men and women into, well, the act of laboring. There they are, busting humps to make a better world. Couldn't they stop and listen? No, too busy laboring. Obscurely. Instead, "obscure in their labor" makes the labor the cause of the obscurity, and therefore the obscurity the most salient fact of these toiling masses.

From all of this speech, as I reread it again and put the finishing touches on this post, there is one particular area that I take home. And, as Churchill inspired the Britons to continue their labor, fight, and bravery, I hope this phrase keeps me and the rest of the country going. It is an antidote to that comfortable urge to settle for second best and to accept standards that fall comfortably within the range of likely outcomes.

Interestingly, it is not a single declarative phrase, a command. Rather, it is a thought attributed to those who would set us up for failure and mediocrity, those who have not noticed "that the ground has shifted beneath them." Those who "question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans." Those who "have forgotten what this country already has done."

And since I refuse to be one of these, I refuse to succumb to the "nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights."

Not for me. Not for my future. Not for my daughter.

1 comment:

Dick said...

wow!! make one think!!