If America actually had a punditalkcracy instead of a punditalkcrazy, James Fallows would be as well-known as George Will. If you had to read just one book about our media and what's wrong with it, his 1996 book, Breaking The News, could arguably be that one book. Which is why I take it seriously when he writes something about Obama, as he did earlier this week in "Belatedly, on the Cairo speech & Obama rhetoric in general". Just as I hoped, it provides an excellent opportunity for clarifying where I stand with respect to Obama.
The thesis is about Obama's "big" speeches, by which Fallows means his Philadelphia speech on race during the campaign plus five more recent ones: the
June 4 Cairo speech on relations with Islam, the May 21 on anti-terrorism strategy, the >May 17 Notre Dame speech on religion and politics, the April 14 speech at Georgetown on economic strategy, and the April 5 Prague speech on reducing nuclear weapons. Here's what Fallows says:
here is a way to think about why Barack Obama's "big" speeches of the past 15 months seem different from normal political rhetoric. It's because they are...
These six -- including an astonishing five of them in an eight-week burst -- were different from normal rhetoric in the following basic way:
Most of the time, "effective" speeches boil down to finding a better, clearer, cleverer, more vivid, or more memorable way to express what people already think.
In contrast, pointing to his Philadelphia speech on race, Fallows says:
What Obama did in that speech is what he has done, or attempted to do, in those subsequent five big speeches as president. Rather than simply reaffirming or reinforcing what much of the public already thinks; and rather than attempting the relatively common political feat of explaining small changes or compromises in policy; he has tried to change the basic way in which we think about large issues. You can look back on his 2004 Democratic convention speech, given before he'd even been elected to the Senate, as a preview of this approach. By 2008, "not Red states or Blue states..." had become a mere catch phrase. In 2004, during the embittered Bush-Kerry campaign, it was something like a new idea. That's what got him such a response in the convention hall (I was there; it was electrifying), and extensions of that approach are what make his big speeches these days seem different from what we generally hear.
I think Fallows is absolutely right about this, and he goes on to describe what he means even more specifically, in a passage I'll quote on the flip. But at the same time, this helps us focus attention on just what's lacking in Obama, and that can been quite clearly in the current fiasco of his GLBT policy (if, indeed, he can be said to have a GLBT policy.)
The problem, as I see it, is two-fold: (1) a lack of genuine, substantive follow-through, from rhetoric to action, and (2) a lack of real depth in the change he articulates. It may well be a "change [in] the basic way in which we think about large issues", but it's a change that's been just beneath the surface for a long time, a change that people have been hungry for. It's a change in key from major to minor, or the reverse, or maybe even up a half-step--all key-changes that are part of the musician's standard repertoire, if not the politician's.
But it's not as Monty Python would have it, "something completely different." It's not Frank Zappa changing key and time signature at the same time. And it's certainly not Charles Ives, playing in two different keys at once, or Harry Partch, playing in just intonation, with
17 43 notes to the octave. So if Obama hasn't given a major speech on GLBT issues-as some of you are surely already protesting--it's precisely because there is no such latent change on GLBT issues overall, even though there certainly is such a change with regard to their service in the military.
|Before expanding my critique of Obama, let's let Fallows expand his explanation. Adding greater specificity to the distinction he draws above, Fallows writes:
If political speeches typically sound "hazy," the reason is that most of the the time excess clarity brings risks. As a journalistic or literary writer, your goal is to make your meaning absolutely as clear as it can possibly be. In political rhetoric, most of the time you want to clarify views only to the extent that most people will still agree. (Yes, we all agree on "protecting the environment" and "keeping the nation safe." So you talk about that, not the more controversial specifics.) Obama's big speeches sound unusual because he's often being quite clear (eg, talking about his white grandmother's view of black people) en route to introducing new "frames" or approaches to basic questions.
I'm not saying that all his plans are going to work. I'm not saying that his big set-piece speeches are cliche-free. As argued earlier, often they're not even that "well written," in a fancy-phrasemaking sense. I am saying: there's a reason they seem similar as a group and different from normal political rhetoric. The difference is, they're asking us to change our minds.
What Fallows says in the first paragraph above reflects what Lakoff has said about Obama's framing ability. And yet, re-reading that speech, I find it difficult to identify any really "new 'frames' or approaches". Indeed, the fact that Obama is a black man raised by a white grandmother seems significantly more novel than anything he actually has to say after that. Here is where he speaks of her view of black people, after he first speaks about Reverend Wright:
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.
But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America - to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
And yet, despite saying here quite clearly that "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," that is precisely what Obama himself proceeded to advocate further on in this speech, (and what he proceeded to do in his campaign):
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
In the passage above, not only did Obama use this race speech to stop talking about race, invoking a facile equivalence between black grievances deeply rooted in history, and white grievances often used to justify that same history. He also justified abandoning talking about race with the excuse of other issues that he has since disappointed on.
Confronted with the Wall Street meltdown, he has used his cross-racial good will to both save and protect "a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed," not to force it to reform. In "a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests," he has drawn on those very same insiders far more than he has drawn on outsiders who took him to be on their side. And, in pushing more bailouts, while neglecting the plight of those losing their homes, and even state governments trying to keep basic services going, he has continued "economic policies that favor the few over the many," though not quite as blatantly as the Bush Administration before him.
On each of these points, it should be noted, blacks and Latinos have suffered much more intensely than whites have--more mortgages foreclosed per capita, more homes lost, and more state services cut. The fine rhetorical balance struck in his speech--which does, indeed, have some basis in reality, however much it overlooks the differences--is belied by the staggering racially-based differences in who lost what in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown.
Contrast the above with what Dr. Martin Luther King said 41 years ago, in his "Drum Major Instinct" speech, where he casts white supremacy in the larger context of the "Drum Major Instinct" desire to be special--a desire that he argues can be transformed for good, by seeking to be a "Drum Major" in service to others, in service to peace and justice. In this larger sense, in his speech King sees the white supremacy of his jailers as part of a larger malady we all must struggle to transform, and thus finds a much more profound commonality than Obama does with his false equivalence of black and white fears and resentments. And in the real-life drama his speech recalls, he addressed their common plight with uncommon directness:
The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking-calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point-that was the second or third day-to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."
Now that's a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he's superior because his skin is white-and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)
Also unlike Obama, King's actions did not contradict his words. He gave this speech in the midst of organizing the multi-racial "Poor People's March on Washington," a march he did not live to see.
In short, what this shows is simply the severe limitations of what Obama offers us. Yes, he wants to change the tone, and yes, he wants us to listen more open-mindedly one to another. And these are all good things. But he does not want to fundamentally change anything material at all. And yet, Fallows clearly highlights something real--Obama is extraordinary by the standards of conventional political discourse, which strongly suggests that he could quite easily put his considerable gifts in service to a much more substantive change in how we think and what we do.
This would not be easy, of course. Part of Obama's success in reeling off so many "big" speeches is that none of them deeply challenges us in the ways that Martin Luther King did. They do challenge us to change somewhat, it's true. But the changes are more a matter of taking lower-profile mainstream ideas and giving them greater prominence. Consider this passage from an earlier, related piece by Fallows:
...the power of those speeches comes from the quality of their thought -- from the ideas and truths the speaker is trying to grapple with:
In the case of the race speech, the different burdens and resentments Americans of all background held, and why we had to face and work through them. In the nuclear speech, the dangers that remained long after the Cold War had ended, and America's special opportunity and responsibility to find a solution. In the Notre Dame speech, the difficulty of resolving, in an open democracy, differences of moral certainty that are fiercely held on all sides. And so on.
Yet, others have been far bolder in calling for nuclear abolition much more quickly than Obama proposes, including top retired military leaders and establishment politicians such as George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn.. Jesse Jackson has also often spoken insightfully about white resentment as understandable, but with much greater force about how it serves to distract attention from the real source of white working class suffering. (Although he got relatively few votes, he drew large crowds of Iowa farmers in 1984, 24 years before Obama won the primary there.) And pro-choice advocates have always recognized the deep moral conflicts surrounding abortion--that's why they're self-identified as "pro-choice" not "pro-abortion."
Similarly, Obama's Cairo speech simply reaffirms the common sense of the non-insane part of the Washington foreign policy establishment--even while clinging to the highly questionable notion of a "good war" in Afghanistan. This is only transformational in the sense of a heroin addict switching to booze.
In short, Fallows has provided a good explanation for why Obama's "big" speeches strike us as so different. But once we understand why this is so, we also understand why they fall so far short of what is actually needed at this point in time. Part of the problem is that words are not deeds. But a deeper problem is that the words themselves do not even call for the sorts of deeds that are needed. Words alone may be inadequate, and yet still call forth the needed action. So faulting Obama for "merely" speaking misses the point. The root of the problem is that he does not ask us to think nearly as newly and deeply as we need to.
But in a sense, I think it's even worse than that.
Consider again the lack of any major speech on GLBT issues. Politically, it's very understandable. Gay marriage is deeply divisive at a time when other issues, such as economic recovery and national health care, require all the political unity we can muster. Yet, abortion is also a deeply divisive issue, and yet he spoke openly about it at Notre Dame. What's more, gays serving openly in the military is not a divisive issue. Even a majority of Republicans now favor it.
It's clear that attitudes toward the GLBT community are changing, particularly driven by the young. It's only a matter of time until gay marriage is legalized. Even if Obama is politically timid, as the other examples suggest, he sure could talk about GLBT issues at least somewhat similarly to how he discussed abortion. He could talk about the need for trying to listen respectfully to one another. And he could announce a determined push to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" in accord with overwhelming majority public opinion.
The fact that Obama has not done any of this suggests that his "big" speeches all have much more mundane political purposes that we ought to consider just as much as we consider what makes their rhetoric distinctive. Put simply, these "big" speeches reflect Obama's own poltical needs. They are not so much responses to big moral or political questions, as they are attempts at overkill to deal with political problems all at once, and be done with them.
The Philadelphia race speech was clearly recognized as one that Obama had done everything possible to avoid, until the emergence of Reverend Wright made further ducking impossible. I think it's arguable that the same can be said about all the other "big" speeches as well. Thus, if we want Obama to give a "big" speech on GLBT issues, then the GLBT community is going to have to turn up the political heat. And if they do, a "big" speech they may get. But it will only be the booby prize. They should--we all should--be aiming for a lot more than that.