Words matter

March 6, 2008 at 9:43 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, Christopher Hitchens, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment
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Sen. Barack Obama, captured by Flickr user realjames016, used on a Creative Commons license 

From a post entitled ‘Words Matter’, I give you Christopher Hitchens:

It is cliché, not plagiarism, that is the problem with our stilted, room-temperature political discourse. It used to be that thinking people would say, with at least a shred of pride, that their own convictions would not shrink to fit on a label or on a bumper sticker. But now it seems that the more vapid and vacuous the logo, the more charm (or should that be “charisma”?) it exerts. Take “Yes We Can,” for example. It’s the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake.

Ouch. Worry not Hitch, I don’t think anyone’s ever pegged you as a hope-smoking hippy.

Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps 10 keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators. In the new jargon, certain intelligible ideas would become inexpressible. (How could one state, for example, the famous Burkean principle that many sorts of change ought to be regarded with skepticism?) In a rather poor trade-off for this veto on complexity, many views that are expressible (and “We the People Together Dream of and Hope for New Change in America” would be really quite a long sentence in the latest junk language) will, in turn, be entirely and indeed almost beautifully unintelligible.

And to think I always assumed he was a populist. It goes without saying that such insipid slogans probably aren’t intended for a man of Mr Hitchens’ studied sophistication, but at the same time I had assumed, perhaps naively, that a man of his sophistication would be able to look beyond the insipid slogans. Evidently not.

If he had taken the time to examine the content of these speeches rather than bristling at the collection of heavily-edited cable news segments he’s watched, Mr Hitchens would’ve found that for each easily-gained applause line, Obama has actually taken more risks with his rhetoric than any other candidate still standing in this election:

From a speech at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta the day before Martin Luther King Day:

For most of this country’s history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays – on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

From a speech to the Detroit Economic Club:

We know that our oil addiction is jeopardizing our national security – that we fuel our energy needs by sending $800 million a day to countries that include some of the most despotic, volatile regimes in the world. We know that oil money funds everything from the madrassas that plant the seeds of terror in young minds to the Sunni insurgents that attack our troops in Iraq. It corrupts budding democracies, and gives dictators from Venezuela to Iran the power to freely defy and threaten the international community. It even presents a target for Osama bin Laden, who has told al Qaeda to, “focus your operations on oil, especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this will cause [the Americans] to die off on their own.”

More:

Good ideas are crushed under the weight of typical Washington politics. Politicians are afraid to ask the oil and auto industries to do their part, and those industries hire armies of lobbyists to make sure it stays that way. Autoworkers, understandably fearful of losing jobs, and wise to the tendency of having to pay the price of management’s mistakes, join in the resistance to change. The rest of us whip ourselves into a frenzy whenever gas prices skyrocket or a crisis like Katrina takes oil off the market, but once the headlines recede, so does our motivation to act.

From a speech to NASDAQ in New York:

In recent years, we have seen a dangerous erosion of the rules and principles that have allowed our market to work and our economy to thrive. Instead of thinking about what’s good for America or what’s good for business, a mentality has crept into certain corners of Washington and the business world that says, “what’s good for me is good enough.”

More 

In the business world, it’s a mentality that sees conflicts of interest as opportunities for profit. The quick kill is prized without regard to long-term consequences for the financial system and the economy. And while this may benefit the few who push the envelope as far as it will go, it’s doesn’t benefit America and it doesn’t benefit the market. Just because it makes money doesn’t mean it’s good for business.

It’s bad for business when boards allow their executives to set the price of their stock options to guarantee that they’ll get rich regardless of how they perform. It’s bad for the bottom line when CEOs receive massive severance packages after letting down shareholders, firing workers and dumping their pensions; or when they throw lavish birthday parties with company funds.

Admonishing anti-Semitism and homophobia before an audience of black Americans; spelling out the imperative of tackling global warming & energy dependence in a state dependent on car manufacturers; explaining to a room full of wealthy Wall Street executives why obsessive, destructive wealth accumulation has a negative effect on the rest of the country. When judged against the somewhat lowly, say-nothing standards of US electoral politics in recent years, Barack Obama has made statements that have both inspired and provoked.

It’s unclear in his article whether Hitchens is aware of any of these statements. If, like millions of ordinary Americans, his opinion of Obama is largely formed from media coverage, then it’s not a surprise that he came to this conclusion: the media’s maniacal horserace commentary cheapens the country’s conversation and obsesses over irrelevancies. That said, I’d like to think that a journalist would do a little research before mouthing off.

But as much as he might want to use the Senator’s wilful hope-mongering as a sign of the dilution of America’s discourse, you can’t simply cherry-pick trite slogans and soundbites and pass them off as the sum of Obama’s substance. At least not if you want to get taken seriously.

Yes Christopher, words matter. I think you’d be advised to read some.

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  1. […] aggressiveness  shown so far, but – as we’ve seen with the Reverend Wright scandal and on many other occasions – Obama is at his best when taking those risks inherent in doing the right […]


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