Friday, May 18, 2012

Analyzing Obama's Commencement Speech - The Ambivalence of Eloquence

It almost seems unfair to compare and contrast Romney’s speech with Obama’s. In some ways, it feels like looking at the writings of a teenager against an adult, but in some important ways they overlap. With regards to Obama’s speech, I think we can easily assert a number of points. First, he speaks and writes with more eloquence and tact than Romney. We already know of Obama’s charismatic oratory abilities, his humor, his aplomb, his comfort with shifts in tones, his poetic and aphoristic abilities(Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table), and Obama uses them all in full force in this speech. Not that this carries any political weight per se, although an eloquent speaker can move masses. (Conversely, the horrors of the world are painted in the words of some of the greatest speakers and demagogues.) However in terms of their character or political capability their rhetorical abilities doesn’t indicate much. In fact, we know Obama can speak, well, very well. We know he speaks with a confident poise that at the same time evinces a calm, a comfort, and a reassuring quality. But we’ve also learned to grow wary of eloquence. A way with words has a way of hiding meaning behind beauty. Obama’s made many phenomenal turn of phrases in the forms of promises he didn’t or couldn’t deliver upon. Pascal reminds us that, “True eloquence makes light of eloquence.”
    In a more substantive manner, in contrast to Romney, Obama makes the speech considerably more about the actual graduates than himself. He never mentions anything in the way of elections, he never even implicitly mentions Romney, and thankfully, he presents a much truer account of the reality facing America today. He describes an ambiguous future full of unknowns and challenges that will take courage to surmount. He mentions the economic crisis, income inequality, a stagnant congress, a fettered political machine. (However, in one instance, Obama presents a rosier picture of the nature of history than warranted based on actual history. See below.)
None of this takes away from the politicized nature of the speech. Both Romney and Obama took this opportunity to express the interests of important populations of voters, but Obama accomplished this task with much greater maturity and diplomacy. The names he invokes as models represent significantly less ambiguous moral characters than those of Romney, but both do so in an attempt to situate themselves in a certain tradition whether that be the tradition of the Christian right or the Liberal left.
    I find it interesting to note though, despite some clear differences, that we can point to numerous striking similarities in both the flow, structure, and content of the speeches. They both speak/preach, ultimately, of a message of American pride in our resilience and strong work ethic, of the need for a more engaged youth, and personal responsibility. Hope underlies the basic notions of both of the speeches, and they both end on a story of personal adversity, or a time when they beat the odds and persevered. They also present a picture of a rosier picture than most would assume that borders on naivete “See, the question is not whether things will get better -- they always do. The question is not whether we’ve got the solutions to our challenges -- we’ve had them within our grasp for quite some time...” I find it hard to swallow this particular promise of things always getting better, it seem as though Obama has access to a different history than we do.
    In fact, parts of Obama’s speech strikes me as slightly offensive, and in an vehemently feminist egalitarian speech, as backwards, pandering, and belittling to both sexes. There’s a position many men take in regards to feminism, a sort overcompensation that amounts to a degradation of men, that undermines the egalitarian spirit. When Obama discusses both inherent bias of the constitution a document not signed by any women, but one malleable enough to accommodate all civil rights he explains, “No woman’s signature graced the original document — although we can assume that there were founding mothers whispering smarter things in the ears of the founding fathers. (Applause.) I mean, that’s almost certain.” And in almost the exactly similar vein in discussing the lack of women in Congress Obama explains, “Now, I’m not saying that the only way to achieve success is by climbing to the top of the corporate ladder or running for office — although, let’s face it, Congress would get a lot more done if you did. (Laughter and applause.) That I think we’re sure about.”
    Sound innocuous at worst, and praiseworthy at best, but let’s think about what he is saying. First off, I seriously doubt that the founding mothers were actually whispering smarter things in the ears of the founding fathers, as a historical fact. Conceptually, this type of assertion not only whitewashes history, but creates a strange hierarchy in which women curb the appetites of the more powerful unwieldy men of the world. It pegs women as the better half, which in essence limits women to another role of sorts. In Judaism, this is the sort of argument we refer to as the Binah Yeseirah arguments. Furthermore, it belittles men, painting congress as stagnant because of how much it resembles a piggish, stubborn men's club, as if women in politics do not engage in petty quarrels or make decisions or non-decisions based on money, as if they live on a different moral plane than men. Looked at even more, Obama can make these statements only because of the powerful position of men in the world. His statement testifies and reinforces the inequality that he references. Women don’t need anybody to tell them how powerful they are or can be, especially not the most powerful man in the world. Of course, I don’t assume Obama intends any of these implicit ideas, rather it signifies a mainstream way to speak about inequality.
    With that being said, Obama’s speech offends less, and not only for rhetorical reasons. Much of his speech involves the obvious cliches and inspiring stories, but one sentence stands out that creates an important contrast between Romney and Obama (Besides of course for certain positions on issues such as gay and women’s rights...) In the end of his speech, in the moment of vision for the future, of summation of America’s goals right now, Obama states, “f you are ready to fight for that brilliant, radically simple idea of America that no matter who you are or what you look like, no matter who you love or what God you worship, you can still pursue your own happiness, I will join you every step of the way.”
    First, let’s notice Obama’s rhetorical ingenuity. He deploys a  clever rhetorical maneuver of inclusiveness that conveys a sense of collaboration instead of more traditional hierarchical leadership (I will join you...I will be right there with you...). In general Obama succeeds in this speech in speaking as one of the people, not the leader of the people. He doesn’t sympathize from a perch, but empathizes from amongst the crowd. Throughout his speech, he balances stories that reinforce the classic American dream of  going from rags to riches, with the converse American value of the inherent worth of the unsung life, of the mundane:
Those quiet heroes all across this country — some of your parents and grandparents who are sitting here — no fanfare, no articles written about them, they just persevere. They just do their jobs. They meet their responsibilities. They don’t quit. I’m only here because of them. They may not have set out to change the world, but in small, important ways, they did. They certainly changed mine
Additionally, Obama casually references both the preamble to the constitution (how we made this union more perfect) and the Declaration of Independence (still pursue your own happiness), but adapts the phrases to his purposes, implying a more egalitarian happiness and a union already made more perfect.This creates a nice connection to the foundational roots of the revolutionaries while making room for change.
Obama’s vision stands in stark contrast to the Christ heavy vision of Romney. Romney’s vision excludes while Obama seeks to include, to make room for more people. Romney, in his speech, hopes to enlighten the world with his moral certainty while Obama seeks to make room for a multiplicity of visions. Perhaps this defines an essential difference between the two candidates, one that holds more substance than Republican and Democrat. 
OK, but now what? Does this type of analysis actually add to the conversation or simply further the constant back and forth between accusations of fundamentalist Christians imposing their backward faith on the rest of us vs. moral decadent liberals corroding the fiber of our society? Will something like this actually sway anybody? I don’t know, one hopes, but probably not. I do take comfort in the fact that part of the job of citizens is to make explicit what politicians hide in their rhetoric. To at least make clear for all the stakes of the game here. 

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