Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On the rhetoric of Obama

So yesterday was kind of a disappointment for anyone supporting Obama (or the Wild).

The primary that will not end continues.

I’ve given my opinion a few times now, I support Obama, and thus I got the Obama newsletter late last night, his attempt to rally the troops after a disappointing evening in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island. The newsletter was maybe the biggest disappointment tonight (except for the Wild). He has been repeatedly criticized for being all talk, that his rhetoric is fancy but never really says anything. I, personally, don’t believe that to be true, but the newsletter was a striking example of what he is being criticized for I’m terribly disappointed by how the rhetoric within, despite the call for “change,” is “politics as usual.” The letter he sent out (though I’m sure it wasn’t actually typed up and sent out by Obama despite the loving “Barack” signature) is copied below.

We may not know the final outcome of today's voting until morning, but the results so far make one thing clear.

When the dust settles from today's contests, we will maintain our substantial lead in delegates. And thanks to millions of people standing for change, we will keep adding delegates and capture the Democratic nomination.

We knew from the day we began this journey that the road would be long. And we knew what we were up against.

We knew that the closer we got to the change we seek, the more we'd see of the politics we're trying to end -- the attacks and distortions that try to distract us from the issues that matter to people's lives, the stunts and the tactics that ask us to fear instead of hope.

But this time -- this year -- it will not work. The challenges are too great. The stakes are too high.

Americans need real change.

In the coming weeks, we will begin a great debate about the future of this country with a man who has served it bravely and loves it dearly. And we will offer two very different visions of the America we see in the twenty-first century.

John McCain has already dismissed our call for change as eloquent but empty.

But he should know that it's a call that did not begin with my words. It's the resounding call from every corner of this country, from first-time voters and lifelong cynics, from Democrats and Republicans alike.

And together you and I are going to grow this movement to deliver that change in November.

Thank you,

Clearly “change” and “hope” are the buzzwords of his campaign, that’s fine with me, every candidate finds their buzz words so that their followers have signifiers to identify with. In just over 250 words he delivers the word “change” four times. Not an incredible amount but quite excessive. But that’s fine, he’s been criticized by Clinton and McCain for overuse of the word, but Clinton could be criticized for overuse of her signature scowl and McCain for (insert here).

But what was truly disappointing is the way in which this letter doesn’t say anything. It’s the same philosophy that drives “Support Our Troops” signs. The phrasing is vague, making it seem clear that if you don’t agree you must be crazy. But the words don’t say anything; they never define what they describe. It’s a rhetorical method of drawing a line in the sand without actually defining the argument, so that as many people as possible want to be on your side of the line.

The sentence that begins “We knew that the closer we got to the change we seek, the more we’d see of the politics we’re trying to end” is particularly revealing of Obama’s pension to oversimplify his statements into rousing emotional appeals instead of speaking to the people who are listening about what is really going on. It seems to me that “politics as usual” is rehashing rhetoric that is solely intended to gather the support of the public without giving the truth, the facts, indeed “the politics we’re trying to end.” This paragraph is somewhat bulkier than the others; it is thematically the message of the letter. This is the section where we don’t talk about defeat, or the attacks, this is where he tries to define “us.” Yet this statement is so inclusive and vague that it doesn’t say who “we” are or what defines “we” or what the politics are that need ending.

“The attacks and the distortion that try to distract us from the issues that matter to people’s lives, the stunts and the tactics that ask us to fear instead of hope” is an interesting end to that statement. It differentiates between us and them instantly. “They” are the ones who attack and distort. “They” want the politics “we” want to end. Furthermore, though the statement is largely evasive deep down it is directed at someone, or rather two specific people. It is their attacks and distortion that are distracting in the phrase. But this statement is itself an evasive attack, and seems to be taking up the space where information could/should reside, so it is really distracting from the issues that matter to me. The Obama campaign has a captive audience in a space such as this, yet it is nonetheless filled with this hollow rhetoric and othering of the rest of the field.

This example isn’t necessarily sinister, but this is what we have seen over and over in the past. Presidents who use tired rhetoric to gather support for war, or for pet spending projects, or frequently in the same capacity of trying to gather voters for elections. It makes the listener feel more patriotic for believing what the speaker believes, demonizing the opposition, even if their stance is not that far removed, othering them against those who agree, those who are patriotic. “Americans need real change.” Interpretation: if you want this change than you are American. And implicitly in this kind of rhetoric the more “American” you can acquire, the better.

The newsletter even goes on to state what the critics are saying about this rhetoric: “John McCain has already dismissed our call for change as eloquent but empty.” I’ve stated my bias, I believe there is substance to his campaign, that he has shown it often, but this letter to his supporters is eloquent and empty. It didn’t instill any “hope” in me this evening.

And Chicago beat the Wild, the world is a dark place this evening.

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