Thursday, October 23, 2008

The "promise" of Barack Obama

Language, in my opinion, is where it all comes together, where we all come together. Sure, there are other forms of expression, like artistic expression, but we still feel the need to discuss and write and about particular expressions in order to understand them. So, with this in mind, I turn to a post from the blog Observations & Contentions, by Wilfred M. McClay, entitled, The Danger of Abstract Words.

In his post McClay examines the political rhetoric of Sen. Obama. The touchstone of this piece is Tocqueville's insight that

"Men living in democratic countries, then, are apt to entertain unsettled ideas, and they require loose expressions to convey them. As they never know whether the idea they express today will be appropriate to the new position they may occupy tomorrow, they naturally acquire a liking for abstract terms."
McClay continues by observing that "[t]he chief virtue of an abstraction" for Tocqueville "is that it is 'like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.'"

The particular word used a lot by Sen. Obama that McClay examines is the word "promise". I have looked at a Obama's language on this blog (in which I misspelled Sen. Obama's first name)and his convention speech. After making a rather good argument about the need for citizens to be critical hearers of political rhetoric, I think McClay misses something at the end of his post when referring to Obama's use of the verse from the Letter to the Hebrews at the end of his convention speech. What he misses is that scriptural language has been employed as a vehicle for abstract words in U.S. political discourse for a long time, at least, according to his own account, since Tocqueville's nineteenth century tour.

So, while I agree that when scripture is used in this way the words become "empty husks left behind when the theological content is removed," I disagree that Sen. Obama is alone in using words from scripture in this way, or in his employment of abstract words to express big ideas and themes. He just happens to be particularly effective at it. Being an effective and inspiring speaker, which, at least to some degree, requires using abstract words, does not automatically render his motives suspect, or make him a charlatan. All major party candidates for president employ, or attempt to employ, abstract words and make scriptural allusions, ending major speeches with "God bless America!" After all, what is a maverik, really and truly? The McCain campaign, mining another long-cherished mode of political discourse, anti-intellectualism, has long-tried to use Obama's speaking ability against him by accusing him of having no concrete proposals, just rhetoric. While one may agree or disagree with what Sen. Obama is proposing to do as president, he has a lot of very concrete proposals for translating his ideas into policy and law.

That Obama cut the passage short of saying Jesus Christ is our hope is certainly understandable, given that he is hoping for non-Christian, irreligious, and even anti-religious citizens to vote for him. Again, Sen. Obama is merely participating in a well-established mode of American political discourse. A recent example is Michael Gerson speech-writing for Pres. Bush. Hence, his use of this kind of language is not enough to get our hackles up and cause us to question the senator's "well-advertised sensitivity to religion". Looking back on my earlier post about Obama's language, he has a few pretty good things to say about religion and politics and about how people of faith can be convincing in the public square.

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