Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Political Rhetoric

I had a discussion with a woman this weekend who said that she enjoyed Senator Obama's nomination acceptance speech last week at the DNC because he was speaking "to" the people, not "at" the people. Apparently, she feels that Obama's vocabulary is too high-falutin' for most Americans, and this was the first time she felt in tune with what he was saying.

Now, I realize that I'm better-read than the average American, and I also realize that I take advantage of the breadth of the English language more than the average American. Even if that were not the case, however, the idea of a politician deliberately "dumbing down" his or her language so that the lowest common denominator can understand it makes me uncomfortable. Should we ennable ignorance, or should we encourage the lowest to rise? If we refuse to use only single-syllable words, can we expect the average American to use context and the dictionary to understand words they wouldn't otherwise?

Think about this--the most famous of all American speeches is undoubtedly the Gettysburg Address, delivered by Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The language of the Address is beautiful and sweeping, monumental in its elegance. Lincoln wasn't speaking down to anyone, and the speech has survived the test of time:

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

"But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Martin Luther King, Jr. also used lofty language, his taking a decidedly more Biblical feel, and his "I Have a Dream Speech" has also remained in the public mind for decades after his death. For example, read this and tell me if you think it's pretentious in its refusal to use only single-syllable words:

"But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

"We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."

Finally, every American has heard at least part of JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech:

"We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

"But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course - both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
"So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."
Over the course of the last 18 months, Obama has been compared to Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and JFK. So I guess my question is, is it better for him to speak down to the American people, or to speak at the top of their heads as they're looking down on themselves? Can complex issues such as policy and foreign affairs be boiled down to "you're either with us or against us" as it has been for the last eight years?* Or is it reasonable to expect Americans to raise their own standards for themselves, take some responsibility for their own ignorance, and try to understand ideas and language that are not and cannot be inherently simple?

*I am not arguing that "high-falutin'" language is always appropriate, nor am I arguing that it can take the place of real policy. Hitler was one of the most dynamic speakers in Europe, but he was also a fascist--not really a good combination. "Yes We Can" is a battle cry, not an economic policy, and the Will.I.Am video that was circulating could be contrued as propaganda, as it doesn't say much, though it does use beautiful, sweeping, poetic language. Don't know what I'm talking about? Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yq0tMYPDJQ. It takes both policy and language to make a difference.

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