Politics, Pragmatism, and Rhetoric – Part Two

Part two in a two part series about the intersection of pragmatism and rhetoric in Barack Obama’s politics. If you have not read part one, you can find it here.

I left the first part of this discussion with this passage from Barack Obama’s inaugural address:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

In this passage we get a glimpse of one more vital overlap between Obama and pragmatism – the emphasis on language. Since the 2004 Democratic National Convention Obama has been deeply  identified with his skill as an orator. Indeed, on the campaign his skill in this area was one of the first things to be used against him by his opponents. He was described as being all words, and no action – all rhetoric and no experience (which was ironic at least in part because so much of his rhetoric was about the power and importance of his life experiences).

By now it is clear that Obama understood, much better than his opponents and his critics, the connection between language and action. As he stood with his hand on the bible being sworn in as the 44th president, he understood that we don’t just speak a language, but are shaped by it as well. Richard Rorty is a modern pragmatist who has written extensively about our ability “to actualize hitherto undreamt-of possibilities by putting new linguistic and other practices into play, and erecting new social constructs.” Which is a fancy way of saying we can change the world by changing the way we speak (and think) about that world. Continue reading

Politics, Pragmatism, and Rhetoric – Part One

Part one, in a two part series exploring the intersection of rhetoric and pragmatism in the politics of Barack Obama. Part two is here.

A lot of people watched the Obama inauguration speech waiting for what I found myself calling “the Kennedy moment.” They listened intently for that one line, that marvelous sound bite, that piece of undeniable wisdom, that defining sentence that helps us define ourselves just a little bit better in this troubled time. Obama’s best speeches have done this to great effect.

In the weeks since the inauguration there has not been much agreement on which, if any, one phrase settled in the minds of the nation as the sum of the entire speech. It’s likely that those who did find what they were looking for in his speech, found it in different places, identifying with various pieces of what was a complex and wide-ranging address.

For me, the line that stood out in Obama’s speech was not aspirational or inspirational. It was not  a call to serve or a call to act. At best, it was a clarification – but an important one. One our nation has needed to hear and one that, for me, indicated volumes about how Obama will approach his work as president. Continue reading