A Simple Turn of Phrase

As you know, if you have been reading this blog recently, we have been discussing the role of language in making change. To put it simply, words are powerful (and it is not just us old English majors who think so). However, even those of us who think about these issues regularly, too often focus on the big picture at the expense of considering the mundane, everyday language we use. While we study Obama’s speeches we forget to think about how we talk to our neighbors.

In the world of meeting facilitation there is a common tool – most people who have been a part of big meetings recently have probably heard of it – the “parking lot.” The idea is that when good (or particularly thorny) issues arise in the course of a meeting that demand follow-up or are perhaps outside the scope of the task at hand, you put them in the “parking lot” and come back to them later.

I was at a meeting recently and as the facilitator was going through the agenda, she pointed to a big piece of butcher block paper hung up at the back of the room and said that was the “bike rack.” People in the room chuckled at that, and I admit that I at first thought in a somewhat snide way “Haha, they are so clever.” However, the more I thought about that turn of phrase – replacing parking lots with bike racks – the more I cam to think of it as a brilliant, simple revision of our everyday language. Continue reading

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

YouTube, Obama, and the Revival of Rhetoric

In recent weeks, much has been made about Obama releasing his first weekly address on YouTube. While I was glad to see Obama continuing to push traditional aspects of governing into new media realms, I was not that surprised to see him using YouTube. YouTube had been a key platform throughout his campaign, through both videos he released and an uncountable library of videos created by his supporters. It seemed obvious that he would continue to have a presence in the online video space after the election.

Obama, after all, was made for YouTube. He is a brilliant public speaker who comes off as composed and thoughtful in front of the camera and has the rare ability to translate the passion and energy that he presents live on stage into the more intimate setting of online video. Continue reading

Reconsidering Moral Leadership

In early 2007 I was asked to write a series of blog posts for a youth conservation organization examining the intersection of service, civil rights, and the environment for Martin Luther King Day. In one of those posts I mused about MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington. Actually, I mused on the way that MLK was introduced to the crowd gathered there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The person who introduced King called him the moral leader of our nation.

When I was writing in early 2007 I commented on how striking this phrase was, because I couldn’t imagine any one person today being called the moral leader of our country. Moral leadership, at least on the national political stage, was all but absent. However, that same week a Senator from Chicago stood on the steps of Illinois’ Old State Capital (where Abraham Lincoln had stood before him) and announced he was running for president of the United States. At the time I didn’t know much about Barack Obama, but now, twenty months later we have all learned volumes about who he is and what he stands for, and I am beginning to hope that moral leadership may be on the rise again. Continue reading