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

Of Guns and Seeds

A while back I did a few posts on guerrilla gardening and guerrilla harvesting that included terms like “seed bomb” (a ball of dirt with seeds in it that one lobs into empty lots in urban areas). At the time, while reviewing links and articles about these topic I stumbled on two odd projects that combine guns and seeds in unexpected ways.

From the Plant the Piece website.

From the Plant the Piece website.

The first was a project called “Plant the Piece” in which the artist created “Seed Guns” made out of “red clay, dry organic compost, and a mixture of annual-perennial species of wildflowers native and naturalized to any area, they can grow when left directly on the surface of the ground.” From the description of the project:

In 2004, the Richmond, Virginia homicide total reached 101. That same year, the traveling art installation, Plant The Piece, memorialized each murder victim by creating a “Gun”. As venues became available, ten original installations containing “Guns” were erected and the public was able to view an unfortunate statistic in an extraordinary light. The exhibit was inspired by the techniques and philosophies of Japanese radical gardener Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka said, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Each installation was a unique reflection of it’s host venue and audience. The traveling exhibit was enormously successful as it tackled a most sensitive matter that had no apparent solution. Continue reading

Too Big Not To Fail

About five months ago, when the first of the big national banks began to buckle under their own weight, fanning the flames of the already smoldering economic crisis, a new idiom was born: “Too big to fail.”

Phrases like this are pure marketing genius. Meant to hint at fault (“oops, we probably should have been watching those banks a little more carefully”) and, at the same time, to reassure (“but don’t worry, we’ll fix it”) – what they do best is focus attention on one kind of problem while concealing another. Hidden behind the platitude of companies being “too big to fail” is the fact that our country – indeed, our democracy – is threatened by companies that are too big not to fail.

Over the past year, the newspapers, radio stations and TV channels that have been reporting on the economic crisis have been experiencing that crisis firsthand. In between the headlines of bank bailouts and auto company loans, the news of a news industry in crisis has been pushed below the fold. But while the crisis in our nation’s newsrooms has not topped lawmakers’ economic policy agendas it has been no less destructive to the national interest. Continue reading

A Few Parenting Clips

On fathers:

A friend recently mentioned that one of her friends was starting a fathering blog called Fathers Who Feel. The name itself caught my attention. I have noticed that most of the father blogs out there are written by men who seem interested in exploring the complexities (social, cultural, emotional) of fatherhood. However, few wear their intentions on their sleeve quite so boldly as this blogger. It’s a good blog, and he (the author calls himself simply “One Dad”) does a nice job combining the simple accounting of a life as a dad with the reflective thoughts of a dad who “feels.” This bit from recent post caught my attention:

Parenting seems to defy any attempt at labeling it. Any attempt to reduce it to a word. A few come to mind: Love. Extreme suffering. Ecstasy. Punishment. But it’s simply a matter of spirit. Ours rubbing up against theirs, sometimes until they’re rubbed raw. Which is pretty messy, let’s face it.

So many of my non-parent friends have asked “So what’s it like?” and after not having very satisfactory answers for them the conversations tend to devolve quickly into cultural stereotypes and cliches “So you’re not sleeping much?” “I bet you never leave the house.” “You must miss your old life.” These questions are the shorthand out culture has created to define parenthood, and frankly they make me grit my teeth. The truth is much better summed up by the daddy-blogger from Fathers Who Feel – “it’s simply a matter of spirit” – utterly powerful, yet profoundly undefinable. Continue reading

Another Change of Pace

A few months back, I got a bit “meta” here on Groundswell and began reflecting on the project I had undertaken in this blog, all in preparation for a refocus in content and a realignment of design.

Please forgive and humor me while I undergo that process once again.

I initially imagined this space as an outlet for all the writing and thinking I wanted to do related to land, language, community, service, and sustainability. But then I stumbled into a great job, with a great group, working to reform the media, empower people’s voices, and protect the role of communication(s) in our democracy. A shift occurred, and into the matrix of issues already swirling through my mind, I added the political economy of media. It’s been fun and productive to watch these issues collide here on this blog.

This fall another important shift occurred. My son was born and in the lead up to that event and in the months since, everything I care about has been re-framed through the lens of parenthood. I can’t help but write about these issues with him in mind. At the same time, my time for writing about these issues has diminished dramatically. It has been easier to update my Facebook status or my Twitter account, than to develop the kind of extended essays I have traditionally posted here. And thus, I have not been posting much.

Recently I have been toying with the notion of killing off this blog and replacing it with more of a micro-blogging forum like Tumblr. In the end, the deciding factor was that I couldn’t move my past writing from WordPress to Tumblr, and I did not want my writing scattered all over the web. And so I took a fresh look at WordPress (who has just made big strides in their admin/backend usability) and am today relaunching Groundswell as something somewhat new.

You can expect to see the same kind of long-form, contemplative essays that I have written in the past here (perhaps less of them), but in addition to that you will also notice interesting web-clippings, quotes, photos, brief reflections and a variety of other detrius from my mind and my life. In the world of new social media some call this a lifestream or mindcast (think broadcast, webcast, podcast, etc…). I am hoping this new form will allow me to update more often, bring more and different threads together, and capture the pieces of my work and life even as they shift and change around me.