Sunday, January 27, 2013

President Obama's Inaugural Address, a New Rhetorical Strategy.

A presidential inaugural address is a ritual of transition linking past, present and future as well as a reflection on the people, the citizenry and national identity. That's at least according to Karlyn Campbell, and Kathleen Jamieson in their masterpiece on presidential speeches,.

Indeed, an inaugural speech always makes the link between the MYTHS OF ORIGIN (sacred texts like the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers, etc..) and present issues, in a light that will make the president's political agenda seem rooted in national mythology.

President Obama's second inaugural address is no exception but what makes each speech unique is the strategy used to make this link between ORIGIN and NOW credible and successful.


Very tellingly, Present Obama's speech starts with the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, and not with the words of the Constitution.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Declaration of Independence is the founding text par excellence, particularly relevant when it comes to civil rights, equality and freedom if compared to the Constitution, which, after all, asserted that slaves would count for three-fifths of a person and denied women the right to vote.
As Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for president Clinton, noticed  "The greatest progressive arguments throughout the country’s history have been rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence. This speech was really rooted in that tradition" (WP blog)
From this point, the rest of the speech is about making a convincing link between today's issues and the Declaration of Independence. As James Fallows - also a former presidential speechwriter - observed, the following sentence is the summary of the whole:
Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time
Here we also have one of the key metaphors of the speech, quite often used in American presidential discourse, and particularly in Obama's addresses (see my post here): the journey metaphor.


One of the reasons the journey metaphor is a very common metaphor in American politics is that it is a concept at the heart of the mythical American historical experience: the voyage across the Atlantic, "the errand into the wilderness" of the Puritan discourse, or the historical frontier motif of settlers who traveled westward, and Obama makes this very clear:
It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began
Very conveniently for an inaugural speech, this metaphor also encapsulates two paradoxical notions: change (the realities of our time) and continuity (the meaning of those words). It is also an ongoing process and thus allows for the imperfections of reality for the time being.
For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  
Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.
This idea of process is also rendered by another metaphor: the nation as a building.
America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
Because it is also an ongoing process, it makes the discrepancy between the professed American ideals (those words) and reality seem more bearable and acceptable. What could be seen - from a cynical perspective - as hypocrisy is turned into something positive, simply yet to finish.

The journey metaphor also gives sense to the need for individual differences, if not division, as long as we keep moving from the same point of origins towards the same ideals:
.... that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still..... It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. 

A journey also implies movement - something in line with the American view that action is good and passivity is bad. This is also rooted in the Puritan discourse that exhorted people to action to assure their redemption, and America has seen itself as a "can-do" nation ever since. (Something one could see in the "Yes, I can" of Obama's first presidential campaign).
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial. 
But, unlike simple movement, a journey implies a destination and so it is purposeful and directional. Because the point of origin and the goal is the same, the journey is essentially collective: 
preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

Even if the journey is incomplete and somewhat uncertain, the president remind the American people that they can find comfort in their being on a mission: 
answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom
... and being a chosen people, akin to the Jews in the Old Testament: 
Freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.
Eventually, it is the American character that justifies confidence in the future: 
we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinventionwe are made for this moment, and we will seize it -- so long as we seize it together.
These are the tenets of American Exceptionalism - something that every modern U.S. president has expressed, by they Republican or Democrat. 


Alongside the notions of 'MISSION' and 'CHOSEN PEOPLE', comes a third christian concept - that of 'SACRIFICE'. 
By using the image of "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword," president Obama refers directly to Lincoln's second Inaugural address, but instead of saying, as Lincoln did, that the civil War was God's punishment for the sin of slavery and calling for reconciliation, Obama uses this rhetoric to stress national renewal: 
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Violence here is seen in a positive light, as an opportunity to start anew and move forward and it links modern nation formation to Christian martyrology. This idea is also made obvious in Obama's insistence that God's precious gift, (freedom in the president's own words) requires sacrifice:
Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm
This too enables the president to bind together the idea of change and permanence. The lesson of the civil war was the renewal of the nation, so change is good, and change implies new action. It is part of the national mythology. 
As a result, the fights for civil liberty - Selma , Seneca Falls  and Stonewall -  are not liberal events but they are part of the American tradition. 
(NOTE: the reference to Stonewall has been given much attention by the media as the first reference to gay right history in a presidential inaugural speech. Jon Favreau, one of the main architect of the speech  said "The line about Stonewall and Selma and Seneca Falls was actually in the commencement speech he gave at Barnard [in 2012]. And so we brought it back for this because it hadn't gotten much attention at all." source Huffington Post. If nothing else, it shows that inaugural speeches are still relevant today when a president wants to get his message across). 

If blood and sacrifice may be needed, the need for change also means new policies:
enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.
We are here very far from Bush's War on Terror which implies the very opposite. 

Finally, as in any powerful speech, Obama's second Inaugural Address includes all the members of the nation in the ritual. By repeating "We, the people...", he is almost chanting, like a mantra, the words of the Constitution, thus sacralizing the people at the heart of American national experience, while at the same time legitimating his political agenda. 

The inclusion of the people goes even further by comparing the president's oath to every citizen's oath - that of a soldier, or an immigrant or every American's pledge to the flag, thus empowering the citizen as much as reming them of their obligation. In other words, the "WE, the people"... becomes the "You and I, as citizens" through the same oath to the nation, thus reinforcing the sense of national unity. 


President Obama's second Inaugural Address has cast his political agenda (climate change, equal rights for women and gays, immigration and voting reforms, market regulation) as part of the great American tradition rooted in the national mythology based on individual rights and collective action. 
In this respect on could say that Obama has used a strategy similar to that of Reagan in his first Inaugural Address. Contrary to his first Inaugural speech, president Obama did not offer bipartisanship. This time he laid out his agenda head on and did not hesitate to make direct response to the Republican political philosophy (by saying for instance, "The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.").   

As E.J. Dionne noted in his Washington Post Op-Ed:
Reagan used his first inaugural to make an unabashed case for conservatism. Conservatives who loved that Reagan speech are now criticizing Obama for emulating their hero and his bold defense of first principles.
Clearly, both Obama and Reagan's speeches are combative in tone and unapologetic, but more importantly, they use traditional American myths to make their polical agenda relevant. In this respect though, I would rather compare Obama's strategy to that of FDR who saw privileges and prejudice as threats to the American freedom, thus requiring collective action: 
Obama took the advice most notably offered in a much-discussed 2007 essay by Bill Galston for the Washington Monthly entitled “Taking Liberty,” urging progressives to reclaim the rhetoric and substance of their own championship of freedom as integral to the case for collective action through government. (Washington Monthly)
But of course, only history can tell.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance Armstrong's French Bashing.

While Lance Armstrong's "confession" is pathetic, his lie would have not lasted so long, had the sports news media not been so jingoistic, especially after EPO was find in samples of his urine by France’s national anti-doping agency (AFLD) in 2005.

On August 23, 2005, L'Équipe, a major French daily sports newspaper, reported on its front page under the headline "le mensonge Armstrong" ("The Armstrong Lie") that 6 urine samples taken from the cyclist during the prologue and five stages of the 1999 Tour de France, frozen and stored since at "Laboratoire national de dépistage du dopage de Châtenay-Malabry" (LNDD), had tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO) in recent retesting conducted as part of a research project into EPO testing methods.
Armstrong immediately replied on his website, saying, "Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues and tomorrow's article is nothing short of tabloid journalism.  (Wikepedia
Lance Armstrong's confession last week was particularly pathetic not because of the lie, but because of how he lied - by vehemently attacking and bullying those who had suspicion: the news media, France, or anyone who dared to speak out.
Here's an example (that I mentioned in a previous blog), when Armstrong used French-bashing for self-defense some 7 years ago:
Our defense when we look at this thing and we say -- and I guess I try to ask people to sit in my seat and say, "OK, you know, a guy in a French -- in a Parisian laboratory opens up your sample, you know, Jean-Francois so and so, and he tests it. Nobody's there to observe. No protocol was followed. And then you get a phone call from a newspaper that says we found you to be positive six times for EPO." CNN Larry King, 2005 Transcript. . 
Americans and the media in particular were in denial. They portrayed him not only as innocent but also as a victim of some sort of French anti-American conspiracy (particularly CNN, Foxnews)
As I wrote in 2005, this is because Armstrong and Landis's stories of courage and come back (cancer, hip problem) is exactly the sort of stories people want to believe in. It reaches mythical proportion and it is very hard indeed to put someone down from their pedestal once they become heroic figure. It is also hard for most people to think that "good" guys can do bad things. This is especially true in a country so thirsty for heroes that lead to blind faith.

This is something that we should all reflect on. Armstrong's lie was made possible by those who chose to believe in him despite the mounting evidence of his guilt. Innocent until proven guilt is ont thing, losing one's critical mind is another.

Django Unchained and the Victim Empowerment.

As often with Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained is a revenge/rescue tale with a mix of violent action, humor and multiple low budget cinematic references from the 70s (in this case the "spaghetti western").

But unlike classic revenge tales, where the victim (usually a woman, or a child) is avenged by a hero (a strong white male type), here, Django is not only black, he is also both hero and victim, and one of the kicks of this story is that it is ultimately about the empowerment of the victim.


Django is first introduced to us as one of the insignificant and certainly weak chain gang slaves, wearing a blanket and limping as they are escorted through Texas to their new owners. When he is freed, there is this great slow motion shot at his uncovering his blanket, as it he took away the burden of slavery, showing his back with both muscle (hero) and the scars of the whip (the "chokecherry tree" in Toni Morrison's Beloved). This is the transition from victim to potential hero and the audience is made aware of it in this scene.

While it is now established for the audience that Django is a heroic figure, for him to become a credible hero requires process and a rite of passage. The different stages he goes through are shown by the clothes he wears - from looking like a slave, to looking like a child, and by his social status - from being a slave to playing a free servant. Not quite the heroic type just yet. Very tellingly, Django chooses to wear a (funny) 18th century child-like costume (inspired by Gainsborough's Blue Boy), which may reflect on his immaturity.
The actual rite of passage for Django is not just the killing of the men who tortured and branded him and his wife, but also their whipping in front of the slaves - a very powerful scene where the victim becomes the torturer.
Django's 'heroic' character development continues with the training by the man who freed him and has become a sort of surrogate father -  dentist, Dr. King Schultz. He learns how to shoot and of course, he's a natural.
Finally, his appearance changes completely: he becomes the typical cool heroic cowboy and believably so. He is now ready to 'go and save the girl' - this is when the rescue narrative begins.

What is fascinating about Tarantino's stories is how his stories are about empowered victims: a pregnant woman left for dead (Kill Bill), three women getting their revenge on a psychopathic killer (Death Proof),  Jews killing Hitler (Inglorious Basterds). There is something definitely exciting for an audience to see a victim taking vengence, instead of having someone else do it for them. There is the feeling that victimization does not have to be a definite status or type.
In any case, Django, just Inglorious Basterds, is on the side of the oppressed.

Django Unchained has a number of types: the smart progressive father figure, the evil slave owner, the evil Uncle Tom, the heartless goal-oriented hero on a mission to save the helpless woman held who needs rescue, and each may represent different facets of the whites and blacks in ante-bellum America.
Sure, Broomhilda isn’t much more than a damsel in distress, but it comes with the genre, (the film is already 2hr45'long).
The two villains in the movie are absolutely remarkable. The character of Stephen, played by Samuel L Jackson is particularly chilling. He's probably "the most reprehensible negro in cinema history" (Jackson here). He almost seems to be the brain behind the master of the plantation. It is a fascinating idea, however unrealistic. It also reflects the status that some enslaved garnered from their proximity to the master.

The controversy over the use of the word 'nigger' seems to me completely out of touch: it is a function of the genre. Should the slave owners use the word African-american instead? This is like saying a film about WWII should not have nazi characters use anti-semitic words. There's a point when political correctness becomes absurd (see this argument developed here).
Of course, from a European perspective, the scope of offensiveness of the slur is hard to comprehend. (It is difficult for instance to understand how, in the land that worships freedom of expression, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned from a number of school because of its use of the word 'nigger'. See more here.)
As for Spike Lee who said it was "disrespectful to his ancestors" (here or here), without even seeing the movie - what he means is that no fiction about slavery should ever be made, let alone by a white man. (hence his criticism of Tarantino after Jackie Brown came out). But as he put it himself, Spike Lee does not represent the black community (see here)

Yet, this movie is precisely great for striking a fine balance between comedy and tragedy. Never in the movie, does Tarantino trivialize the pain and suffering of slavery. Whether the story is historically accurate is besides the point - it is a fiction.