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September 5, 2008

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America in Speeches

I’ve gone back and read through eight of the major speeches from the past two weeks (Joe Biden | Bill Clinton | Hillary Clinton | Barack Obama | Rudy Giuliani | Mitt Romney | Sarah Palin | John McCain). Among the two sets of familiar and predictable elephant-and-donkey-tinged themes expressed, all the speakers paint one surprisingly consistent portrait of America. I find that portrait significant and a bit sad for how much of America it excludes. This is nothing new, of course, but it stands out for me after two straight weeks of this stuff.

You are eligible for positive mention in a convention speech if you are a member of the middle class. Fortunately, “middle class” is a vague enough term that it might characterize as much as 73 percent of the American population. Still, with John Edwards in exile, it’s striking how infrequently the poor are mentioned, given how much poverty is a part of America. Convention-watchers may also be surprised to discover that several Americans are quite rich.

You may also merit positive mention if you labor in one of the following professions: steel working, the clergy, farming, loading dock operation, military service, politics, small business entrepreneurship or pre-secondary education. Employees of the service or retail industries, information technology companies, the media, higher education, science, medicine or law — to name a few examples — are unfortunately invisible.

But to my ear, the most misleading thing about this narrow portrait is that it depicts each inhabitant as a solitary force, living in a bubble, only connected as particles in a cloud of glittering generalities the speakers call “America.” In these speeches, you’re either “a man in Indiana [who] has to pack up the equipment he’s worked on for 20 years and watch it shipped off to China” (Obama) or you exhibit your Americanness by “changing things that need to be changed” (McCain).

You’re either a stock character in a lonely platitude or a faceless node in a universal multitude. There’s no in-between. Except for our capacity to experience variants on fairly basic human emotions such as hope, fear and desire, in these speeches, there are very few connections between us.

I feel as though I’ve seen something of America. I’ve driven all across the country several times during my time living in central Florida, Boston, Fresno, Minneapolis and now Columbia. I’m a black, chai-drinking, arugula-eating, public-radio-supporting urbanite from the Ivy League with homosexual tendencies. Yet I spent my youth attending Bible class every single school day for 12 years. I drive an American car made by one of those factory workers in Michigan. My brother served in the Navy during the Gulf War. One of my best friends grew up in Karachi.

And it’s obviously not just me. Everywhere I go, the lives of most of the folks I meet transgress any sort of simple classifications. My boyfriend grew up in Plainview, MN, a town one-third as large as Wasilla, AK. The other day, here in the middle of Missouri, my landlady brought me cloves of garlic freshly grown on the farm she keeps with her life partner Katie. My San Francisco startuppy-media-elite co-blogger grew up in a minor Michigan city named Troy, recent home to no less “American” an icon than K-Mart.

We are connected by all manner of unlikely links. It seems to me that Barack Obama’s biography — a fusion of Kansas, Hawaii, Chicago, and Kenya, with subtle strains of Cambridge, Mass. — just isn’t as mindbogglingly divergent from a contemporary American story as these past two weeks would suggest. These speeches — especially those of the Democrats — would be much more honest and coherent if they reflected that reality and reinforced those links, rather than imposing trite rhetorical frames.

Posted September 5, 2008 at 7:30 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Snarkpolitik


I agree that the "man/woman/occupation from swing state" construction is lame. I even have my doubts about the Bidenesque fantasy of ordinary Americans on the train to Wilmington.

But on the same day that Obama gave his speech, there were also several of the people who would match those anecdotes, giving speeches themselves, telling their own stories. And on the day before, I saw an old white man from Kansas, a veteran of World War II who helped liberate Buchenwald, stand up with his great-nephew's wife, a lawyer and mom from Chicago, who's married to that Kenyan-Kansan-Chicagoan-Hawaiian-Cambridgean-and-don't-forget-Indonesian-New Yorker (he did his BA at Columbia).

The connections are there, and Obama's the person who's talked about them and exemplified them, the churchgoers in the blue states, the gay men and women in the red states. I just don't see how you can lump Obama's call to recognize our connections -- that we are our brothers' and sisters' keeper, that we cannot march alone -- in with the defiant policing of identity, the active denigration of elites (including Matt and Robin, especially Media elites, especially in San Francisco), the celebration that X is "one of us" in the GOP.

By the way, I don't think any of the Dems shouted out professors -- who are hardly a demographic much up for grabs -- but there were favorable mentions of Obama teaching constitutional law (especially in the video before his speech) and lots, lots, of favorable mentions of people going to college.

You're right, of course, Tim. I'm guilty of painting a simplistic portrait myself. But part of why I point my finger at the Democrats on this is that I feel like (1) these tendencies are rational from Republicans and (2) even if the Democrats intrinsically and implicitly complicate the portrait their rhetoric paints, I think they work against themselves by speaking this way in the first place.

It makes electoral sense for the Republicans to pursue a strategy that depends on dividing rural and urban voters and conquering the former. Just remember the sad, beautiful map. Given that environment, of course the GOP should describe the "essential America" as being an ethnically homogenous manufacturing town with a population of 10,000 Episcopalian veterans.

But the electoral strategy of the Democrats should depend on the opposite strategy: clearly and charmingly drawing connections between all quarters of American life. "I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper" has the benefit of being sage, rhythmic, Biblical rhetoric, but it imparts only a vague feeling of warmth and altruism.

Obama's actually very good at drawing these connections much more vividly. The race speech beautifully expressed the link between the anger felt in some black and white communities, quiet in public, explosive in private. He gave a wonderful speech about unions just this week, in which he said this, "Sometimes people ask me, 'Why do you support unions so strongly?' And I have to ask them, 'Why don't you?' Because -- it's because of the union movement that we've got a 40-hour work week, it's because of the union movement that we've got the minimum wage, it's because of the union movement that we've got benefits like health care and pensions, it's because of the union movement that we've got worker safety laws; even if you're not a member of a union, you've benefited from a union." Even knowing all these things, as a manager, this was a stirring reminder.

But the convention speeches lacked such vivid portrayals of the unexpected ties we all share, apparently in favor of a Grant Wood study in charcoal.

I always preferred 1 Corinthians 12 myself:

14 For the body is not one member, but many.
15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?
18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
19 And if they were all one member, where were the body?
20 But now are they many members, yet but one body.
21 And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
22 Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
23 and those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.
24 For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to that part which lacked:
25 that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.
26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.

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