September 5, 2008
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.