A new era of responsibility?

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The first Language Log post on today's inaugural might have been Bill Poser's numerical gotcha, and the second one might have been Ben Zimmer's dissection of the Roberts/Obama oath flub, but the first Language Log commentary, at least in some sense of that phrase, was my interview with PRI's The World. The interview began shortly after 1:00, as soon after the speech as I could hike the 10 blocks or so to the WXPN studios and meet up with the producer who kindly guided me to a microphone.

It should be aired sometime later today, in some form — "we'll rip it to shreds in editing", said the host in a friendly tone. The interview gave me renewed respect for the talking heads who need to think of something coherent and interesting to say about events as they unfold, so in this case I'll be happy to ripped to shreds, as long as they reassemble me in a not-too-stupid-sounding way.

Meanwhile, here are the notes that I took with me to the interview, fleshed out a bit in the interests of coherence.

My first impression: this was very much the speech of someone who was once a community organizer. For example:

"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents."
[...]
"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."
[...]
"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.  Their memories are short.  For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."
[...]
"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."
[...]
"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

"This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

If President Obama makes this work, then phrases like "a new era of responsibility" and "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America" may be remembered in the way that President Kennedy's "Ask not" trope has been. But we should remember that the theme of the 2001 inaugural — bipartisan civility, "a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character" — has been forgotten, but not because there was anything wrong with the rhetoric.

From the point of view of international relations, the key theme of President Obama's speech seems to me to have been the repudiation of perceived mistakes of the previous administration, framed as restoration of traditional American values, and tempered by some stern glances in the direction of hostile nations and groups:

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.  Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.  Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
[...]
"Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions."
[...]
"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

I thought that the following paragraph was ambiguous in an interesting way:

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.  To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.  To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Literally, this addresses three groups with whom the U.S. can be seen as having a troubled relationship: the Muslim world; leaders who "seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West"; and corrupt, repressive and undemocratic leaders. And the words addressed to "the Muslim world" are quite positive: "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect". But in the context of that paragraph, I suspect that most Americans will identify those who "seek to sow conflict", and who are enjoined to earn respect by building rather than destroying, as the leaders of Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, Hamas and so on, not (say) Venezuela or Cuba or North Korea. And likewise, the clenched fists of the third sentence are more likely to be identified with Ahmadinejad or Assad  than with Putin or Hu Jintao.

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21 Comments »

  1. Ken Brown said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    Some of my more militantly Democrat friends immediately thought of Bush and Cheney and Rove and Rumsfeld when they heard " those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent".

  2. Paul Wilkins said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    Mark, I hope that many folks are like me in the respect that I separated the categories in my mind as Obama spoke, even though the categories are not mutually exclusive. I also thought about it in a historical perspective, and while it is impossible to revisit the dictators of the past, he can make a change in the way we deal with the Friendly Dictators in the future. The names that came to mind for me were Putin, N Korea, Chavez, Castro and Iran.

    There was no instance where it occurred to me that the entire paragraph was aimed at the Muslin world. However, it's possible in the post-Bush world to assume that there are folks who cannot see anyone but Muslims as the enemy.

  3. J. Taliaferro said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    "to those who cling to power…" I actually thought of Robert Mugabe and others like him. He blames his ills on the West too…

  4. Ken Brown said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    Serious point about word choice. This looks as if the wording has been picked over for months by writers eager to tick all the boxes. Its hard to read between the lines because there is hardly any space between the lines because all the boxes are ticked. Any mention of fascism must be accompanied by a mention of Communism. Words are chosen to "cover all bases". There is something in it for everybody. Something in almost every sentence for everybody. You can almost imagine a Word Choice Sub-Committee of the speechwriting team, poring over the text to make sure there is something in it for a retired truck driver in Colorado.

    That's perhaps one reason the style seems both old-fashioned and rather bloated to many British ears. Liturgical rather than Biblical, it reminiscent of Prayer-Book language, 16th century liturgy that ran to strings of near-synonyms, where more recent writing tends to use one word if one will do.

    For example, early on in the speech: "For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and ploughed the hard earth" includes eastern industrial workers and western pioneers, slaves and farmers.

    The next line is: "For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn." (spelling from the BBC website – I thought it was "Khe Sanh"?)

    And I immediately thought – why those battles? Why not, for example, Saratoga or Bunker Hill? Bull Run or Shiloh? Iwo Jima or the Ardennes? Hue or some other post-1945 war entirely?

    I doubt if it was an accident. I bet they very carefully chose them. They might have had a whole battle-listing meeting – maybe even a battle-listing sub-committee of the word-choosing sub-committee.

    I can guess but I'm not sure how accurate my guesses are.

    Concord and Gettysburg are there for the poetic, or at any rate literary reference. "That little bridge at Concord" and of course the Gettysburg Address. (alluded to moire than once in the speech I think)

    Normandy was part of an obvious allied effort – it was a deliberate choice of a military adventure that was the exact opposite of America standing alone.

    When I heard "Khe Sanh" my first thought was that they mentioned a Vietnam battle as a deliberate act of inclusion for Vietnam veterans, dissociating themselves from anti-war movements of the time. But why that battle in particular. It was a siege, a long siege, and desperately fought, but not of vast strategic importance (and the Americans were so superior in arms that at the time there was some surprise that the North Vietnamese had even tried the attack). The Americans won of course, though not decisively – it was neither the time nor the place for a decisive victory by either side. It has nothing like the political/historical significance of the Normandy landings or Gettysburg.

    It was technically an American victory, but the poetry of it points the other way. Millions of people have probably only ever heard the name because of the Australian rock band Cold Chisel, whose song "Khe Sanh" is about returned veteran who cannot readjust to life back home. Tens of millions will have heard it mentioned in Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" making the same point.

    So maybe that battled is named in the speech rather than any other because mentioning Vietnam at all dissociates Obama from the old left-wing anti-war movement while choosing Khe Sanh for mention simultaneously reminds us of what that movement was about? Or is my British Old Labour leftiness making me too much of a conspiracy theorist?

  5. Stuart said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    The two names that leapt to my mind when I heard "cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent" were Mugabe and Putin, in that order. Since I'm not American, I can't guess at how it was parsed by its primary audience.

  6. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    Obama's speech used a repetition (a la MLK's I have a dream speech) that, I think, clearly separates "the Muslim World" from "those leaders." He repeatedly addressed a portion of his speech "To X." I don't see how anyone could hear that last "To the leaders…" and not think that he was addressing a new group of people.

    Even if people think of the leaders of Islamic states, this juxtaposition reinforces the idea that the leader of an Islamic state is NOT the same thing as the Muslim world; the government of a people is not the people.

  7. Karen said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    The speech, of course, was meant to be heard. Repetition is an excellent rhetorical device. And as for "ticking all the boxes": those whose box is habitually ignored appreciate it even if it seems unnecessary to others.

  8. HP said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    I'm most struck by "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off" [and start all over again]. Between that and "Yes we can" [Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you], I'm tempted to go back through his speeches and see how many references to mid-century show tunes and pop standards I can find.

    (Spoken in your best Obama voice: "Would Americans like to swing on stars, or would we rather be mules? A mule is an animal with long funny ears, but we Americans have high hopes. We have high, apple pie in the sky hopes. And wherever Americans go, whatever Americans do, we are going to go through it together.")

  9. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    Re "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off": Interesting to juxtapose this Kern/Fields allusion with his earlier nod to Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." Obama's cultural literacy certainly spans generations.

  10. Staslstrav said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    Yes, to pick out the lifted "Dust" phrase as the line most likely to be etched in stone does not speak much to the historical nature of this day. The line chosen for such purpose must at least pass as original, ala "fear itself".

  11. Jon Weinberg said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

    Ken Brown: I too was struck by the Khe Sanh reference (though we're getting out of LL territory here). Obama seems to be saying that those who fought at Khe Sanh, just as much as those who fought at Normandy, "carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom." The battle at Khe Sahn, in other words, was worth something; Obama is giving props to Vietnam-era veterans, but in so doing distancing himself from the antiwar position that US soldiers who died in Vietnam died, in John Kerry's words, "for a mistake." I expect that Khe Sanh in particular was chosen because it remains one of the most well-known battles of the war (and lacks the negative associations of, say, Hue or Hamburger Hill).

  12. Rick S said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

    Ken Brown: But why that battle in particular?

    Ben Zimmer: Obama's cultural literacy certainly spans generations.

    Indeed, Khe Sanh was a siege, one that older Americans recall suffering through day after day via the first ever daily live reporting from a war zone. For those of us who had loved ones and friends involved in the battle, the emotional impact of such recognition and expression of gratitude is very powerful, especially in light of the disdain many of our soldiers were subjected to after returning home. Earlier battles, reported in print days later, had less of an imipact, and fewer memories of them survive. Later battles such as Desert Storm were not covered with as much horrifying detail. If making an emotional appeal to the members of my generation was the point—as I'm sure it was—then Obama couldn't have chosen more wisely.

  13. Clayton Burns said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

    [In keeping with out comments policy, this lengthy manifesto on educational policy by Clayton Burns has been relocated.

    If you have a lot to say, especially if it isn't strictly relevant to the post or the developing discussion, please put it up on your own site and link to it, perhaps with a summary.]

  14. Harry said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    More song allusions popped up in the dignified but entertaining benediction delivered by Rev. Joseph Lowery. Unfortunately they may have been rather too subtle for some, particularly here in Britain. When Lowery spoke of "that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right", he was of course referring to the old rhyme that goes along the lines of "if you're white, you're all right, if you're brown, stick around, but if you're black, get back". It certainly must have caused some puzzlement among the British television commentators; on the BBC someone, rather missing the point, paraphrased piously that Lowery looked forward to a time when "the brown can stick around", as that were some splendid benchmark of racial equality. Let's hope they at least understood the banner in the crowd that read "WE HAVE OVERCOME" — amusing but thought-provoking, I thought.

  15. John Cowan said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    The reference to corrupt deceivers in its context made me think primarily of the heads of state/government in the Muslim world, which notoriously are both, and are seen by their people as so.

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 1:10 am

    I don't know what to make of Obama's failure to attribute the quote near the end of his speech ("Let it be told to the future world…") to its author, Thomas Paine. Obama said only that "the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people." I would have thought that, being a writer himself, Obama would be sensitive to the need for attribution.

    My guess is that the quote (and its introduction) was put there by a speechwriter. It is, after all, the job of speechwriters to write words that will be attributed to their bosses, and so Paine's authorship matters less to them than Washington's use of the words.

    But I wonder: did the President know that he was quoting Paine and not George Washington?
    Neal Conan of NPR did not; he began his Talk of the Nation program by saying that Obama had quoted Washington.

  17. a. y. mous said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:38 am

    Hmm…, as a culmination of the string of the speeches right through his campaign, this speech of Obama was a bit damp. Contrary to the comment regarding the difficulty to read between the lines, the whole speech was very careful in putting forward the notion that not too much is to be expected of him, other than plodding along. The byline of this speech seems "elliptical" (is that the correct adjectival form of ellipsis?) Sort of "Yes. We can. But…"

  18. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 6:54 am

    I note that William Safire, without a second thought, interpreted the third sentence of the "To the Muslim world" paragraph as addressed to "Muslim extremists" rather than to (say) Mugabe or Putin:

    Obama’s “know that you are on the wrong side of history” message to Muslim extremists concluded with “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”; that is quotable if it is original, but I think I’ve seen it before.

  19. Nicholas Waller said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    @ Harry – When Lowery was "referring to the old rhyme", I recognised it immediately as a reference to the song Black, Brown White by Big Bill Broonzy, and the people who run broonzy.com thought so too.

    I'm British and not an expert in blues or even a fan, but I'd heard of it. The version I have was covered by a British singer, Roy MacLeod, on a folk sampler CD. Lowery appears to have added the yellow and red references.

    According to this site the song, written in 1947, was probably better known in Europe at one time: "After every American record company Broonzy approached refused to record "Black, Brown, and White," Broonzy recorded it several times in Europe. Although it led to his estrangement from the American recording industry, and was never well known during his life, the song Broonzy called "the best, most important song I ever wrote" is now one of his best known."

    As for Obama's speech, there was quite a sense of him telling everyone there was a lot of hard work ahead, and not just by him – not quite Churchill's "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering" but it did remind me of it.

  20. Harry said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    Nicholas Waller is of course absolutely right about Big Bill Broonzy's song, though it seems likely that the chorus, or something like it, already had or at least now has a life of its own, hence my cautiously vague use of the word "rhyme". I thought it quite possible he was putting into a song lyric a jingle which was already current; certainly it seems people know different versions which they don't necessarily associate with Big Bill, if they've even heard of him. Are the "yellow — mellow" and "red man — get ahead man" bits later accretions I wonder?
    Anyway I almost begin to think, sadly, that yesterday's splendidly culturally literate and witty speeches were perhaps rather too subtle and referential for the general public, to judge by the boneheads sounding off on the web about how Lowery's speech was "racist" (sigh) because it implies (to those who don't begin to understand what he was saying) that, oh I don't know, Chinese people are too intense and need to chill out, while all Whites are evil-doers, or something. (To such people "racism" means saying something someone somewhere can elaborately (mis)construe as having some slighting implication, rather than, say, being refused service at a cafe because of the colour of your skin, or being banned from using the same lavatory or drinking-fountain as a white person, or having your house set on fire.) The American public will just have to get used to having a grown-up president with a somewhat higher reading age than that of the previous incumbent.

  21. Mark Liberman said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 5:47 am

    Another indication of how the "To the Muslim world" paragraph was read: the (Indian) web site "New Age Islam" posted the whole paragraph under the title "Islam and the West". And the site's editor, Sultan Shahin, expanded on the "blaming the west" theme in a later post.

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