Over the past couple of days, some commenters have complained of superficiality and excessive empiricism in my objections to the spreading media meme of president Obama's allegedly culpable use of first-person pronouns ("Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009; "Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme", 6/8/2009; "Inaugural pronouns", 6/8/2009).
So this morning, in evaluating Stanley Fish's notion that president Obama's inaugural address used the "royal we", I'll avoid any numbers greater than one. Instead, I'll use traditional humanistic methods to argue that Fish is full of it.
Prof. Fish laid out his essay's theme in its second paragraph:
I was reminded of the last scene of “Godfather I,” when Michael Corleone, who begins the film as a young idealistic patriot, ends it by striking the pose of a Roman emperor as subordinates kiss his ring. Obama is still idealistic and a patriot, but he is now also an emperor and his speech shows it. “Language,” Ben Jonson says in Discoveries, “shows a man; speak that I may see thee.”
Fish argues that before the election, Obama's speeches seemed to display a modest and diffident character, and that
This restraint and modesty also mark the victory speech delivered in Grant Park, Chicago […] When he promises, the promise is made not to the people, but on their behalf: “I promise you, we as a people will get there.” It is a short sentence, but by the end of it the self assertion of the “I” has been entirely dissipated. Repeatedly, agency and power are transferred to the audience. Change “cannot happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.” And, of course, the repeated refrain, “Yes we can.”
But after the election, everything allegedly changes:
Everything alters in the inaugural address (Jan. 20, 2009). The promises are now made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled. “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. “But know America” — or, in other words, “hear me” — “…they will be met.” And later, when he says, “We will build the roads and bridges… We will restore science to its rightful place… We will harness the sun and winds,” the “we” is now the royal we: just you watch, “All this we will do.”
Now to start with, Prof. Fish must know very well that these are not literally instances of the "royal we", which the OED defines as we "Used by a single person to denote himself or herself", e,g,:
1854 THACKERAY Rose & Ring xv, [The herald]..began to read:—‘O Yes!..know all men by these presents, that we, Giglio, King of Paflagonia’ [etc.].
According to Katie Wales, Personal pronouns in present-day English (p. 64), this usage is "virtually obsolete" in the actual practice of the British monarchy, but "very much alive in the 'royalese' of satirical journalism, parody and caricature, a crude symbol of royalty, like the orb and sceptre".
Since it's preposterous to think that president Obama was promising to build roads and bridges with his own two hands, it can only be as a "crude symbol of royalty" that Fish uses the term, reinforcing the whole Michael-Corleone-as-Roman-emperor image. In other words, Fish's use of this phrase is referentially meaningless but associatively powerful. By this linguistic choice, Fish shows us something about himself: he has a flair for evocative rhetoric, and is not especially scrupulous about the literal truth of what he says. This may be because he believes that there is no such thing literal meaning, but of course it's not necessary to have a theory in order to use words for their associations rather than their substance.
So let's dismiss the "royal we" terminology as a mere rhetorical flourish, and take up the meat of Fish's analysis, the part about "promises … made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled. … [J]ust you watch, 'All this we will do.'"
The interesting thing to me about this interpretation is that it's exactly the opposite of the way that I understood the same speech. And I don't say this just because Prof. Fish evokes dissent (which of course he means to do, and works hard to do, and generally succeeds in doing, at least in me). I took notes while listening a live broadcast of the inaugural, because I had agreed to discuss the speech on PRI's The World, and I posted my notes on this weblog with a bit of commentary ("A new era of responsibility", 1/20/2009).
Here's what I wrote:
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."
That is, I heard the speech, from beginning to end, as urging all citizens to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America". This is not the "royal we", nor the "doctor we", nor the "editorial we", nor the "corporate we", nor even any other sort of exclusive we. It's the old-fashioned inclusive we of "We the people".
The speech starts with that exact phrase in its second paragraph, after the ritual nod to the previous president:
Forty-four Americans have now taken the Presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. 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.
And its ending evokes exactly the same spirit:
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. This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed; why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The Capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our Revolution was most in doubt, the Father of our Nation ordered these words be read to the people:
"Let it be told to the future world . . . that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive . . . that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."
America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end; that we did not turn back, nor did we falter. And with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
In between, I can't find a single phrase that in any way justifies Fish's description of "promises … made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled". Can you?
Prof. Fish's theory and practice to the contrary, I persist in believing that language not only "shows a man", it also means something. Many aspects of meaning are subtle, context-dependent and contestable, but others are plain and simple, and can't be turned into their opposite by hermeneutic sleight of hand.
In this case, all of Fish's considerable rhetorical skill can't turn "We the people" into "Just you watch". Except, of course, for those who are unwise enough to take his word for it.