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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

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August 29th, 2008

Yes We Can

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Robert and I were trained in the discipline of rhetoric where we cut our teeth as scholars by studying the great speeches of the past, beginning in antiquity with Demosthenes and Cicero and extending through the nineteenth century with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and culminating in the last century with the orators like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  Some insist that the venerable art of oratory has died in the late modern era, but it was alive and well tonight in the Mile High City where over 80,000 people congregated in a football stadium to listen to political speeches. And what speeches they were, from first to last, including both a former vice president and Noble Prize winner and a retired nurse from Pittsboro, North Carolina. The apogee was reached by the guest of honor, whose words and tones subtly and eloquently channeled the strains of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream,” delivered 45 years ago to the day. But for me the final speaker’s oration recalled memories of another Democratic National Convention Speech delivered 28 years ago in New York City that ended with these words, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream will never die.”

Yes We Can!

Photo Credit: Stephen Crowley/New York Times

10 Responses to ' Yes We Can '

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  1. Stan B. said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 8:30 am

    Yes, it certainly would be nice to have someone on that podium again who can, in fact, speak, with eloquence, vision, sincerity. The question remains, how much of that rhetoric will be consummated.

  2. Lucaites said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Stan — I think that if one masters eloquence (which requires more than just the capacity to turn a good phrase), and does so with compelling vision and authentic sincerity that will take us a long way to a productive democratic public culture whatever the specific policy outcomes.

  3. Franz Biberkopf said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 10:44 am

    You left out Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies.

    Obama uber alles.

  4. Stan B. said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    John– That’s a good argument for the HOPE he’s famous for… But when that same hopeful, rhetorical eloquence gets put to the test, and takes a profound back seat to political expediency (as most recently witnessed in his complete capitulation in the FISA “compromise” bill), it can cause one to go back and curse the darkness with whatever vehemence remaining…

  5. Lucaites said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Franz — Your analogy to Hitler is absurd at best, and both insulting and inflammatory at its most. I have studied those rallies, as well as the attendant speeches, fairly closely and don’t recall any appeal to diversity or anything even approximating our concept of “freedom” in Hitler’s arguments for “eine reich, eine volk, eine fuehrer.” Oh yeah, and when Chancellor Hitler managed to get the “Enabling Act” enacted he was quite explicitly and fundamentally undermining anything approaching civil liberties in the name of the German equivalent of national security. Doesn’t sound like anything even close to what I heard Senator Obama — or anyone on the podium — utter last night.

    Stan — two things: First, I think that good oratory can help to create a productive democratic public culture. It can’t do it by itself, to be sure. But given what we have lived through in recent years, and in particular the arrogance and fundamental insincerity of it all, I have to say that this is a major first step whatever the specific policy outcomes might be. Second, political success demands expedience and playing to the middle more or less. So that means probably that no one gets everything of what they would want, but it usually results in most people getting something of what they desire. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if your interest is in promoting an open and diverse society. But at its root, I guess I’d want to ask you if you think that however much an Obama administration might respond to the demands of expediency can you imagine it being in ANYWAY better with the alternative?

  6. Franz Biberkopf said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    I suggest you expand your study of rhetoric to include the visual. From NFL football to Obama’s speech, they embrace fascist visual approach that echoes the work Leni Riefenstahl.

    For chrissakes, the guy’s running for CEO of the American Empire. Dr. King’s organizing and leadership challenged that empire, and anyone who parallels his efforts with the political opportunist, Obama (or any other business party apparatchik) is a fool or worse.

    Finally please qualify how “good oratory can help to create a productive democratic public culture”. As far as I’ve seen, social justice results from pressure from the bottom up. The New Deal, the Great Society, and any other progressive social change resulted from popular pressure, not courageous leadership from the oligarchy. Those government programs resulted from fear at the top and until our leaders fear us its going to be a rough ride.

    Enough with the freakin’ hero worship already.

  7. Lucaites said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Franz — Not all political spectacle is inherently fascistic. And while I too worry about and am critical of America’s imperialistic behaviors and pretensions I don’t think all who aspire to lead are either imperialists or fascists. If you think Obama is either you would need to give me more to go on than vague attribution — though your reference to “business party appartchik” makes me think you simply oppose the fundamental political system we have which might make it hard for us to have a productive conversation. I maybe wrong about that and hope I am.

    As to the value of good oratory and where progressive social change comes from, you will note that in the list of great orators I called attention to I mentioned Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X … I think each was responsible for animating pressure from below and while oratory was not the only thing that did this it was an important part of the process. That said, I’m not entirely sure you have your history of the New Deal (at least) or the Great Society entirely correct. And in any case, whatever it was that motivated folks like FDR and LBJ, it also required their ability to sell such programs from the speaker’s pulpit. I’m not talking about hero worship here.

  8. Franz Biberkopf said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    I appreciate your willingness to discuss this but you didn’t answer my question – how does “good oratory can help to create a productive democratic public culture”? It seems to me good public policy is what promotes democratic culture. And the distant “free speech zones” and well-documented police repression in Denver demonstrates that the Democrats are more interested in a well-orchestrated event than democracy so what gives.

    And how did last night’s display distinguish itself from the political spectacle which has become all too familiar?

    Thanks -

  9. Lucaites said,

    on August 29th, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    There are two different questions here, maybe three. Good oratory, to be good I believe, has to take account of the needs and interests of its audience (without at the same time pandering). And to the extent that it does it is appealing to and trying to invent ways of negotiating difference. That is fundamental to a productive democratic public culture. But more, how else do we negotiate contingent problems in a democratic public culture — short of the use of force — but via lines of communication, debate, etc., all of which oratory is a central part of. The retort here might be that even democratic cultures use force, and you would be correct. BUT it is always deemed as a last resort, it is always subject to public scrutiny and justification, and it is seem as something of a failure (one of my favorite fictional characters is Isaac Asimov’s Salvo Hardin whose motto was “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”). Finally, good oratory fosters a culture of public communication … this, of course, is essential to creating the conditions of possibility for dissent, and of course without dissent you cannot have a productive democratic public culture. So, in a multitude of ways oratory — public rhetoric in general — is essential to strong, robust democratic public culture.

    On the question of “free speech” zones. I too would prefer that we don’t have them. But it is not at all clear that you can pin that on the Democratic Party. And there was plenty of room for lots of free speech–much of it in a register of dissent, though perhaps not driven by so-called extremist ideologies — on the floors of the convention. But I don’t think that that necessarily renders the Democratic Party not progressive unless there is some sort of ideal standard for determining the threshold. And I don’t know what that would be.

    Now you make the claim that it is good public policy which promotes democratic culture. I think there is a point to be made there, but two things. First, it is not clear that this is always the case in anything but the most tautological sense. The question is, who decides on what good public policy is? And how do they decide? I’d say a democratic culture requires that it be done in the crucible of debate, discussion, etc. all of which is the home of rhetoric and oratory. Second, how does this good public policy get enacted, legitimated, and otherwise accepted and used? Again, it requires effective communicators of one sort or another.

    As to the spectacle in Denver: It seems to me that you share some burden in the discussion here other than to continue to pose questions. Indeed, you made the charge that this event was fascistic because it reproduced what you’ve seen in movies like “Triumph of the Will.” And more, you’ve accused Obama of being fascistic and hitler like. But you’ve given no reasons or evidence to believe that. So I’d like to see what makes this analogy so strong for you?

    The argument was made in the 1930s by the likes of Walter Benjamin that fascism had aestheticized politics and that was bad. And it has been taken as something of a mantra by many on the left since then. To be sure the argument had it place. But it is not at all clear–at least anymore– that the aestheticization of politics is a necessarily bad thing, let alone inherently fascistic. So where’s the beef? Yes, you had lots of people in one place. And yes you had one speaker working his magic. But that seems awfully little to rest such an inflammatory claim upon. If nothing else Obama’s presence pushes hard against America’s prior (and perhaps recalcitrant) racist tendencies, w/80,000 folks wildly endorsing it. As I recall, Hitler was arguing for the pure Aryan race. No comparison there. The rallies in Nuremberg featured the Youth Corp and were militaristic to the hilt. Yes, some generals and admirals came to speak out against the Bush Administration, but that’s hardly the same thing and if anything called the lie against American imperialistic efforts, at least implicitly. And as I indicated before, Hitler was arguing for “eine reich, eine volk, eine Fuhrer,” which seems a far cry from the appeal to diversity and civil liberties being endorsed here.

    So in the end I don’t see very much to rest your claim on. beef? Was this a spectacle. Sure. Is it inherently bad for promoting democratic public culture? I just don’t see it. Will it turn out to have been good … we will have to wait and see on the particulars, of course, but on par I really believe we are better off for having it than not having it.

  10. caraf said,

    on August 31st, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    38 million Americans watched a 47 minute political speech live on television. That gives me faith in both spectacle and political culture.

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