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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 914

Soaring political discourse gets a boost in US

Critical commentary by Philip Fernando

Political discourse got a much needed shot in the arm following raving reviews of the second inaugural address of President Obama. The speech saw an outbreak of classy oratorical devices, a rarity nowadays, putting it on par with the heavyweights Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

What a contrast to today’s sloppy, hastily-thought-out remarks, loose TEXTing abbreviations, and shallow sound bytes that make us believe that dialogue worth remembering came off only via off-the-cuff casual talk? The reviewers mentioned that all of Obama’s favourite oratorical devices were on display, and all at once in his cogent case for equality. He just lit the firework box.

We are used to politicians’ not using the rhetoric – proclaiming that they use "just the facts," pretending that words do NOT communicate largely through emotional and psychological nuances -- that can be more disingenuous and more dangerous. Obama just exposed such charlatans.

Essence of style

At a line by line, Obama's speech was gears-clicking at every level filled with a device known as syntheton- linking two or more non-synonymous words by conjunction. He used that very well--"effort and determination", "passion and dedication", "security and dignity", "hazards and misfortune", "initiative and enterprise", "fascism or communism", "muskets and militia" and so, unceasingly, on.

Obama seemed the master of the anaphora, where a phrase is repeated at the beginning of successive sentences. This speech was an anaphoric marathon: "Together, we" gave way to "We, the people", which temporarily ceded the track to "Our journey is not complete until", before "You and I, as citizens" staggered to the tape with the baton.

Obama niftily shifted timescale, fastening between the grand sweep of history and the individual moment. "It will be up to those who stand here in four years, and 40 years, and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall." This is epistrophe at its best – the rising series of terms, given extra force with repeating "years" from 4, 40 to 400 – it was saved from bombast by bringing it down to a moment in history. Words "spare Philadelphia hall" had a lovely touch.

We the people soundbite

The soundbite from the opening of the US Constitution "We, the people,” was used well. He added his own tricolon to that of the Declaration of Independence when he declared it "our generation's task to make these words, these rights, these values – of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – real". He imitated Statue of Liberty's "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" when he invoked "the poor, the sick, the marginalised".

Martin Luther King

On Martin Luther King’s fiftieth death anniversary Obama alluded to hearing "a King proclaim that the country's individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth" is all but a quotation – near-blasphemous wordplay and all – from some of Obama's own 2008 speeches ("We heard a King's call to let justice roll down like water"; "a King who took us to the mountaintop"). A piece by Cornel West, a distinguished professor of African-American studies and reportedly a critical friend, felt that Obama is milking it a bit, watch out!

Most analysts pointed out that Obama’s chanting alliterative line about "Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall […] all those men and women, sung and unsung" (also, be it noted, instances of tricolon, polysyndeton—i.e. several conjunctions in close succession and antithesis) is another near-on self-quotation.

Obama effectively used place names that alliterate (said one critic once Obama managed to get "Boston" and "Beijing", "Arctic" and "Atlantic" and "Kansas" and "Kenya" into a single sentence).

Obama avoided the charge of windiness of his oratorical style by being slick, in places moving, and politically flinty. Obama’s first inaugural was downbeat to a purpose. He had to downplay expectations while looking somewhat triumphal.

Some felt that Obama was grim and a little frowny at the start. He crossed the line from the poetic into the merely clichéd: a people variously "seared" and "tempered"; "snow-capped peaks"; "that precious light of freedom"

In is generally agreed that US had produced three proven orators among the presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

Republican Governor Bobby Jindal hinted few days later about the state of public discourse saying “It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I'm here to say we've had enough of that."

- Asian Tribune -

Soaring political discourse gets a boost in US
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