Daily Archives: July 26, 2008

Obama-talk

Perhaps it’s all this reading about mumbo-jumbo, but I have never been completely won over by Barack Obama. There’s something that disturbs me about the lack of content in his rhetoric- what is he actually talking ABOUT? “Hope” and “change” could be easily interchanged with “love” or “freedom” and his speeches would still soar and the crowds would still roar.

I was transfixed by this picture of his speech at the Victory Column in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park.

There’s a screen, and another screen, and then right in the middle, under the column is a tiny little dot that is Obama himself.

An edited version of the speech was reproduced in the Age. I’m quite interested in the rhetorical speech as a genre with its techniques and cadences, and this is a brilliant example.

People of the world- look at Berlin! Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle.

Look at Berlin, where the determination of a people met the generosity of the Marshall Plan and created a German miracle…

Look at Berlin, where bullet holes in the buildings and the sombre stones and pillars near the Brandenburg Gate insist that we never forget our common humanity.

People of the world- look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.

“People of the World- look at Berlin”, repeated over and over, enough for us as listener/readers to realise that there’s a pattern at work here.

From Kiev to Cape Town, prison camps were closed, and the doors of democracy were opened.

Nice alliteration there- Kiev, Cape Town….but I’m not quite sure of the causal relationship though. And a bit more alliteration- “the doors of democracy”. Democracy has doors?

The terrorists of September 11 2001 plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil.

Hamburg…hmm how inconvenient. But at least we’ve got the K-places, Kandahar and Karachi where all this nasty stuff really comes from. It’s all really their fault.

As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the icecaps…bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.

Yep, that alliteration works a treat….

This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it. This is the moment when we must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan and the traffickers who sell drugs on your streets. This is the moment when we must build on the wealth that open markets have created, and share its benefits more equitably. This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East. This is the moment when we must come together to save the planet…..

This is the moment he should stop saying “this is the moment”.

People of Berlin- and people of the world- the scale of our challenge is great. Let us answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.

And here we back at the beginning with the people of the world looking at Berlin again. A carefully crafted, absolutely honed rhetorical performance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But just remember, folks, it’s still a performance.

Francis Wheen HOW MUMBO JUMBO CONQUERED THE WORLD

2004, 312 p.

It was the week-long World Youth Day in Sydney that prompted me to read this book, although I was, I confess, disconcerted by the big yellow chicken on the front and Jeremy Paxman’s acclamation of it as “hilarious”. I don’t really know that “hilarious” is the apt description- certainly the author swipes both left and right in his tirade against mumbo jumbo.  He attacks post modernism (saving special venom for Julia Kristeva- I’m with you on this one, Francis!), Thatcherism, New-Ageism, Blairism (particularly), globalism, fundamentalism- really, there isn’t an “ism” that he doesn’t turn on.

At its core, the book is an argument for “truth” and the principles of the Enlightenment, but in all this slaughter of sacred cows, it’s difficult to detect what he is in favour of.  He is rather cavalier with his quotations and footnoting- he is careful about one quote on a page, but completely silent about another more outrageous quote from another source on the same page- which makes me a bit distrustful of his  academic thoroughness.  And I find myself still wondering HOW mumbo-jumbo conquered the world.