Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Much More Than Race: What Makes a Great Speech Great

Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff weighs in on the subrealist artistry of Barack Obama's conciliatory Rev. Wright speech.
As a linguist, I am tempted to describe the surface features: the intonation, the meter, the grammatical parallelisms, the choice of words. These contribute to eloquence. I'm sure the linguistics community will jump in and do that analysis. Instead, I want to talk about the structure of ideas.

Any framing study begins with communicative framing, the context. Contextual frames carry ideas. Senator Obama is patriotic, and had to communicate not only the fact of his patriotism, but also the content of it. And he had to do it in a way that fit unquestionable and shared American values. Where did he give his speech kicking off his Pennsylvania campaign? Not in Scranton or Pittsburgh or Hershey, but in Philadelphia, home of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and at once home of one of America's largest African American communities. What building was it in? Constitution Hall. How did he appear onstage? Surrounded by flags. He is tall and thin, as were the flagstaffs, which were about the same height. He was visually one with the flag, one with America. No picture of him could be taken without a flag shaped like him, without an identification of man and country.
This is the first of a series by George Lakoff on The New Politics. Barack Obama's March 18, 2008 speech was about much more than race. It outlined a new politics that many Americans-candidates at all levels, activists, and ordinary citizens-have been speaking and writing about, and yearning for, for years. It is a politics that goes beyond the electoral horserace to the deepest questions about what America is as a nation and who we Americans are as people.