Thursday, June 26, 2008

Personal pronouns to believe in

Last summer I took a class called Religion & Politics. Great class, wherein we primarily learned about neoplatonic and enlightenment worldview structures and how they are involved in political framing, and we analyzed political speeches for use of biblical and civil religion references and metaphors. I know I say this about almost every class I take, but this was one of those classes that you can really use for the rest of your life. Maybe all learning is that way. 
So armed with the knowledge from this class, I entered the endless 2007-08 political season with an eye and ear trained for certain key words. And I noticed something right off the bat about Barack Obama's slogans. Not just that he's smart enough to take a page fro
GOP's campaign playbook strategy (read Drew Westen's The Political Brain) and plaster his message across anywhere that he might be speaking, but that he crafted it in such a way to draw us in. Note that it's "Change That We Can Believe In" not "Change That You Can Believe In." "Yes We Can," not "Yes You Can" or "Yes I Can." If Hillary Clinton had been thinking, maybe she could have said "Our Solutions for America" instead of just "Solutions for America" with the implied "My" as the prefix.

What Obama is doing, see, is (technical language alert!) presenting a message of participatory eschatology. He is inviting us all to take part in the re-making of the new Eden, the new (beloved) community, to have a hand in the re-creation of American society, to save it from the powers of the universe that have sullied it. This is within the framework of the American civil religion that rose up most mightily with Kennedy (in Camelot, when the nation was "purer"), not of any particular Christian stripe (but still, mind you, very Christian. The Founders, though Deists, were still culturally Christian), and its telos is the renewal of the promise of America. I actually don't think this is a particularly Christian technique, renewal is a call in every religion. But I can see it through my christian lens, and compare it with Paul's work, which he was knocking around the Roman Empire. Christ, he said, died and we die with him, so that we are in- Christ, a renewed and now unbroken body of Christ. We take part, we invest, we feel like part of the family.

Take a gander at Bill Clinton's 1992 convention nomination speech and hunt for those important Wes and Uses. He does use "I" quite a bit ("George Bush doesn't care about you, but I will,") but one of his refrains is "Join us." Be part of an us. Take part. Participate in the new America.

Then take a look at John Kerry's 2004 convention nomination speech. Lots of Is and implied messiahship -- "Help is on the way." John Kerry will save us.

Vs. Bill Clinton's we'll save ourselves together. 

So when I hear Barack Obama use the We pronoun, I get excited. I understand why people are backing him, why he's getting support in droves. Because he's asked us for it. He's asked us to help him so we can help ourselves instead of asking us to let him help us. We're Americans, for phuque's sake, and above all, we help ourselves and others who need it. We don't cotton to people who try to do for us. 

Bob Burnett over at the HuffPo blogged along these lines today, comparing Obama to Lincoln and McCain to Rambo. McCain, he points out, is a fan of the I.

I'll stand with the We.

We Can Believe in Us.

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