I’ve been on the road this week, giving a public talk in Santa Barbara at Fielding Graduate University, and taking a break from a very hectic writing and teaching schedule. Returning to frigid New York, I feel cut off from my usual news sources and news gathering customs. As it happens I couldn’t read the paper version of The New York Times first thing, as is my morning custom, didn’t listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on NPR, and didn’t go from there to search the web for interesting under reported news and commentary. Instead I took a look at cable news, and found, to my dismay, that I really didn’t understand what had happened this week. This underscored Laura Pacifici’s point. Audiences consume “news products” that confirm their beliefs; news reporting and commentary are not informing. It struck me that this is the way that many people keep up with public affairs. I felt like I was in a fog. No wonder fictoids work! I was warmed by the Santa Barbara sun, chilled by “the lame stream media.”
Although I was on vacation, I managed to keep DC going, thanks to interesting posts by DC contributors. Will Milberg presented a very different account of the China – America relationship. I am convinced. The issue is less about currency valuations, more about economic practices of them and us. As Milberg succinctly put it:
“The key to the problem of global imbalances is to resolve them in an expansionary way rather than a contractionary way. In the wake of the crisis and a deep and widespread recession, we should be thinking about a reform of the international payments system that shifts the burden of adjustment from deficit countries (who are forced to contract their economies in order to reduce imports) to surplus countries (whose extra spending raises their imports).”
Gary Alan Fine, following up on his brilliant Jared Lee Loughner post, considered a fundamental problem in representative democracy, should we vote for representatives because of their personal qualities or principled positions. He makes a strong and convincing case for the latter, but I wonder how far he would wish to go. At some points character, specifically as it is related to judgment, is crucial. I am an opponent of ideology, magical thinking that provides easy answers to complex problems. The magic of the market and market demonization, both, it seems to me, should be adamantly opposed. The way a candidate thinks through problems sometimes is more important to me than his or her starting positions. I concede, given the present circumstances, I cannot imagine voting for a Republican, but this is as much because the Republicans are the party of true belief, of absolute certainty and dogma. A non dogmatic Republican would interest me. I might even vote for such a candidate, given a mediocre opponent.
And then there was the provocative Robin Pacifici. Just about everyone is celebrating Obama’s Tucson Speech. Even the authority Pacifici cites, Garry Wills, went so far as to favorably compare the Tucson Speech to the Gettysburg Address in the New York Review of Books, but Robin finds good reasons to be critical. Her key critical point:
“The main issues involve choices of genre and structure. For me, Obama’s speech oscillated without adequate accounting or warning between the genres of private lamentation, religious homily, and political oration. Without an overarching structure that linked these genres together, their coming and going unsettled me as a listener. Was so much reference to scripture appropriate in a civil ceremony? Was so much detail about individual personalities befitting a national oration by a head of state?”
I think that this is an interesting observation, and though I disagree with her judgment, standing by my original appraisal, I think I see something very insightful and significant in this. Perhaps the reason why Obama can move so quickly between genres is that we in fact live in a world where there is little, if not , No Sense of Place, as Joshua Meyrowitz explored this condition in his classic book by that name.
I have been thinking in recent years that one of the distinctions of Obama as a public figure and speaker is that he is reviving the power of classical rhetoric in the age of virtual communications, that he is a post sound bite political leader, classically eloquent. But Pacifici demonstrates that only half of this is true. While he clearly is a post sound bite speaker, a speaker of the long form, an orator, his eloquence is not really classical, as Lincoln’s was. Obama depended on a blurring of public and private, so that we came to identify the victims as family and then their tragedy as ours. We identify with “Gabby” and with 9 year old Christina Taylor Green, and when the President calls upon Americans to do what would honor them, we are not only honoring our fellow citizens but people with whom we now have a personal relationship. Obama connected with the public in a way that he hasn’t previously during his Presidency, because as a nation he was very much part of our family, as he led our nation. His eloquent response to a national tragedy may very well change the course of the nation. Pacifici’s critique suggests to me how such eloquence is now achieved, because it is not classical in its form, because we live in a different media environment.