Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Obama and American culture

I was asked to write a long paragraph about Obama's effect on American culture for a British journal. So here's a tentative effort. As I was telling my facebook friend John the other day, blogs allow you 1) to assert authority and 2) to put up unfinished work that causes anxiety about 1) Some circles are better than others, I guess.

Here goes:

Barack Obama writes and speaks in long sentences. His sentences sometimes seem to come to us out of the 18th century, rather than the text-messaging 20th. They are synthetic, acknowledge differences and only sometimes bridge them easily. They are like his view of race, which he delivered in Philadelphia last year, unabashedly complex. Huffingtonpost.com recently published a diagram of one of these sentences from a recent press conference; it featured more than one instance of parallel structure (appropriate for a politician so enamored of bipartisanship). “My view is also that nobody's above the law, and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.” Obama's sentences bob and weave and weigh evidence and often end with studied ambiguity, the kind that usually indicates wisdom instead of muddle-headedness. They open at the end, rather than close down. There are more commas than periods, more pauses than halts. When asked about rap music, he said, “I am troubled sometimes by the misogyny and materialism of a lot of rap lyrics, but I think the genius of the art form has shifted the culture and helped to desegregate music.” A long and complicated sentence about a long and complicated culture. It is about gender and greed and art and race and history, to say nothing of the shape of Barack Obama's intellectual grammar. The contents of his iPod are likewise complicated, aesthetically and racially: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Ludacris, among others. (Where's the Hawaiian slack key guitar? one wonders, surely he loves that, too.) Always there is Stevie Wonder, belting out his song about being “signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours,” an ambiguous line if ever there was one. This was Obama's signature song on the campaign trail. But one can well imagine he might have preferred to play another of his favorite songs, Bob Dylan's “Maggie's Farm,” with its rather more direct lament of the effects of politicking:

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

If you are a slinger of long sentences who has lived too long in a country of short ones (read Bush, if not Rumsfeld), then the danger is that you “just get bored.” But there's reason to expect that Obama's sentences may take hold, expand the grammar of the national discourse, add to the cultural iPod list, and otherwise nudge us toward the subtleties embedded in periodic sentences. With Obama's sentences as our curriculum, the next years will not be dull.

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