Tuesday, March 18, 2008

When I saw Obama speak in Seattle a couple months ago, I was moved by the collective energy of 21,000 people sitting next to me. His words were convincing but predictable, genuine but rehearsed through repeated presentations of the same words on stages across America. Certainly, it was not the same old politics of previous elections; but it was most likely the same old speech he'd given over the last few months.

We expect our politicians to reiterate certain predictable ideologies; we know when to clap and cheer and stand. We want change, but not to the extent that we'd put our faith in a presidential hopefull who shocked or surprised us too much. Obama's words are good, but they are good within very strict confines of US democracy.

Obama's recent Philadelphia speech on race and politics is something new -- not so much in the ideas, which have of course been discussed before in greater detail, but because I've never heard a person of such influence and authority articulate with such clarity these greater struggles and social dynamics.

I think the restrictions of what we expect from political speeches help keep Obama's message here accessible and intelligent, without diluting or sterilizing the issues beyond recognition. It is precision, not sugar-coating. We want a realitively quick speech (37 minutes is a lot of listening even for me), we want some good sound bites, and we want our own opinions validated. We want to understand what he's saying even if we're distracted checking our email and folding laundry at the same time. We want to feel compelled, without feeling uncomfortably angry at our culture. Many people in many positions -- professors, preachers, educational administrators, students -- could rant about race in America for hours. But no one wants to hear that. Obama meets the demands of a fickle contemporary audience, while addressing race in America with outstanding authority and gravity.

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