When Words Regain Their Meaning

I was moved beyond words by the inaugural today: in my lifetime I’ve never had as much hope (or need for hope) in a political figure as I have in Barack Obama. Even though I’ve not been very happy with his economic team, I have some faith that figures like Rubin, Geithner, and Summers have learned the error of their ways. More importantly, I think this is a president who takes his words seriously, and whose oratory deserves attention for its deep substance.

Consider lines like these in Obama’s speech today:

[T]he market can spin out of control – and . . . a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart . . . .

With the aid of a few Gersons and Noonans, Bush could deliver the same words. But they’d be immediately undermined by his tax policies, his SCHIP obstructionism, and Katrina’s aftermath. In a very real sense words lost their meaning during Bush’s time in office; torture became “enhanced interrogation techniques” and policy permitting more pollution became the “clean skies initiative.” James Boyd White, an eloquent critic of this process, gave a historical precedent in his book When Words Lose Their Meaning:

[During the chaos of the Peloponnesian Wars, the] Greek terms for bravery and cowardice and trust and loyalty and manliness and weakness and moderation, the key terms of value in that world, changed their accepted significance and their role in thought and life. What before would have been called something like idiotic recklessness, for example, was now called stouthearted loyalty to friends; what would have been praised as prudent foresight was now condemned as cowardice.

Overcoming parallel processes in our own times will require a new language of politics in America. Obama has great respect for the power of words, and his choice of inaugural poet echoed his own themes of fairness and equality in this luminous passage:

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Elizabeth Alexander’s reflections led me to think of how much my father, who labored as a steelworker and then as a retail worker, would have savored this moment. He died in October 2004, rightly worried about the fateful decision the nation was about to make then. He had the greatest admiration for hard work and erudition, and our new president radiates both. But Dad also respected those who were able to inject a note of humor or lightness into a somber moment. He’d have loved Rev. Lowery’s benediction, which asked God to “help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — [llaughter] — when yellow will be mellow — [laughter] — when the red man can get ahead, man — [laughter] — and when white will embrace what is right.” Thank God enough of us did back in November. Lowery, who’d marched with MLK in 1957, had the moral authority to come back after half a century to both entertain the weary, and charge us with rebuilding a battered nation.

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