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A President English Teachers Can Be Proud Of

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Message Adam Bessie

I have been an English teacher for most of George W. Bush’s tenure, in which time he has butchered the English language with greater vigor than a fourteen-year old IMing her friends on MySpace.  Bush has committed all of the cardinal sins of awful prose, from choppy sentences, to broad generalizations (Axis of Evil), to made-up words (strategery), and pretty much every other perversion of proper grammar and effective rhetoric one can imagine.  In fact, in these eight years, Bush has been so profoundly inarticulate, publishers have made fortunes publishing volumes of his awkward phrases,  while cognitive linguists have no doubt made careers attempting to untie his knotty grammatical logic. As Stanford Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg clarifies, “Bush's malaprops can make him sound like someone who learned the language over a bad cell phone connection.”

Finally, I can put the red pen away, and I’ll have President I can be proud of, both grammatically and rhetorically.  Obama speaks as if he is writing a good novel, each sentence tightly structured, with multiple clauses and phrases, all properly coordinated, and composed of real words – used properly.  

The (grammar) nightmare is over.

Take a look at the opening of Obama’s victory speech, in which he demonstrates gold-medal verbal gymnastics:

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

In just a single sentence, Obama uses multiple adjective clauses, all yolked together with expert precision, yet absolute clarity – sophisticated yet simple. He then repeats the word “answer” in the next three paragraphs to build a rhetorical rhythm, illustrating the relationship between his historic win, the civil rights movement, and the goals of the Founder’s themselves, like a gymnast performing a challenging routine, or a quilter weaving a complex tapestry.

Obama makes even clichés sound fresh, by using such innovative linguistic tricks as “adjectives”:  Let us remember that, if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers.”

And who could forget the soon-to-be historic biography of 106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper? Through the eyes of Ms. Nixon, Obama shows us our past, our troubled present, and a hopeful future, which even Joe the Plumber couldn’t help to become teary-eyed at:

“She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Yes we can.”

And from here, Obama builds another rhetorical rhythm with “Yes We Can,” stitching the audience themselves into the eternal tapestry of history in the making, making each of us feel part of solving this troubled present, through words alone.

In fact, Obama is such a remarkable orator, that rumors have spread that he is actually hypnotizing us, to “make you feel like the decision to support Obama is your own, when it is really, at least for many, implanted artificially through hypnosis.” (and, as one astute forum poster responded “It’s called good public speaking”).

No one – not even the nuttiest conspiracy theorist – can deny that Obama is an excellent speaker.   And I am looking forward to hearing his calm voice, and his sophisticated rhetoric for at least the next four years. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind if Obama began his own series of FDR-esque “Fireside Chats,” or really, daily bed-time stories – just to hear his calm voice, coupled with his profound facility with words.

But I’m an “elite” community college English teacher, who is clearly out of touch with Joe Six Pack – who cares what I think, right?  Why should Joe Six Pack care?  Why does it matter if our President knows how to avoid dangling participles and use “big” words?  Isn’t verbal dexterity just manipulation  - hypnosis – rather than substance?

Contrary to the last eight years, words matter.

Given the fractured political landscape, filled with bitterness on all sides, divided by factions, we need a sophisticated communicator – a verbal surgeon, one with a delicate and precise hand – who can bring closure to these wounds.  And this wound ruptured around the world, bashed open by the sledgehammer of the Bush doctrine, in which those who disagree with us are “evil.”   The complexity of our problems cannot be fixed by sledgehammer which caused them, but through careful and thoughtful language, through premeditated rhetoric rather than preemptive action.

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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
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