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Editorial: The Hope of a Sophist: The Rhetoric of Barack Obama

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By John Jalsevac

Barack Obama has been a peddler and a prophet of hope since 2004, when he delivered a speech at the Democratic Convention entitled "the audacity of hope." He has not ever left the theme since. In 2006 he published a book by the same name, and most, if not all of his speeches invoke the virtue, sometimes dozens of times.

Speaking to a crowd in Rhode Island last Saturday, the presidential candidate employed all the glittering brilliance of his rightly-lauded rhetoric in the service of hope.

"There is one thing I know," he said with great firmness, leaving no doubt that but he knew this one thing, and knew it well. "Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened, except somebody somewhere was willing to hope." And that seemed a true enough point.

And his rhetoric is having a powerful effect, awaking in his listeners a quasi-religious belief in a better future. As one writer in the Jamaican Gleaner observes, "Like Obamian hope, biblical hope knows that the present is just a platform on which the future is being built and experienced. This is powerful… Fundamentally, the similarities between Obamian hope and biblical hope are extraordinary, striking and intriguing. Like biblical hope, Obamian hope inspires the United States of America and the world."

Obama, then, is clearly a man of great hope. But (the question presents itself) hope for what?

* * *

G.K. Chesterton once wrote an essay entitled "The Hopeful One," in which he related a letter that he read in a newspaper, from a man who was pushing for abortion and sterilization as the solution to poverty. "The man," says Chesterton, "had the horrible playfulness to sign his letter ‘hopeful.’"

Chesterton does not, however, argue that the letter-writer was not truly a man of hope. Rather, he criticizes the man for being hopeful about all the wrong things. "About the mutilation of womanhood and the massacre of men unborn he signs himself ‘Hopeful’’ he writes, "But about improving the small wage [and thereby solving poverty without abortion or sterilization] he signs himself ‘Hopeless.’"

Chesterton strikes here on an important and pertinent truth. The word "hope" contains certain positive connotations, in the first place because humans typically hope for good things, and, in the second place, because hope is an especially Christian virtue. However, just because a word is typically accompanied by positive connotations, doesn’t mean that it is inherently, per se, a word denoting a positive good. For, indeed, one man can hope to murder his wife just as earnestly as another man can hope to marry the girl he loves. And both would be men of hope.

Philosophers and academics are commonly mocked for their insistence that people "define their terms." After watching enough of Obama’s speeches on hope, however, and reading enough of his book on the subject, one can’t help but feel the urge to grab him by the shoulders and shake him and demand, "Mr. Obama, please define your terms!"

* * *

So what, exactly, is hope according to Obama? Thankfully, he gave us a clue in his 2004 speech, in which he said, "In the end [hope] is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead."

But this answer demands the further question: "What, exactly, are the unseen things in which we are to believe, in this case?"

It is in answering this most vital question that Obama falters. He does well enough when he is comparing himself, and his supporters, to the pilgrims on the Mayflower believing in the unseen New World, the thirteen colonies believing in an unseen independence, slaves believing in an unseen freedom, and American soldiers in WWII believing in an unseen victory. But he does not nearly as well when he is talking about that which he himself sees in America’s future

As the cover of his book says, Obama hopes, for one, to "reclaim the American dream." But this only piles ambiguity on ambiguity, which, unfortunately, seems to be what Obama is best at. For he says that he hopes also for bipartisan cooperation, for finding common ground between conservatives and liberals, for working together, for hard work, for choice, for progress, for faith, for the future. He also famously hopes "for change," which is the worst of all. He might as well make his next slogan "Hoping for hope."

The point, of course, is that Obama is a sophist who doesn’t seem to have a very clear idea himself what exactly it is for which he hopes. Reading over his book, "The Audacity of Hope," I was astonished at how very few, definite ideals Obama can be said to have, other than what seems to be his highest ideal of "empathy." 

The man employs words masterfully and to his benefit, but more often than not his words lack definite meaning - instead of a sharp, decisive intellectual clarity he gives the gift of a fuzzy, comforting obscurity, mostly because he himself isn’t clear on things, and therefore can’t give clarity. Hence, all his rhetoric is employed in swaying emotions, and not intellects. 

I do not want to overstate my case. Obama has a platform that includes a list of policies, such as universal healthcare, and undoubtedly he has "hope" that those policies will become legislative realities. The problem, however, is that Obama himself is the greatest distraction that keeps American citizens from getting a good look at what his policies are, and how he intends to bring them about. The more he talks about hope, and the more he talks about change, the less clear it becomes what exactly he hopes in, and what he wishes to change, and why.

What is worse, however, is that when he does give the occasional look into the sort of world for which he hopes, Obama bears a too-close resemblance to Chesterton’s letter writer. Consider, for instance, his opposition to legislation that would have told doctors to treat babies that survive abortion and are born alive. Consider his statement that the "worst mistake" of his career was voting for a motion that gave Terri Schiavo a last chance at life. Consider his unequivocal, unapologetic support for homosexuality, for abortion, for embryonic stem cell research. For a man seeking bipartisan cooperation, he is strikingly keen on taking social liberalism to its extreme, and alienating even the so-called "moderate" factions of the conservative movement.

* * *

Christopher Hitchins has a habit of being wrong, but nobody can be wrong all of the time, and today he was right. In a piece in the March 5 National Post Hitchins decries what he calls "bumper sticker politics".

"Pretty soon we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps ten keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together," writes Hitchins. "Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators."

Obama’s politics of hope is actually nothing more than a politics of oversimplification. By capitalizing purely on the positive connotations of certain words skillfully pulled from the "pool of stock expressions", he has firmly driven sober thinking from the political process, and has introduced a politics of emotion at which he excels more than any other candidate. For this reason, Obama is the most dangerous candidate seeking the presidency.



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