George Lakeoff Weighs in on Obama Speech

George Lakeoff's 2004 book Don't Think of an Elephant had an enormous effect on Democrats, reeling from the Kerry election defeat. Since them there have been a slew of books making the case that Democrats need to learn the lesson that Republicans had already successfully assimilated. The need to "frame" the discussion of politics issues in relation to the deeper values held by the electorate.

A slew of books followed such as Jeffrey Feldman's Framing the Debate, and most recently What Orwell Didn't Know a compilation of articles on the subject. Now Lakeoff writes about Barack Obama's recent speech on race relations.

In the beginning of a new series of articles Much More Than Race: What Makes a Great Speech Great Lakeoff has this to say:

We are on the cusp of a new politics in America. It should be dated from March 18, 2008, the date of Barack Obama's landmark speech, A More Perfect Union. The usual pundits have looked mainly at the speech's surface theme: race. They weren't wrong. It was indeed the most important statement about race in recent history.

But it was much more. It was a general call to a new politics and an outline for what it needs to be. Just as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was about much more than the war dead on that battlefield, so Obama's speech-widely hailed as in the same ballpark as Lincoln's-went beyond race to the nature of America, its ideals, and its future.

To get an appreciation for the greatness of Obama's speech, we have to start with its context: What were the problems Obama faced in writing it, and what were the constraints on him?


How did he start the speech? With the first line of the Constitution: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union..." He called the speech "A More Perfect Union." And that's what it was about. Union: About inclusiveness not divisiveness; about responsibility for each other not just oneself; about seeing the country and world in terms of cooperation, not competition or isolation. More Perfect: Admitting the imperfections of being human and making a commitment to do better; distinguishing the ideals on parchment from the reality that our actions must forge. A More Perfect Union: Looking to a better future that it is up to us to make and that can only be done by transcending divisiveness and coming together around the ideals of our Constitution.

That is what he has meant by "hope" and "change." It is the general message. And race, though a special case, is one the hardest issues to address. And though his opponents will continue to promote and exploit racial divisiveness, race is an area where huge progress has been made and needs to be made visible. If there is to be a test of character and leadership-a test of honesty, openness, strength, and integrity on his part, and good will and American values on the part of American citizens, race is as tough a test case as any. Not a test of Obama, but a test of America. A test of whether Americans will live American ideals. No pussyfooting. No sweeping it under the rug. This election sets a direction for the country. Will we face our problems and follow our ideals or not? Obama can hold the mirror up to us, and he can endeavor to lead the march. What he asks is whether we are ready to continue the march, "a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous America."

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