Obama’s speech: a classic


No matter the outcome of the election, Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech about race yesterday that is sure to go down as a classic, truly one of the best speeches of our time, if not the ages. The beauty of the speech for our own time, which Obama wrote himself, is that it is not a marketing plea for your vote, it is not political even in the middle of a closely contested election for the nomination to the Democratic party. Political blogger for Salon, Glenn Greenwald, echoes my thoughts exactly:

Personally, I found the speech riveting, provocative, insightful, thoughtful and courageous — courageous because it eschewed almost completely all cliches, pandering and condescension, the first time I can recall a political figure of any significance doing so when addressing a controversial matter.

The title of the post in Greenwald’s column is telling: “Obama’s faith in the reasoning abilities of the American public.” I had the exact same reaction after hearing the speech and reading the transcript. Would people be able to put aside the usual adversarial approach to political battles long enough to actually listen to what he is saying, to debate for the purpose of bridging understanding between the races wherein resentments on all sides are taken into consideration? I don’t know; Obama doesn’t know either. But, as he says, it is a start.

How exciting to anticipate a return to intellectual non-partisan discussion of issues of supreme import. Here is the transcript. I’ll soon post a lesson plan around a critique of the speech, both in its delivery and content.

Update:

Who even listens to or reads speeches anymore? Well, apparently just about everybody heard this one. Read what the International Herald Tribune, a European Union newspaper, writes. When the world is excited about something, so will our students be.

Update 2:

Roger Cohen writes a beautiful commentary about what Obama’s speech means to him, a white man from South Africa who emigrated to the United States because, as Obama says, he “will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

Cohen is encouraged by the change in our openness to hear Obama’s words of hope:

Honesty feels heady right now. For eight years we have lived with the arid, us-against-them formulas of Bush’s menial mind, with the result that the nuanced exploration of America’s hardest subject is almost giddying. Can it be that a human being, like Wright, or like Obama’s grandmother, is actually inhabited by ambiguities? Can an inquiring mind actually explore the half-shades of truth?

This statement provides an opening to a discussion of rhetorical ethos, in which we are guided by the character of the speaker to influence the merits of the discussion. Wikipedia has a quite good and accessible description of rhetoric.

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