Bob Massie

Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

Borrowing Words: Some Thoughts on Oral Tradition in Advance of Obama’s Speech

In Politics on January 15, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I have not read Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, which still lies a few days in the future, but I am confident that it will enter the pantheon of top ten inaugural addresses.   

And it will do this not only because he – and his team – will find wonderful and evocative new phrases, but because his speech will also resonate with old rhythms and references.  We will find ourselves moved not only because he will point us forward, but because he will also reach back in order to strike the mystic chords of memory deep in the American mind.

Sound at all familiar?

Most of those who love U.S. history will know already I borrowed the words of one President to compliment another.   Whose?  Lincoln’s – from the final sentence of his first inaugural address. 

We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory …will yet swell the chorus of the Union….

So – today’s question – was I plagiarizing Lincoln or was I relying on our common knowledge of the mighty code that shapes our national values and political culture?

The press always seems horrified when one person – particular a politician, who is assumed to be a hypocrite — is found to be using someone’s else words.   I understand the elementary moral logic of this – don’t steal someone else’s property.   But sometimes we all seem to lose control of the concept.   

Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been through the mill of criticism on the use of other’s words.

When Barack Obama was criticized for his elevated rhetoric during his campaign, he turned around and rebutted the attacks with quotations from various major pieces of American literature, lightly mocking the idea that words were not important in and of themselves.

We hold these truths to be self-evident… just words.”  Ask not what your country can do for you, but you can do for your country … just words.” 

The problem for Obama was that this particularly brilliant formulation had originated not with him, but with Deval Patrick, our governor here in Massachusetts, a warm and wonderful speaker in his own right.   Patrick had invented and used the exact same phrasing several times towards the end of his campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 2006.   I heard Patrick myself roll out the phrases in a speech at Powderhouse Park in Somerville during the summer of that campaign.  

People attacked Obama for using Patrick’s words, even though Obama and Patrick are close friends, Patrick wanted him to use them, and Obama had inadvertently slipped – through the tedium of repetition — from carefully attributing the phrases to Patrick to simply using them.

Some will remember that when Joe Biden ran for President in 1988 he was forced to withdraw from the race after plagiarizing Neil Kinnock.   David Greenberg, writing in Salon at the end of August in 2008, put it this way

Biden’s downfall began when his aides alerted him to a videotape of the British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had run unsuccessfully against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tape showed Kinnock delivering a powerful speech about his rise from humble roots. Taken by the performance, Biden adapted it for his own stump speech. Biden, after all, was the son of a car salesman, a working-class kid made good. Kinnock’s material fit with the story he was trying to sell.

Greenberg goes on to attack Biden for other instances of plagiarism and uses these examples to question whether he had adequately been vetted.

I have been a university professor and I know that the unattributed use of others’ work is a serious problem, especially in the age of the Internet.  I am also the son of two authors who have made their livings carving sentences out of thin air – and who have both been plagiarized at different times.  So I don’t view it lightly.

At the same time, I am a preacher.  A good many of the words I have delivered in public have been expositions of other people’s words – most notably those of Jesus.  And I am mindful that in Jesus’ day and age, most people could not read and so the primary medium for communication was the spoken word.  And the more memorable that spoken word was, the better. 

Indeed, the gospels record the words and actions of Jesus preserved in the memories, compiled in different ways and different times, by people who had heard what Jesus had said.   Thus we have Jesus in Luke saying “Blessed are the poor” and in Matthew saying “Blessed are in poor in spirit.”

One major cultural transition that we have undergone is that many people no longer understand references to Biblical stories and language.  This gap allowed Mark Gerson to write skillful references into George Bush’s speeches that could be heard by religious conservatives as references to Christian hymns and scripture, while those same comments swept past other Americans unnoticed.

But this gap also makes for real confusion.

Quick – who said: “a house divided against itself cannot stand”?   Most people would say Lincoln.   And it’s true.  But he was quoting Jesus.

And who said: “Let justice roll down waters”?   Martin Luther King.  Yes, but he was quoting the prophet Amos.

And (for extra credit) who said “some people see things that are and ask ‘“why?”  I see things that never were and ask: “why not?’”  Bobby Kennedy?   Correct – but he was quoting George Bernard Shaw.

The media confusion that can build up about this is quite amusing.   The most loopy example of hysteria came this past summer from right-wing-absurdist-artist-cum-anchorman Steve Doocy, who accused Barack Obama of quoting Mario Cuomo “practically verbatim.”    On June 17, Jon Stewart brilliantly satirized Doocy’s looniness by putting up the two supposedly matching quotes and identifying that they shared exactly three words: “of”, “to”, and “we.”

But let’s take a look at a real string of verbal tradition.   Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention address is considered one of the greatest American speeches of the late 20th century.  This is an excerpt:

Ten days ago,  President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn’t understand that fear. He said, “Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.” And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill….

Mr. President … the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.

Cuomo was attacking Reagan’s use of the “city on the hill” imagery.  Reagan, in turn,  was quoting John Winthrop’s speech on board the Arabella before he landed in Massachusetts in 1630.   And Winthrop was in turn quoting the Sermon on the Mount – thus, again, Jesus.

This is not plagiarism.  This is a cultural conversation over several centuries.   In holding a conversation within such a community, we rely on shared knowledge that is rooted in phrases and stories.   That’s one reason comedy is so hard to translate – to appreciate a joke, we often have to understand the rich context in which it sits.

The problem of drawing the line between plagiarism and oral tradition is particularly acute when it comes to telling stories.  When I heard that Donald Neale Walsh had been criticized for using someone else’s touching story about a Christmas pageant, I thought, “uh oh, that sounds bad.” 

But then I realized that I tell dozens of stories of unknown origin.  I don’t say that they happened to me.   But I can no longer remember exactly where I heard them.

Indeed, when I first started preaching more than two decades ago I realized that I desperately needed good stories to spice up my thin theological perspectives.  So I began to collect anecdotes.  When I heard a good tale, I wrote it down.  And being an earnest scholar, I often tried to record the source.  Often that was unsatisfying.   I had heard the story on the radio.  I had heard someone tell it at a dinner party.  I had read it in a waiting room in a doctor’s office.

As I told the stories over the years, I gradually reshaped them.  I figured out what moved people, where the emphasis should lie, how the punch-line should be framed.  And, in doing so, many of these stories became like old friends who I can bring forward and introduce to new people.   Yet through years of doing this, I know no longer remember how to attribute them. 

And the truth is that no one, sitting at a dinner table, would want me to take the time  to share the detailed provenance of every anecdote or illustration.   It would look like – and be – pure pedantry.

Telling good stories is a waning art.  Abraham Lincoln was superb at it.   It would be a shame if people killed off this lovely form because they were anxious about being blamed for having told something that began somewhere else.  Almost everything begins somewhere else.  

Of course, I still follow a few rules.  I don’t say that things happened to me that did not take place.   I don’t quote people directly without attribution.   But I do make references – clumsy or clever, silly or sly – to things that other people have said, including people in the Bible or people in politics or even people in my own family.  This is how culture is created and passed on.  We share our words and our stories and pass them on to each other, across the oceans and down through the ages. 

There is nothing wrong, and much that is good, with that.


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How Obama Detoured Around the South

In Politics, Things I Wrote Before on January 12, 2009 at 3:59 am

Before we say a complete goodbye to the campaign, I wanted to make one more “electoral college” comment. I posted this on Facebook just before I decided to start a new blog.

More than one commentator has noticed that Barack Obama has so far drawn few cabinet members and senior staff from the South. His choices may simply be the result of the complex balancing act required by appointments. It also may represent a more noticeable shift away from a region that has dominated presidential politics for more than 60 years.

This year Democrats won the White House for the first time since 1944 (when Roosevelt ran with Truman) without a Southerner on the ticket. Since that election in the middle of World War II, the Democratic party has felt the obligation to offer a Southerner as president or vice-president in every electoral contest, with only one exception (1972). Truman brought in Alban Barkeley of Kentucky in 1948. Stevenson tapped John Sparkman of Alabama in 1952 and then Estes Kefauver of Tennessee in 1956. Kennedy turned to Lyndon Johnson of Texas in 1960. When Kennedy died, Lyndon Johnson became the first Southern president in a century, in bizarre imitation of his long-ago namesake, Andrew Johnson, who had also risen to power after Lincoln’s assassination.

When Lyndon Johnson was re-elected in the landslide of 1964, the South had been reliably Democratic – with the exception of the special circumstance of Reconstruction – for more than 130 years. In 1968, however, the segregationist George Wallace, governor of Alabama, ran as an independent and began to undermine these traditional Democratic ties. That same year, Richard Nixon, who had lost to Kennedy in 1960 when African-Americans deserted the ‘party of Lincoln’ over civil rights, paid them back by initiating the infamous “southern strategy,” an appeal to racial anxieties that eventually lured millions of conservative whites and transformed the former slave states into Republican strongholds.

From then on winning the South gradually came to be seen as the key to the White House, especially for Democrats, especially after the McGovern-Shriver experiment of 1972 went down to a crushing defeat. After that Democrats felt obliged to place a southerner somewhere on the ticket, preferably at the top.

Jimmy Carter won his primaries and the general election with the help of newly engaged southern Christians (few people today remember that TIME magazine declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical” because of this victory). In 1988 Al Gore of Tennesee fell short of the nomination because his Super Tuesday cluster of Southern states fell to a three-way split with Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis; when Dukakis emerged as the nominee he unsuccessfully tried to nail down a general election victory with Texan Lloyd Bentsen. Bill Clinton then doubled up on the Dixie strategy by embracing Al Gore as his running mate in 1992 — and won.

In 2000 Americans had two Southerners running for President – Texas governor George W. Bush challenged Vice President Gore, who was running nationally for the fourth time. Bush skidded unevenly through the campaign using coded language to signal his trustworthiness to conservatives in the south and west while insisting that to everyone else that he was ideologically a uniter and centrist. Both Gore’s popular vote majority and his court-determined electoral college loss offered early signals of the erosion of the South’s singular power at the ballot box. We know that Bush officially won Florida by only 537 votes. We forget that If 3,600 votes had switched sides in New Hampshire, neither the hanging chads of Florida nor the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote would have mattered.

In 2004 John Kerry attempted the Dixie play again, with John Edwards of North Carolina, but was turned aside by voters in Ohio, a famously split state whose southern counties are often more conservative than parts of its neighbor to the south, Kentucky.

This past November – for only the second time in 64 years – we witnessed what could happen if there were no Southerner anywhere on a national ticket. In 2008 McCain came out the West (Arizona), while his running mate Sarah Palin represented the even more far-flung parts of America – as well as Alaska. With Barack Obama at the top of the ticket anchoring the northern cities and reaching out to the upper Midwest (MI, WI MN, OH), Joe Biden was the closest thing to a Southerner to be found, though Biden spoke of his roots in Pennsylvania at least as often as he mentioned his border state home in Delaware.

Of course, Obama’s victory signified the convergence of many factors and it would certainly be premature to suggest that the South’s role in American politics has permanently been diminished. Yet the raw strangeness of Obama’s accomplishment, when set in its historical context, provides considerable opportunity for reflection.

Obama will not only be the first African-American president, but also the heir to the mid-western tradition of Abraham Lincoln, and the standard bearer of the former political party of the Confederacy, which steadily built up northern support through Cleveland, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, all the while retaining its Southern strength. Obama will enter the White House as the first northern Democratic president in nearly 50 years, and will have done so with a two-to-one electoral college victory that included only a handful of Southern states (VA, NC, and FL).

Before we turn to weighing the challenge that our new president faces, we should pause to recall the magnitude of what he has already achieved. Though surmounting the barrier of race is clearly the most astonishing, we would do well to recall some of the geographic obstacles Obama overcame. America has had Republican presidents for 28 of the last 40 years – more than two-thirds of the time. For 12 of those 28 years we were ruled by men from one family, the seemingly unstoppable Bushes, whose Bible belt strength came in part from running for president or vice president six times (every cycle from 1980 to 2004, with the exception of 1996). The only successful avenue open to Democrats – judging from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – seemed to be to draw a nominee from the South.

Guided by a truly new political GPS system, Obama took another route. His road trip to the White House was exceptional not only because he took many new people with him, but because along the way he redrew the map.

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Infrastructure spending for families

In Business and Sustainability, Politics, Things I Wrote Before on January 12, 2009 at 3:48 am

This is an op-ed that appeared in several forms on the Internet and was published in the Boston Globe on December 13

Barack Obama  intends to invest in public infrastructure and boost green technologies. These powerful ideas should be more directly connected.As many have noted – such as the newly established Green Justice Coalition – we could solve many problems at once by stopping the waste of energy and dollars flooding out of American homes.

Think of this as “infrastructure spending for American families.”We need to break free from our paralysis. When energy prices rise, we can’t afford efficiency improvements. When prices drop, the payback seems too long. This is the business-crushing vacillation between “shock and trance” to which Obama referred two weeks ago.

So how do we make repairs despite fluctuations in the price of oil and gas? The solution is simple and elegant: The state could set up a leveraged investment fund to help families make changes immediately.

Here’s how it would work. The state would allocate a small amount of money to guarantee a fixed interest rate for private investors. Sixty million dollars would be enough to pay a mouth-watering 6 percent on $1 billion. The money would be disbursed at zero percent to anyone willing to make an investment in insulation or heating systems. Renters could split the benefits with owners. The loans would be paid back directly from the savings.

Such a program would achieve five goals at once.

First, it would create local jobs – from blowing insulation and training energy auditors to installing super-efficient boilers. These jobs would swiftly pay back the original investment by government, since workers would pay both state and federal taxes. There would be an additional multiplier effect as both families and workers had more money to spend. And $1 billion could generate as many as 10,000 jobs in Massachusetts. It would also reinvigorate training and other youth programs such as YouthBuild.

Second, it would improve housing values. We have efficiency stickers on appliances; why not on houses? States should fix this through mandatory disclosure of the likely energy costs – or savings – of any home for sale. An energy audit would thus become a routine part of routine home inspections. Homes with upgraded efficiency would instantly be worth more.

Third, it would increase disposable income for families. Right now the state scrambles every winter to find millions for fuel assistance. Economically this is like burning crumpled dollar bills to keep poor people warm. Morally it holds low- and middle-income families hostage to the profit demands of energy companies. It would make far more sense to invest some of those dollars in permanent change to cut energy use.

Fourth, it would bring new technologies rapidly to scale. Did you know that you can install a one-cylinder co-generation unit – known as the Freewatt system – in your basement that creates hot water, heat, and slices your electric bill?

One homeowner in Somerville insulated his house and dug a 250-foot well in his tiny backyard. He uses the stable temperature of the ground water to heat and cool his house for less than $150 a month. There are many revolutionary technologies ahead, but to bring the unit costs down, you have to push the volume up.

Fifth, it will drive down greenhouse gas emissions. In Massachusetts, approximately 1 million homes burn nearly a billion gallons of heating oil every winter. Cutting emissions from this single sector by 25 percent would lower Massachusetts emissions by at least 3 million tons a year.

Is this really possible? Yes. We need the Patrick administration to set visionary residential energy-efficiency targets, which so far it has failed to do. And we need President-elect Obama to take his two good ideas – investment in infrastructure and green technology – and press them into one.

It will not help American families over the long run if we get to drive down big roads in new cars, only to park them in front of cold houses.

The most fundamental infrastructures for individuals and families are the places we live. We have the ability to create savings that will last for generations while safeguarding our planet.

The question now is whether we can muster the will.

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