The Audacity of Rhetoric

In January, when the United States remembered the tragic death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an urban history professor at the University of Buffalo named Henry Louis Taylor Jr., bitterly remarked: “All we know is that this guy had a dream. We don’t know what that dream was.”

Taylor was referring to an erasure of historical memory after King’s 1963 march on Washington, after he was cheered as “the moral leader of our nation.”

In the years before his death, King changed his focus to poverty and militarism because he thought that addressing these issues – not solely racial brotherhood – was crucial to making equality real. And he paid the price for this change, becoming more and more of a pariah.

The danger for Sen. Barack Obama is that he is already doing to himself what later historical censorship did to King: He’s cleansing his program of contentious topics in order to assure his electability.

The Life of Brian (1979)
The Life of Brian (1979)

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In a famous dialogue in Monty Python’s religious spoof The Life of Brian, which takes place in Palestine at the time of Christ, the leader of a Jewish revolutionary resistance organization passionately argues that Romans brought only misery to the Jews. When his followers remark that they nonetheless introduced education, built roads, constructed irrigation, etc., the leader triumphantly concludes: “All right, but apart from sanitation, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Don’t Obama’s latest proclamations follow the same line? “I stand for a radical break with the Bush administration!” Or: “OK, sure, I pledge to support Israel unconditionally, to maintain the boycott of Cuba, to grant lawbreaking telecommunications corporations immunity, but I still stand for a radical break with the Bush administration!”

When Obama talks about the “audacity to hope,” about “a change we can believe in,” he is using a rhetoric of change that lacks specific content: To hope for what? To change what?

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on September 2nd, 2008. (full text).]

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