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[xmca] Four Handed Duet (Counterpoint in Ebony and Ivory)

Consider the following two passages from recent political speeches.


“You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that.”


“Now there are 250,000 more people working in the auto industry than the day the companies were restructured. Governor Romney opposed the plan to save GM and Chrysler. So here's another jobs score: Obama two hundred and fifty thousand, Romney, zero.”


In each case, the speaker must reconstrue a lexicogrammatically complex proposition as a much simpler one. In each case, there is a division of labor: the lexical information (a case history, a ream of stats) is loaded into the first sentence or sentences. Then the grammatical relationship is reconstrued in a much shorter one ("You did that" "Obama...Romney!").


Both speakers employed this trope approximately three times during the course of the speech. And if you think back to 2008, you will find the same speakers pursuing the same strategies:


“It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes we can.” (Three times, very crisp.)


“American workers have given us consistently rising productivity. They've worked harder and produced more. What did they get in return?” (Several times, but rather sloppily done)


We can go back even further, to 2004, and see exactly the same comparison: Barack Obama with his “There is not a Red American and a Blue America but a United States of America” speech and Bill Clinton with the speech that compared tax policies and invited people, if they really wanted to reward millionaires and billionaires to go ahead and vote for the Republicans. Both speeches deployed the same identical strategy.


It's a strategy based on a basic principle of development that every Hallidayan knows (viz, that a form of discourse complexity that is fundamentally intra-sentential can be reconstrued as one that is inter-sentential, that is, the intra-mental is reconstruable as the inter-mental). It is a principle based on the idea that every higher psychic function, including lexis and syntax, was once a higher social function, e.g. discourse and rhetoric, and can be readily unpacked that way.


Now, to my ear, Obama’s deployment of this device is far more artistic and poetic.  He knows, for example, that it depends upon pronouns referring back to complex nouns, and even to speeches referring back to previous speeches ("You did that" refers to "Yes, we can" as surely as "The election was not about me; it was about you" referred back to "This election is not about me; it's about you"). Obama is more complex in his syntax and simpler in his recap, and he repeats the device regularly, deliberately, and self-consciously, with carefully crafted variations. In imagery, Obama knows that human faces are far more compelling than statistics. In content, Obama is far-reaching, more far-seeing, and more visionary.


There is simply none of that subtlety and complexity in Clinton; Clinton is obviously just an imitator, and he is imitating, rather poorly, Obama. So I was very puzzled. Why do all the pundits appear to agree that Clinton is the better orator? Are they tone deaf, or am I?


Clinton  mused that he, Clinton, had never learned to hate Republicans the way that the Republicans appear to hate Obama. This was, as far as I can figure out, the only reference, no matter how oblique, to the President's race. I think what people are really picking up on when they compare Clinton’s speech to Obama’s and prefer the former is the unmistakable sound of black rhetoric—the echoes of Jeremiah Wright, and Martin Luther King, and even Malcolm X.


But of course, Obama is not Malcolm; he's really just Clinton. 


David Kellogg

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

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