23 January 2009

Obama’s inauguration rhetoric won approval for some uncomfortable messages

A point I made a couple of days ago was that bursts of applause can be used to identify which points in a speech an audience liked best.

If there are about 150 sentences, of which only six (4%) stood out enough to get a whole-hearted display of approval that lasted more than a few seconds – as happened on Tuesday – it’s worth looking at them in a bit more detail to see what really turned the audience on.

On looking through them again, what I found interesting and surprising was that three of the six messages rated by the crowd as worthy of a decent round of applause were actually quite contentious or uncomfortable ones:

1. The USA is up against a lot of serious problems that can’t be fixed easily or instantly, though the new administration will eventually fix them.

2. A lot of work needs to be done to remake America – where the use of the word ‘remake’ implies that there’s something so wrong with the country that it actually needs remaking.

3. The USA will be friends with any countries wanting to live in peace and dignity and is ready to provide leadership again – where ‘again’ is presumably an admission that its foreign policy hasn't been making a very good job of it recently.

To foreign ears, the encouraging thing about all this is not just that the new president is willing to acknowledge that all is not well on a number of important fronts, but that the large numbers of Americans in the crowd were willing to applaud him for subscribing to such uncomfortable positions.

At the very least, these sentiments are a far cry from the over-stated claims about the unique greatness of the country that I was complaining about the other day – and which have put in another appearance in an article in the Washington Post by Robert Ehrlich, Jr., former governor of Maryland, who writes of the need to 'pray for ‘the greatest democracy in the history of the world.

(The rhetorical techniques that prompted the crowd to applaud these uncomfortable messages can be seen in the previous post – under sections 1, 3 & 4).

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