20 oct. 2009

Obama and the Language of Values

We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the constitution says, but everyone made equal . . .

We are going to build a new Settlement. We’ll have a happy new life and we’ll have equal rights for all… except blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, gays, women, Muslims… eh, everybody that is not a white men. And I mean white-white, so no Italians, no Polish; Just people from Ireland, England and Scotland, but only certain parts of Scotland and Ireland: just full blooded whites. You know what? No even whites, nobody gets any rights.
Ah, America.

Certainly, these two quotes may seem quite different in nature: one is a well-known quote from Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451, and the other was found on a Sunday night’s cartoon. One belongs to the so-called high-culture and the other to the popular media; however, these two quote embody some of issues that have been at the core in the history of the United States, even today. This kind of language resonates even to us, foreigners, because we have heard them some many times in the media. Both quotes have common semantic clusters (“born free and equal”, “equal rights for all”) and make reference, directly or indirectly, to a single document which is familiar to every single citizen of the United States of America: The Declaration of Independence. The kids read it at schools and foreigners wanting to become citizens are bound to read it and understand it. Almost every American is familiar with these words: “We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Barack Obama in his book, The Audacity of Hope, states that these simple words are “our starting point as Americans” and “the substance of our common creed”. It is interesting he use the word “creed” as though being an American would mean that you are obliged to follow a religion. In a humble attempt to figure out what these words mean, or at least to prove that words are important, a simple analysis of the content of an extract from this book and the language that he uses will be made in order to comprehend the impact that the Founding Fathers and his declaration made to their descendants.

The central theme of this excerpt is to identify the core values with which the Americans identify themselves. He starts stressing the importance of values as a glass in which human beings understand reality, as well as saying how important is to identify the values they have in common rather to the ones on which they clash. The declaration of independence is a central element and he uses it to talk about the important ideas this document holds. Then he identifies and comments the central values that can be extracted from it: individual freedom, self-reliance, self-improvement, risk-taking, thrift, personal responsibility but also other communal values as neighborliness, sense of duty and faith. The expert finished talking about the tension that it is produced when these values collide with each other.

Our creed, our values, our freedom; these words are constantly used throughout the text. They are also constantly used by other politicians in order to resonate with his supporters. Similar words were used by Martin Luther King during his fight for the civil rights, but also by George Bush to start the invasion of Iraq. The right use of these ideals can led to powerful movements that have shape the history of the country, but it can also led to propaganda and manipulation of the reality. We all remember from the Bush era how they used the word freedom: “They hate our freedom”. Even so, the constant repletion of the values in common was also used by Abraham Lincoln and other great politicians and leaders.

This leads us to the conclusion that the use and abuse of constantly talking about their values is highly important for the United States of America. I don’t know the reasons yet, but I’m hoping to find out throughout the course. Nevertheless, I’m going to dare to come up with two hypotheses. First, I think it has to do with the fact that America is a new country. It doesn’t have a long history with which identify themselves, so it is necessary to create certain elements in order that every American can feel represented with them. Secondly, I also think it has to do with the fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants and I read once that in order to be an American, it doesn’t matter your background or the place you were born as long as you commit yourself to follow certain values. Either way, the discourse about values is essential to understand the idiosyncrasy of the USA.

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© Pablo Camus
Maira Gall