‘Yes, We Can’… Do What?

BY Cassandra West

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By now, we’re used to the static that accompanies the election season.

It’s a streaming wave of wordplay, phrases, slogans, sound bites, jargon, half-truths, half lies, polished prose and prosaic parsing–a kind of low-register noise we tolerate, half listening, half tuning out because it’s not going away. Kind of like living near an airport.

What we mostly hear aren’t the complete sentences spelling out specifics, visions and appealing ideas. (Who really has time to digest whole paragraphs of policy and wonkery anyway, and still make time for all the other stuff coming at them?)

Toss out some bite-size chucks and the public will eat them up. A word here, a phrase there–prose that make us feel like we know what a candidate stands for, why we should pledge our support.

It’s just so easy to love the sound of all those incomplete thoughts. They’re sweet hopeful sentiments that play lightly but powerfully in our ears:

“Change we can believe in.”

“Yes, we can.”

“This is our time.”

“Ready for change.”

“Keeping America’s promise.”

“Fired up, ready to go.”

(Apologies if these examples are drawn mostly from Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign, but it has elevated incomplete thoughts to an art form this year and used them effectively to excite and motivate its supporters–an observation worth noting.)

These tidy, compact phrases resound with possibility. But something is missing–a thought that completes them.

Don’t you want to know what the change is that we can believe in?

Yes, we can … do what, exactly?

Why is this our time?

What is it we can change?

How can we keep America’s promise?

We’re not likely to make the progress packed into political promises if we fail to get past the prose. Being fired up and ready to go means nothing if we haven’t the faintest idea where we’re trying to go.

Let’s fill in some blanks. Let’s not leave ourselves hanging. Do we think, come Nov. 5, those phrases will complete themselves and suddenly we’ll have some collective clarity that will set us on the path of progress?

Don’t look to the media to help you get there or to ask any candidates for even a glimpse of their roadmap. The media are more consumed with the style, not digging for the substance of anything the public hopes for. The media remain so entrenched in and completely absorbed with celebrity culture that even a presidential campaign gets reported on as though it’s the run-up to the Oscars. Who will be best actor? Best actress? Who will cry onstage? Who will give the acceptance speech that will be the talk of the nation the next morning?

In February, following Super Tuesday and Obama’s string of primary and caucus victories, media reports went into overdrive describing the euphoric crowds filling arenas and stadiums, emergency medical teams on call in case someone passed out while the candidate spoke. More media stories focused on the eloquence and the oratory of this “new kind of politician” who was appealing to the young and independents–that elusive herd of the electorate that has been so hard to corral.

Rather than digging deeper to examine what people are hoping for–besides a new face in the White House–the media hold the public in thrall with the emotional tenor of the campaign. The media dispense incomplete thoughts and incomplete stories along with the politicians. Is it because we live in daily news cycles and spin cycles that not enough time and effort go into serving up anything more than finger-food phrases?

Perhaps the public will at some point regret not ordering a more nutritious serving of political rhetoric during a time when so much is uncertain and unsaid.

We should think, too, about what does get said about our candidates.

In what could be called tough gender-on-gender reporting, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd seems to take pleasure in getting her licks on Sen. Hillary Clinton. During the high primary month of February, the author of Are Men Necessary? became the undisputed champion of the male candidate. And in doing so, Dowd worked the most remarkable metamorphosis: She turned Clinton into a male and Obama into a female, referring over and over to Clinton’s masculine attributes and Obama’s feminine tendencies. In one column, the headline that some outlets used with the syndicated commentary read: “Macho Clinton loses out to feminized Obama.” Dowd wrote that Clinton was “trying to out-macho Obama” while “Obama tapped into his inner chick and turned the other cheek” against a charge from Clinton.

So, in some odd way, you could say Dowd did support the woman and kept her feminist credentials intact.

When a columnist can use mere words to change someone’s gender, it’s hard to argue that words don’t matter.

Words matter so much in this election. Ideas put into words that lead us to real action and solutions are the only hope we have of confronting the harsh realities facing this country–poverty, healthcare reform, gender and racial inequality, economic woes and two wars draining our resources.

And that’s why we should demand a few more words to fill in the blanks.


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