‘Yes, We Can’... Do What?

Cassandra West

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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