Building Nations and Metaphors

Today’s New York Times column by Thomas Friedman ( offers President Obama a very public lesson in remedial rhetoric, and ordinary readers a cheat sheet on what the President really means to say when he delivers one of his “eloquent” speeches.

First off let me say that I have never been persuaded of the President’s much-insisted upon “eloquence”: President Obama has no familiarity with metaphor, allusion, or any of the manifold devices of a good writer or speaker. And personally I find it difficult to listen to what he’s actually saying because his herky-jerky caesuras force me to listen for the next odd or inappropriate pause in his discourse. A speaker our President is not.

Apparently Friedman knows this too, because his what-the-president-really-means column is, in fact, an apologia for the President’s deficiencies in communication. The translation Friedman offers of the President’s words sends not a tingle up my leg but a chill down my spine. Friedman says, explaining the meta-narrative that unifies the President’s speeches and policies: “What is that narrative? Quite simply it is nation-building at home. It is nation-building in America.” Later on in his essay Friedman elaborates: “One of the reasons that independents and conservatives who voted for Mr. Obama have been so easily swayed against him by Fox News and people labeling him a ‘socialist’ is because he has not given voice to the truly patriotic nation-building endeavor in which he is engaged.” [Emphasis added.]

Let’s digress momentarily to parse Friedman’s own rhetoric. He makes a false assumption about those independents and conservatives who voted for Obama in the presidential election, when he dismisses them as having been “easily swayed against [the President] by Fox News and people labeling him a ‘socialist.’” Do all of these independents and conservatives watch Fox News? Doubtful. Highly doubtful. Have they all turned “against” the President. Again, not likely. And by Friedman’s own logic here—i.e., accepting the false assumption as true—one might assume that this same group of voters was as easily swayed to vote for Obama by his pretty face or his melting-pot ancestry than by his political beliefs, which Friedman finds so hard to discern. End of digression and back to the chilling import of what Friedman contends.

Since when is nation-building the province of one man? And just how is a nation that has operated under the rule of law for nearly two and one third centuries in need of “building”? In exactly what way does a nation that lays claim to a body of literature, art, music and education that extends centuries more back from the implementation of the Constitution need a make-over? What one-man renovation is required for a nation with an electorate that provides the means for peaceful, lawful transfer of power at regular intervals? In other words, what the hell is Friedman talking about?

Friedman characterizes President Obama’s attempt to nation-build as “truly patriotic” and offers universal healthcare, upgraded education and green jobs as examples of what patriotic nation-building means. Surely he does not mean the divisive bill currently in Congress—you know, the one that ignited the rhetorical war that pits those who prefer “tea-partier” against those who insist upon “tea-bagger”? Surely he does not mean wresting education from the local control of parents and community and handing it over to distant desk jockeys? As far as green jobs go, in a nation looking at ten percent unemployment, do we really care about the color of our employment opportunities?

Friedman does President Obama no favors by accusing him of nation-building within their own country. Here’s how Wikipedia defines “nation-building”:

“the process of constructing or structuring a national identity using the power of the state. This process aims at the unification of the people or peoples within the state so that it remains politically stable and viable in the long run. Nation-building can involve the use of propaganda or major infrastructure development to foster social harmony and economic growth.”

And here’s an excerpt from the précis the Rand Corporation uses to describe its monograph The Beginner’s Guide to Nation Building:

“Nation-building involves the use of armed force as part of a broader effort … to promote political … its neighbors. This guidebook is a practical ‘how-to’ manual on the conduct of effective nation-building. It is organized around the constituent elements that make up any nation-building mission: military, … police, rule of law, humanitarian relief, governance, economic stabilization, democratization, and development.”

I’ll stop at two because I hope you’re getting the idea. And the chills.

One thought on “Building Nations and Metaphors

  1. Most conservatives despise metaphor and treat it like a cat on a hot tin roof. The closest thing to poetry in a conservative speech is to consider how fair and balanced the reporting is, like a Fox News report. Recently, I listened to President Obama talk about Afghanistan, and when I closed my eyes, I thought I was listening to George Bush. Such is the power of his communication.

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