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Indignation and politics — Obama’s tone….

Maureen Dowd‘s column this AM is an interesting dialogue in which she (with assist from Aaron Sorokin) is able to give advice via a rant by fictional “The West Wing” President Josiah Bartlet. I think they have it half right — what Obama needs to do, they imply, is to ratchet up the current, more angry tone of his campaign rhetoric. But I think they are misreading that tone….

In recent weeks Obama has shifted from inspirational orator to a classroom lecturer and, most recently, to a lecturer with the capacity to toss in some good one-liners that are certainly designed for the sound-bite hungry mass media. The “tonal” nature of these presentations is not (as Dowd/Sorokin think) anger, but rather indignation — a much more suitable approach for a person who cannot afford to be seen as angry if he is to succeed in this campaign.

The line between anger and indignation is often a very thin one. (Wikipedia, in fact, treats the two as synonymous.) McCain crossed that line to (I think) good effect for his campaign in his “I’d fire him” (in reference to SEC chair Cox) speech this past week. This is the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” approach made famous in Paddy Chayefsky‘s “Network” (listen here), and it is a real crowd pleaser when coming from McCain.

But Obama can’t really cross that line without seeming to fall off the perch he constructed that differentiated him from the widely held image of the “Raised Fist” angry black American (thanks to friend Domonic for highlighting that image…). Nor can he become too steeped in the image of the stand-up comic who can deliver a zinger and get a laugh — another image that knocks him off the elevated platform as the “leader (change) we need” that he has been able to construct over the months. Rather, he has to maintain a tone of serious indignation about what’s being said about him (something he is doing well at the moment with the well crafted one-liners) as well as what is happening in the country (“enough is enough” seems to have done the trick there).

The power of indignation and similar “reactive attitudes” is of serious consequence in our social and political lives — a view implied in 18th century Scottish Enlightenment examination of “moral sentiments” [David Hume (see here)Adam Smith (see here) and all that) and articulated most effectively by 20th century British philosopher PF Strawson (read here). It is central to our sense of being accountable — and drives the central role of accountability in politics, governance and all sorts of others social endeavors. For present purposes, it can be used to sharpen a campaign that needs to keep moving forward….

September 21st, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments