OP-EDS

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October 26, 2007

Favorite son's rhetoric lost in the details

In recent weeks, Barack Obama spoke before a well respected Chicago university on the subject of the war in Iraq. This particular university is known for its campus diversity. It has consistently been ranked top in terms of undergraduate satisfaction, and one of its graduate programs holds a number-nine ranking in the U.S. News and World Report.

No—The already-impressive workload hasn’t oppressed your senses to the point of neglecting to notice the visit of a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination. And, while many of those descriptions may sound reminiscent of oft-cited boasts to friends at other schools, they each apply to the real location of the address: DePaul University.

Now, there are many reasons why Obama should have come to the University of Chicago and likely will eventually. He has an undoubtedly strong base in the area and has done vast amounts of service within the community. Furthermore, he has developed his old personal ties from his time spent as a lecturer at the Law School, with the inclusion of two respected U of C faculty (Austan Goolsbee of the GSB and Cass Sunstein of the Law School) into his closest circle of policy advisors. And not to be overlooked, we are a school of bright, politically minded, and predominantly liberal college students from the very state he represents.

However, we also need to be aware of the reason why he shouldn’t come to speak here, why he should stay as far from campus as is politely possible: Our grand statements of intellectuality ground into the very ethos of the school. Simply put, few schools emphasize critical analysis and inquisitive evaluation to the degree that the U of C does. With the tempestuous and mercurial nature of today’s electronic political process, a stump speech and carefully prepared copy become invaluable tools to avoid costly slip-ups—making prospects of a critically acerbic audience a nightmarish proposition.

A certain requirement of these political speeches dictates that audiences will to a certain degree accept the oratory at face value through their faith in the speaker. I had the chance to see Obama speak earlier this summer at a Philadelphia “Community Kickoff” event. While I found myself deeply intrigued by his allusions to the Tennessee Valley Administration of the New Deal, a tremendous focus of his speech was in blazingly populist rhetoric calling for an end to violence in a city desperately besieged by an annually increasing homicide rate. He gave the people what bits of himself and his ideas they wanted and needed to hear.

But can that really happen at the U of C, with a crowd obsessed with details and carefully poring over every possible allusion to JFK? Can Obama’s rhetoric function in the presence of overanxious and overworked Hum students eager to pounce with thrilling interjections of “Non sequitur!” or “Straw man!”? When rhetoric is broken down and analyzed, things become uncertain, and uncertainty is a dangerous place for any national candidate.

However, even with our academic paradigm, such a response is by no means inevitable. Politics, along with religion and perhaps sports, is an area where we have trouble setting aside our strong personal feelings to engage in objective analysis, and blind political enthusiasm is far from absent on our campus. A foul taste still seems to linger from campaigns of yesteryear, where the fervor and zeal of a political agenda far outpaces and overwhelms what should be our academic instinct to pause, reconsider, and reevaluate.

Far from being easy, such impartial consideration can be downright dangerous. Delving deeply and broadly, you can quickly find yourself with no candidate to speak of and nothing but a stinking T-shirt (and a deep-seated feeling of embittered resentment). Alternatively, you could wander off the beaten path into the camp a third-party, or otherwise estranged camp with only firm convictions, high romance, and a thorough understanding of the successes and failures of historical third parties to guide you through another election.

So, as risky as this sounds, we do have a reputation here—a reputation implying intimidation. Rather than worrying about the downsides, I see the chance for a little group of vexing, wise-ass college students to make a difference in politics beyond the usual forms of involvement. We can do this by extending the criticisms we might have in Hum papers to the reasoning of politicians.