July 31, 2008

Report From the Obama Townhall Meeting

I’m still in Finland. Here is Wife Rhetorica’s report from the Obama townhall event in Springfield:

Considering the Obama campaign office in Springfield officially only opened last Saturday, it would have been understandable if today’s campaign stop was a little rocky. But Barack Obama’s townhall meeting at Glendale High School ran as smoothly as if his advance team had been living in Springfield all their lives.

Now to the substance of the event: The gymnasium was set up so that the podium was in the middle of the room, allowing Obama to speak “in the round.” That effectively created the feeling of a townhall meeting. More than 1,000 of us were crowded into the auditorium, but no one would have been more than 15 or 20 rows from the stage. Thankfully, the local politicians were kept away from the podium. A man from Rogersville, a small town outside Springfield, opened the event by nervously reading some remarks about the difficulty of making it as a blue-collar worker in America today. It was a good enough idea, but I felt for the poor guy, reading too fast and stumbling over somebody else’s prose. Fortunately, that part did not last long. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Obama strode to the podium together, and McCaskill used a call-and-response to introduce the candidate and fire up the crowd.

Obama acknowledged the local pols that wished they were sitting with on the stage, then launched into the economic points from his stump speech. Speaking from notes with no teleprompter, he started with tax cuts and job creation and, in my opinion, garnered mild enthusiasm from the crowd. The first standing ovation came from his promise to overhaul America’s health care system. Although he has been accused of doing poorly in question-and-answer situations, he fielded questions for 25 minutes with only one stumble, in my opinion.

The questions did not seem like set-ups; I believe Obama’s assertion that there were “no rules” about which questions could be asked. (But I’m going to check this out….one of the audience members who asked a question is a friend of a friend, so I want to learn more about this directly.)

In his answers, Obama used humor deftly to come across as a “regular guy” and showed concern for people’s personal situations without seeming like a panderer. Most of his answers were devoted to reiterating points from his stump speech, but he occasionally veered into thinking out-loud. For example, answering a question about solving the energy crisis, he pulled out the well-rehearsed “We need to have an Apollo project for energy. That’s the spirit of America: Yet set a goal and then you figure out how to get to the goal.” But within 30 seconds, he was encouraging everyone in the room to get their tires inflated and their cars tuned up to avoid wasting fuel and suggested that by changing building codes—which is largely a local issue, not a federal one—America could dramatically improve the energy use of the built environment.

Notably, although he was selling his plan for another “stimulus” package of up to $2,000 per family, the audience did not faint with excitement to either of his pitches on that topic. What did draw huge applause: “I don’t take PAC money and I don’t take money from registered lobbyists.” When a questioner asked how Obama would force big corporations to improve their environmental practices, he said, “There’s going to be a fight” over global warming, but he didn’t take a swing today. He spoke briefly about climate change, then launched into an explanation of how lobbyists influence Congress and called on citizens to make their own concerns heard. “I’m not trying to silence business. I just want to make sure your voice is as loud as the business voice.”

My favorite question of the day came from a young guy on the floor just two rows from the stage. He asked a real question, with a quick follow-up: “May I have a fist bump?” Obama complied.

July 30, 2008

European Cool

First, I need to acknowledge that running an academic conference isn’t easy. Now, I want to gripe a bit about ISSEI. One of the presentations I most wanted to hear was supposed to be happening at this very moment. Two things: 1) The paper about the affects of political blogging was read earlier today, and 2) The paper on 19th century “blogs” is not being read at all. The session is starting late, and the only a paper left that I care about is the one on blogging in red states and blue states. The question becomes: Do I sit here and blog or do I go to a 3-hour session for one paper? Hmmmmm…

I’ve learned that the structure of this conference is often “loose.” The Europeans in attendance are totally cool with that. It’s not that I’m not cool with it; it’s just that I’m a bit disappointed.

I’m happy to report, however, that our session was a success! I’ll post a recap of my paper soon–something on the order of an extended abstract. I don’t want to post the whole thing at this time because I have the opportunity to be published in the proceedings.

July 29, 2008

Obama to Speak in Springfield

The following is a report from Wife Rhetorica:

While Andy continues his tour of drinking establishments in Finland, Wife Rhetorica and Kid Rhetorica will cover Obama’s townhall meeting in Springfield on Wednesday. We were among the lucky 1,000 people to get tickets, and our report on that happy experience appears here:

When we decided to move to Springfield, Mo., five years ago, I tried not to think about the survey in which Springfield was identified as the whitest city in America. I dismissed it as an unjustified assertion because, for one thing, Springfield is more of a large town than a city, and for another, how could any town be distinguished by homogeneity.

I do not know whether that survey was accurate, but now that I live here, there is no dismissing the whiteness of Springfield. It will sound odd to readers in the rest of America, but the truth is that, in a typical week, the only African Americans I see are a black family who attends my church and, if I shop for groceries in the evening, a black man who is one of the managers. That’s it.

That’s why it felt unusual Monday evening to stand in line waiting for tickets to see Barack Obama at today’s townhall meeting. I stood in line with many African Americans for the first time since I moved here. These people live in Springfield but are usually separated from whites by some invisible line that is hard to understand.

Or maybe it’s not hard to understand. On the first Easter we lived here, I went to the town square to attend a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Easter morning lynching of three black men on that very square. Apparently, Springfield had a thriving African American community before that, but public lynchings tend to disrupt one’s feeling of community.

The fact that Obama is coming to Springfield, which is overwhelmingly Republican, says to me that he knows he needs to win Missouri in November, and he has hope that he can convince southwestern Missourians to help him do it. No one would expect him to prevail in this corner of the state, but if we can pull together enough votes to combine with the support he will get in St. Louis and Kansas City, we can tip the state in his favor.

Or, as the black woman in front of me in the ticket line told her TV interviewer: “I am proud that Springfield could do something to be part of the change that we need.”

And, I thought to myself, electing a black man as president might just change us too.

My support for Obama is not because of his race, but rather because his book, “Dreams of My Father,” convinced me that he is a man of integrity and intelligence, and I trust him to help lead our country during these difficult times. But as I sweltered on the sidewalk, sharing a goal with African American neighbors I never saw before, I felt the audacity of hope that Springfield–and America– could change.

July 29, 2008

A Few Observations About Helsinki

I’d heard that Helsinki is a “livable” city, and now I understand what that means. It’s about the same size as Kansas City (where I lived for 20 years). Three things I noticed right away:

[Editor’s Note: My pictures are a bit rough because I’m using my Aiptek DV (cheap) to make stills for the web. For some reason my Asus Eee PC won’t read my Kodak digital camera. I’ll post better pictures to Facebook when I return home.]

1. Public transportation. Streetscars and buses cover the city. They are quiet and clean and easy to use. In addition, people here walk and ride bicycles—proper commuting bicycles. You see them parked around town by the hundreds. There is a bike path system and numerous large bike racks.

[Pics to follow]

2. Easy-going attitude. The city is clean but not in a fussy way. The people are pleasant and helpful. And they know how to party. The outdoor cafes and bars are packed, especially at night when, around midnight, it’s still rather light out. Drinking appears to be the national sport. The fob for our hotel room key doubles as a bottle opener 🙂

3. Lots of well-used open space. Public squares and parks are bustling with local people at all hours. When we arrived on Sunday the streets were busy, the cafes were packed, and folks were enjoying the luscious summer weather on park benches. But nowhere does the city feel crowded. Just well-used and comfortable.

The city is trilingual; Finnish and Swedish are the two official languages. And I have yet to encounter a Finn who doesn’t speak English well.

Of the many interesting parts of the city I think I like the docks near the city center the best. It’s an open-air market during the day. The best part of the market is the food. As I mentioned in my previous post today, I enjoyed a massive pig-out on local food.


Lots of beautiful, locally-grown fruits vegetables for sale in the market at the docks.


Lunch #1 at noon: Salmon with roasted veggies and new potatoes.


Lunch #2 at 12:20 p.m.: Reindeer sausage with new potatoes and fresh pickles.

Now, I’m totally stuffed. But it was good 🙂

July 29, 2008

How Not to Open a Conference

The ISSEI conference opened yesterday with a deadly dull keynote address that had nothing to do with the conference theme: Language and the Scientific Imagination. I started to record it thinking Rhetorica readers might like to listen to a podcast. But you won’t get to hear it because I stopped recording. There are many things I’ll inflict on you, but not that.

Things started looking up at the opening reception that followed the keynote address.

Today the conference actually begins. The sessions here are not the typical 90-minute affairs in which 3 or 4 people read their papers followed by a short Q&A. There are 3.5-hour “workshops” with four or more presenters followed by significant interaction between the presenters and audience. So I won’t be hopping from presentation to presentation.

I’ll have a report from my workshop, entitled Kings, Presidents, and Ministers: Language and its Effect on the Executive in Biography and Imaginative Literature. Click here for a description of my presentation. Our workshop takes place tomorrow.

I’ll be covering another workshop on Wednesday afternoon entitled Democracy and the Internet.

Right now I’m cooling it at the Uni Cafe in the main conference building. I’m going to the city docks for lunch—great food vendors there. I’m planning a major pig-out 🙂

Also, be on the lookout later today or tomorrow for photos and maybe a podcast.

July 28, 2008

The Longest Day

I arrived in Helsinki yesterday afternoon after about 24 hours of travel. My travel partner and I decided the smart thing to do was wait until the evening to go to bed so that we might cut the effects of jet lag. We ended up making a late night of it. There is an Irish pub about a block from the hotel frequented by locals. More about this multi-cultural experience later. Right now: Time to register for the conference.

July 25, 2008

Next Stop: Helsinki

I’m leaving for Helsinki tomorrow. I’m attending the International Society for the Study of European Ideas conference. I’ll be “Euro-blogging” all next week about whatever topics–from the conference and life on the streets–that strike my fancy. I will also try to post photos, video, and maybe even a podcast or two.

July 18, 2008

More on "What is Citizen Journalism?"

Let’s take another look at Jay Rosen’s pithy definition of citizen journalism:

“When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.”

Does “journalism” indicate the same thing for pro and amateur? It should, IMO. That doesn’t mean the pro and amateur will/can/should produce exactly the same product (or have exactly the same audience). Let’s move ahead (briefly) with those assumptions. This, then, would be a credible definition of “professional journalism”:

“When people paid a salary employ press tools to inform one another, that’s professional journalism.”

Again, what are these tools? How are they acquired? Are we merely talking technology? What is the relationship between the tools and the product such that the employ of them leads to something called journalism? Do differences exist in the the use of these tools based on how the journalist is situated? i.e. the pro working within a commercial institution and the amateur working (in/for/with) _____ (how/where/with whom do amateurs work?).

To be continued…

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July 16, 2008

What Is Citizen Journalism?

Jay Rosen offers this definition of citizen journalism:

“When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.”

What follows are comments and responses that are well worth your time to read. I’m a little late getting to this one (one big reason here), but here goes:

What are these “tools” that (some) citizens possess?

Rosen’s brief definition doesn’t say. That may be a strength–especially regarding the rhetorical power of this idea. We are free to fill in the blank. I’m now fixin’ to suggest how.

One way to understand “tools” is in terms of technology. As we are all now quite well aware, the internet and inexpensive digital devices allow anyone to gather and publish information with the intention of informing “one another.” (Also re: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Intention)

Another way to understand tools — a way I find particularly interesting — is in terms of the intellectual kit or set of skills necessary to gather and disseminate information (and knowledge and wisdom) that informs.

Technology makes it easy to gather and publish with (dare I say it?) journalistic intention. A big part of understanding “tools” in regard to journalism (and the intention to produce it) includes possessing the tools of the craft (and ethics and ethos) of newspaper journalism.

How do citizens get these tools?

To be continued…

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July 15, 2008

Journalism and Political Mythology

The essay I’m writing for the ISSEI conference picks up where Edward Pessen left off in his book The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents. Pessen covers Washington through Reagan. I’m picking up with Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

The focus of my essay is how this myth operates in autobiography after the political usefulness of claiming a humble origin no longer matters. (George H. W. Bush is a fascinating anomaly. He just tossed aside the idea of writing an autobiography as unnecessary and instead published a compilation of letters and other writings. No claims of humble origin for this guy.)

What I wanted to share with you today is a quote by Pessen that will be of particular interest to Rhetorica readers. Pessen says that, among other things, his research into the social backgrounds of the presidents

suggests that the [news] media, which play so great a role in shaping the public’s consciousness, are perfectly willing to propagate myths likely to have a stabilizing effect on our political life, no matter how slight the factual basis of these myths.

[Ed. Note: Pessen confines his remarks to political “consciousness,” which is not indicated by this truncated quote. With that qualification in mind, I agree with his statement. I have claimed before — and I’m sticking by it as unremarkable — that most Americans experience presidential politics through the news media.]

Recall from my work on the primary instability paradox (here and here) that a stable political system is an undemocratic political system, i.e. a stable system gives the illusion of choice and the illusion of unpredictability. When journalists’ reporting helps stabilize a political system they are harming democracy.

Call it mythology. Call it master narrative. Call it bad journalism.

The cure: Journalists must be custodians of fact and operate with a discipline of verification. That means questioning EVERYTHING (including the system itself).

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