The Meaning of “is” is… or “Who is Barack Obama?”

“Barack Obama is different” means:

Either: We live in a community where everyone knows everyone else or, at least, we used to. Our neighbor was the banker, and the doctor lived down the street. At coffee after church the teacher told us how proud she was of our daughter. The local farmers shopped at “Our Own Hardware.” If we bought a side of beef from them, we could keep it in their locker. We played bridge with the mayor the second Tuesday of the month. When we went fishin’ we didn’t think about locking the house or car. We don’t know why things aren’t that way anymore. Barack Obama comes from a different culture, even a different country. Didn’t his father go back there? How could he understand us? He went to some highfalutin’ school where they teach how to take advantage of the rest of us. He tried to get poor black people to riot. He can’t possibly understand us. Besides, he’s black.

Or: We belong to a culture in which most people have had pretty good lives. We’ve gone to Europe, some even to Asia or Africa. Some of what’s there is better than what’s here. We don’t, or we try not to, judge people by the color of their skin or their gender or any other “accidental attribute.” We’ve tried to send our kids to “highfalutin'” schools. We try to do good, even if only by contributing to our public broadcasting station. We’ve worked hard to provide a better life for our kids, just as our parents did for us. We have tried to elect government officials who would keep us safe, improve our economic wellbeing and enhance our country’s standing abroad. Something has gone very badly wrong. Barack Obama is different, thank God. He seems to understand our ideals, and he is able to articulate them without sounding weak or naïve. He also seems to realize something better than we do. Even our economic well being would be better if we lived up to those ideals.

The meaning of a word is a function of how it relates to all the other words used to express the lived experience of those who use them. Same word plus different experience equals different meanings.

Like a fly hitting a spider web, one word can activate an entire culture’s deepest hopes and fears, whether anyone else thinks it should or shouldn’t.

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2 Responses to “The Meaning of “is” is… or “Who is Barack Obama?””

  1. Rod Says:

    Excellent contrast. I believe this “who is Barack Obama” meme is a shallow attempt to play off of racial fears. It’s particularly laughable since Obama has written two engaging book on the exactly that subject.

  2. miklwald Says:

    Unfortunately, those fears are there to be played off of. “Objectively” there may not be any reason to fear, but how do you reassure those who are afraid anyway.
    The two who are really scary are McCain and Palin.

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