Obama's Speech Is A Win For Plain English


Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last Thursday is being widely lauded for its political finesse, but for me, as a writer, it is a long overdue victory for language.

While the typical modern politician is a master of saying much without saying anything, Obama used less than 6000 words to strip bare some of the most complex international politics of the last 100 years or more. To read his speech is to wonder what all the fuss has been about.

There was much anticipation of this speech. The new US President was to address an audience in a Muslim country and outline his vision for the future of international relations. How could he begin to undo the damage to America’s relations with the Middle East wrought by his predecessor? How would he keep the Jewish community on-side without widening the gap between the US and Islam? In short, how could he raise the issues without raising ire?

The challenge would have led to most Western politicians either heading for their spin doctors or practising their most earnest delivery of "evil", "freedom" and "liberty". As it turned out, Obama didn’t tip-toe the fine line nor stumble over it. He simply strode along it as if it were a red carpet.

He did so by using the sort of simple, plain speech which has become so rare in politics that were it furry it would be critically endangered. In place of euphemism there was clarity. In place of obfuscation there was candour. In place of nationalistic narcissism there was national humility.

Obama used clear, straight talk: there was no jargon or weasel words. The word "outcome" was used once, and only in its correct sense. There was no "moving forward". There were no "stakeholders". There was no talk of "full and frank" discussions. George Orwell would have liked this speech.

There was no unspoken agenda either. This speech directly reflected values Obama has clearly, consistently espoused. Unlike many of his political counterparts, he does not shy away from saying things like "my responsibility [is]to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear". He does not allow his meaning to be stifled by the fear of losing the redneck vote.

If Obama had any hidden agenda in this speech it was to surreptitiously unpick as many seams of the Bush legacy as he could in the time he had. But his references here were more veiled than hidden: "The fear and anger that [9/11] provoked … led us to act contrary to our ideals," and later: "Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward."

This cutting of threads to the past was reinforced by the language he didn’t use. The words "liberty", "terror", "terrorist" and "fundamentalist" were not used at all. "Freedom" was used five times, four of those in the context of religious freedom.

The US President maintained balance by focusing on these values and on basic human rights. He was candid about the responsibilities of all sides to uphold these: Americans; Muslims, Jews and Christians; Palestinians, Israelis and the Arab world; Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans; and men and women generally.

Stereotypes have been a covert weapon of conservative governments and terrorists in the last decade. Obama was deft here, managing to make a point to Islamophobes and extremists alike with his references to the Koran, reminding both of the peace at the heart of Islam. He quoted it: "be conscious of God and speak always the truth" and "we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other". And he referred to its teachings: "whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind". Obama also showed his audience that he was aware of the role Muslims played in carrying "the light of learning" through the dark ages, and of the extent to which Islam has been and remains well established in the fabric of American life.

Obama’s speech was inclusive. As he did at his inauguration, he repeatedly made it clear that change, and peace itself, could only come from a shared effort. "All these things must be done in partnership. Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments; community organisations, religious leaders and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life."

The real power of this speech was that the President’s context was ordinary people. His concern was with the mother in Kabul, the father in Baghdad and the child in Jerusalem. Not the politicians or diplomats or soldiers or terrorists. At every opportunity he emphasised basic shared values: "principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings," and his "unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things…"

Obama spoke to the people, to all people, in language that was clear and understandable. This is his great strength and his great difference.

Other politicians around the world fret over how a single word might be interpreted, how a single phrase might come across on television. All they succeed in doing is tripping over their own feet, looking and sounding like klutzes and losing all meaning in the process.

There is plenty more to be done in the Middle East and between the Muslim world and America. The scepticism from some is understandable given a long and bloody history and the lack of progress for over a generation.

But in the end all we have is language and guns, and the latter don’t seem to be getting us very far. The world should be thankful that at long last we have an American president who understands this.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.