Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Hoodwinked" in the Boston Globe

Communicative Action was mentioned in the February 10th edition of the Boston Globe thanks to a very interesting e-mail exchange I had with columnist Jan Freeman. Jan is a scholar of language and writes a column called "The Word" for the Globe highlighting the use of language in society and the many interesting twists and turns that our words take us.

Our exchange was related to a post I wrote about Obama's public identity as African-American that denies the more complex makeup of the man. I argue that we default Obama as an African-American when he is bi-racial and was raised by his white mother and grandparents, as well as an Indonesian stepfather. Jan was interested in the section of my post where I question Obama's rhetoric in South Carolina, in front of a largely African-American crowd, which echoed Malcolm X on the stump. He used the terms "okey-doke", "bamboozled", and "hoodwinked" in a not-so-veiled reference to the Bill Clinton commentary downplaying Obama as the second coming of Jesse Jackson (the presidential candidate version, not the civil rights hero). Jan rightly attributes those terms to a historical American tradition that significantly predates Malcolm X, arguing that Obama wasn't necessarily conjuring up a coded message to the African-American crowd. She also rightly corrected me in my own attribution of those comments to Malcolm, as there is no record of that particular phraseology in his speeches.

The determination that we agreed on was that the 1992 Spike Lee portrayal of Malcolm features the language and I argued that consciously or unconsciously I think Obama was using the mythological Malcolm to move a crowd. I argued that the language was coded for an African-American audience who would have a direct attachment to the words of the mythological X, and a very real understanding of the hoodwinking that the power elite have used for years to keep them marginalized and powerless. Jan is skeptical, and writes:

"I put those questions to Mike Plugh, who had highlighted the Obama-Malcolm echo at his thoughtful blog Communicative Action. I pointed out that the Malcolm in question was probably the movie character, since I couldn’t find the real man using bamboozle. (Google’s book search finds Malcolm using “deceived,” “brainwashed,” and “fooled,” but not bamboozled. And his only “hoodwinked” refers to young hustlers tricking older ones.)

After several rounds of correspondence, Plugh summarized his slightly revised view: He still thinks Obama was echoing (consciously or not) the movie speech, to say "They've done this to us for centuries, people, and I'm going to remind you of it by quoting Malcolm X” – the idealized character, not the real man."

I defend my take on this by noting that the words of Obama were organized in the same general arrangement that Denzel Washington's Malcolm X used in the film. Had he used the terms in a less structured fashion, I'd be equally skeptical that the message was coded.


mike's spot said...

I like your moves mike. I like your moves.

However, I have a question. If I am understanding you correctly, Obama is detached from his African American heritage. However, when speaking to a black audience, he tries to appear as a historically significant black leader.

Is this because he feels he cannot connect with the black vote of his own volition?

Mike Plugh said...

No, I'm not arguing that he's at all detached with his African-American heritage.

I argue that the other part of his heritage is largely ignored by the mainstream media. Obama has spent the better part of his adult life working in the African-American community. His congregation is African-American and his wife is African-American.

My only argument is that he's something else. He's only African-American in the same way that Derek Jeter is African-American or Halle Berry is African-American. It's one of the great points of myopia in America. Anyone with "non-white" blood is something else. You have a black parent and a white're black. You have an Asian parent and a white're Asian.

Obama has a complex heritage and since my own family looks like his in some way I relate to the idea that standard classifications deprive the public of a full understanding of the depth and richness of our humanity.

I think he spoke in code to that audience because he knew it would resonate. Like:

"Hey people. You see what Bill Clinton is trying to do? He's trying to marginalize my message because we're all Black and support one another. Watch me win this whole thing and shut him up."

mike's spot said...

ah now I get your point.

George Carlin said it best:

American means white, everybody else is just a hyphen.

at least i think it was george carlin.

Fadds said...

Mike & Mike... I think it has a lot to do with the different faces we put on in the presence of different audiences... whether or not that's the "GunzandShit" approach of using the face that best suits your listeners...

...or the "CommunicativeAction" approach of media inflating one face over the other (without any say from the candidate) remains to be seen...

...then again, I think it has been seen. And to me, both of the identities that you both discuss can co-exist... which is what I think we're seeing here. Great article Mike.

Fadds said...

...also, and I'm sure both caught this, but Hillary threw "Hoodwinked" around a few times in last night's debate... she's so hood!