In Which I Play The Contrarian

I usually stay out of the business of being a contrarian, there are people I respect  who are far better than I at it.  Nevertheless, there have been examples lately where it seems like the whole world thinks one way, and I just can’t bring myself to feel the same.  I almost never have had a thought I didn’t rush to post on this blog, so here goes.

The first example is pretty innocuous, I suppose.  This past Saturday, the family and I needed to make a grocery run, so we decided to see what all the hubub was about and went to Trader Joe’s.  I don’t need to tell you how much people rave about this place.  I hear it at work, at church, on the blogs.  “The place is incredible!”, I have been told time and again.

Well, let’s just say, I don’t get it.

First of all, the place was so small in comaparison to say, Kroger, that it’s hard to call it a grocery store.  I understand, it’s built for urban hipster wannabees, not big suburban families.  Even the carts are tiny.  I’m feeding two quasi teenagers and a couple of plus-sized adults.  Those carts are big enough to hold, well, lunch.  The largest unit of ground beef was 1 pound.

There were only store brands, which I expected, but that fact left me totally disoriented.  Which “crunchy puffs” or “organic wheat squares” is the equivalent of Life Cereal?  I was faced with performing a translation with every item I wanted to buy.  (Keep in mind, I’m a born-and-raised southerner.  Soft drinks, no matter what flavor, are “Cokes”.  Tissues are “Kleenexes”, no matter the brand).

Regardless, the place just left me frustrated and disoriented.  Give me my big box.  I want to feed my family and save money.  That’s all.

Maybe y’all can fill me in about what’s so great about Trader Joe’s.  I just don’t get it.

OK, now for the one that will cause every person that is reading this to feel an overwhelming urge to have me committed.  There is something that EVERYONE says, Democrat, Republican, left right, political junkie, political neophytes.  It is more than conventional wisdom that our president, Barack Obama, is a great orator.

I do not agree.

I just don’t think that Mr Obama is a great orator.  A great speaker, yes.  But not a great orator.  I’m afraid we’re living in a generation that has no frame of reference for great oratory, so we give the prize to anyone who is a good speech-giver.  Great oratory, in my opinion, is a specific thing.

Now, keep in mind, this is like giving one’s opinion of a particular piece of music.  Much of it is taste.  My criteria may not be yours, and that’s OK.  You can tell my why my criteria is wrong, if you know better.  Keep in mind also that my idea of great oratory is heavily influenced by my upbringing:  I am southern and religious.  So, of course, that will color my idea of just what great oratory is.

Above all, great oratory is very musical.  It must have a certain cadence. Mr Obama has a cadence, but I noticed in his quasi SOTUspeech, he rushes it, and he never variates the tempo.  Great oratory also makes use of the well-timed pause.  It also uses volume to great effect.  Mr Obama knows how to raise his voice during applause lines, but really great oratory requires the voice to soften at particularly poignant times.  The best can even add a touch of frailty to the voice at these moments. 

Mr Obama, like Celine Dion, doesn’t seem to know how to get extra quiet for effect.

To be honest, Obama’s speaking style is that of a professor.  A very good professor, one whose lectures you never want to miss.  But, I think this is one of the places where he falls short of great oratory.

You see, like any good professor, he stands before the room, and speaks toeveryone there.  There is another level,one that only the great orators have mastered.  A great orator will start in the same position, standing in front of the listener and speaking to him.  However, sometime in the first third of the speech, he will figuratively approach the listener, pivot, and stand beside him.  This is usually done through humor (self-deprecating is best), which from Mr Obama always sounds forced.

Once “beside” the listener, the best orator can then place his arm around the listener, and through his speech say,”Come, walk with me on this journey”. This is usually accomplished by personal anectdote leading to the first point in the meat of the speech. 

The great orator always has the listener (each and every one, individually) walking on a journey with him.

Mr Obama never takes us with him.  He stands before us and gives a lecture.  Once again, this is a great style, and he’s wonderful at it, but this is not great oratory.

Key elements are missing: pauses, variable cadence, appropriate and dramatic volumes, ample humor in the first and last thirds of the speech, and a certain warmth which, to be quite honest, Obama does not project at all.

Another great oratorical method (that I’ve used quite a bit), is leaving a stealth grenade.  In the first third of the speech, one leaves an idea, almost in passing, usually through anecdote.  It is then forgotten until the very end of the speech where it in reintroduced in new, profound ways, causing the listener to feel a sweet joy at discovering a Truth from the other side.  It’s hard to explain, you have to see it in practice.

For the record, very few political speakers in the modern era have all of these skills.  Bill Clinton had them, but he didn’t know when to shut up, and usually lost the listener by the time he got to the 6th point of his ten-point plan.  Reagan had bits and pieces, but I never heard a speech from him with all of the needed elements (let’s face it, Reagan didn’t do cadence).  JFK , in the speeches I’ve seen, was a great orator.  He had all the elements.

I know you’re curious, so I’ll tell you:  the best orators I ever heard were Martin Luther King, Jr, and Billy Graham. Yeah, I know…southern preachers. 

Like I said, you might have different criteria for what great oratory is.  I’ve told you mine, and president Obama does not quite measure up.  This is not to say he isn’t a great speaker.  But great oratory, like I said, is a specific thing.

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3 Responses to “In Which I Play The Contrarian”

  1. Katherine Coble Says:

    I’m not a contrarian.

    (ha. I just love the inherent irony of that. So I say it. Because I’m a contrarian.)

    As far as the “Trader Joe’s Is Teh R0X0r!!eleventyone!!!” crowd goes, I think it’s not because of the store as a whole but because of a few key inhouse products.

    When I did Weight Watchers about 14 years ago everyone was crazed about Pirate Booty from Trader Joe’s because you could eat some madcraazy amount for about a half a point or something ridiculous like that. Around the same time (this was before she went public with the whole “my brain doesn’t operate correctly” thing) Rosie O’Donnell was at the height of her popularity and she went on and on about Pirate Booty on her show.

    Prior to that I’d never heard of the place. I still haven’t been there but from your description it sounds a lot like Fresh Market. I like one or two isolated items from Fresh Market (their crab and artichoke spread and their Chicken Paris en croute) but the store as a whole is overpriced and non-functional for everyday needs.

    I think, though, that a segment of the population at large finds those stores to be a bit of a classist victory for themselves and therein lies the other part of the cache. They seem to like paying extra for the basics in order to keep the riff-raff out. When we were at Fresh Market right before the Holidays I was supposed to get a gallon of milk for my mother. FM doesn’t sell gallons–only half gallons. And those half gallons cost the price of two gallons at Kroger. I looked at the milk and then turned to my husband and sister. “We have to go to Krogers to get the milk”. The lady next to me said “there’s the milk right there.” I (being me) said to her “There is no way on earth or in hell that I will pay six-fifty dollars for a half a gallon of milk.” The way she looked at me was as if to say “oh, one of those who doesn’t buy only ‘organic’ food and doesn’t really belong in this tony store.”

    So, there is my opinion on that.

    As for Obama, the fact that many folks think he’s a great orator only convinces me of the fact that Oratory–like shape-note singing–is a dying art.

  2. nm Says:

    I think you may be mistaking Trader Joe’s purpose, though. It isn’t a grocery store; it’s a snack-food-and-party-item store. They carry upscale tidbits at not-all-that-upscale prices, and on any given item they are likely to have the absolutely best version you can get for that price. (This would be much clearer to you if they could carry 3 Buck Chuck here.) I wouldn’t consider it for grocery shopping (well, maybe for frozen fish, of which they have a better assortment than most local groceries, if I was down that way anyway), but they have the best sesame sticks I have ever tasted in my life, and I allow myself one container of chocolate-covered toffee a year.

    I don’t think oratory is a dying art, but it is a changeable one. We wouldn’t any of us want to listen to Edward Everett Hale any more, you know. And there are actually recordings of William Jennings Bryan for us to hear, and they sound howlingly funny. I can’t hear Obama as a great orator myself, but then my standard is set by Mario Cuomo. Things change.

  3. bridgett Says:

    Of course not every speech is great oratory. Some speeches are just prosaic “let’s do this in this way, m’kay?” expressions of administrative functionality. And others are mildly inspirational and some are really quite good. However, I think you’ll concede that we’re all too close to the moment to decide whether it’s great oratory or not. Great oratory emerges as the words remembered as what a people needed to hear at a particular time, and that’s hard for us to know right now. If we keep turning to a particular set of words or find consolation in rough times in the future when we recall something he uttered, then I think he’s hit greatness. (And that’s separate from the impact of delivery — Isocrates and Plato were extremely powerful speakers, but their rhetoric transcends its original context and communicates to people who quite obviously can’t hear them speak their own words.) I personally think it’s way too early to tell.


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