The 2012 Brigance Forum Lecture – “The Moral Imagination of Barack Obama”

By Matt Michaloski ‘14

On Wednesday, March 21st, the Wabash College Rhetoric Department hosted another exciting adventure into the world of public address with its annual Brigance Forum Lecture. This year’s speaker was the impressively well-qualified Dr. John M. Murphy of the University of Illinois. Dr. Murphy spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of President Obama’s speeches in a lecture entitled, “The Moral Imagination of Barack Obama.” I feel the need to say that not every guest lecture I’ve attended has managed to be interesting. Some end up being dull, and some go as far as to lower your blood pressure. You never know quite what to expect when you sit down and pledge an hour of your time to listening to what a stranger has to say – especially when that stranger has a PhD and will probably hit you with all sorts of subordinate clauses and strange polysyllabic words. But Dr. Murphy’s lecture did not disappoint. It was not only informative; it was genuinely interesting from start to finish.

The talk began with the invocation of William N. Brigance who is at once a beloved rhetoric professor of Wabash’s past, the namesake of the Brigance Forum, and giant in the history of public address studies.  Dr. Murphy introduced us to one of “Briggie’s” important ideas: looking beyond the immediate goals of famous speeches to try and understand the underlying historical processes and philosophies that were at work in that particular time and place when our famous orators were doing their famous orating. By looking beyond the immediate goals of Obama’s rhetoric, Dr. Murphy believed we could understand how Obama articulates his vision of America and what it is that the President believes and wants us, his audience, to believe. To help drive home his point Dr. Murphy used the example of President Reagan’s famous words: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem!” Dr. Murphy believed that these words transcended the immediate goals of President Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address and said something broadly philosophical about his worldview.  Reagan offered the kind of persuasive words that people took to heart and that had the power to influence the way people thought about their government.  In a similar fashion, Dr. Murphy wanted to uncover Obama’s philosophy: What sorts of core beliefs does President Obama want to communicate to the American people? He outlined two main points that show up often in Obama’s rhetoric: human nature and historical narrative.

This was setting up to be a good talk, and I found it difficult at this point to stop listening long enough to take good notes. But I think I have enough of the story straight to report the important points. As a warning, this blog entry is about to become extremely philosophical, so if you aren’t firmly seated now is a good time to adjust yourself.

Dr. Murphy began his dissection of Obama’s “moral imagination” by introducing us to 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was a strong believer in realism and argued against both the extreme theological liberals and the fundamentalists of his day (per Wikipedia). He also focused on original sin and man’s struggle to overcome his limitations. Obama cites Niebuhr as one of his greatest inspirations and took away from him the belief that there is serious evil in the world but that it can be overcome with determination and toil. At the same time, our optimism should be moderated by realism. We should not become self-righteous, and we should not hope to eradicate the sin and limitations inherent in human nature. Applying this philosophy to practical decisions, Dr. Murphy explained that Obama subscribes to the beliefs of King and Gandhi in saying that it is better to persuade and change our enemies than to crush them. But at the same time he is conscious that the head of state cannot sit idly by in the face of serious aggression (The example of Nazism was brought in, as a destructive force that couldn’t be reasoned away). When you boil it down, Dr. Murphy’s conclusion is that President Obama wants to project a realistic, practical philosophy of human nature and how to respond to it. Dr. Murphy believes that this philosophy of human nature can be extrapolated from Obama’s speeches and that it says something important about Obama’s personal beliefs and the beliefs he wants to impart to the American people.

Dr. Murphy’s second point was that Obama makes frequent references to history, which reveals another goal underlying his speeches: he wants to convince us to see ourselves as part of a historical narrative – to see current issues as the most recent chapters in a long American story. Obama believes in a sort of consistency of human nature and problems throughout America’s history and likes to raise idols from America’s past that we can imitate. America’s past heroes and past triumphs remind us that we can still conquer our problems with good old fashioned American grit and optimism. According to Dr. Murphy, Obama’s rhetoric reflects this philosophy, and his speeches present it in such a way as to sell these beliefs to the average American. Underlying whatever immediate message Obama’s speech needs to communicate, there is constantly a hope that we will pick up on his beliefs and think, “hey, if every generation is plagued by the same human errors and dangers, then we can face it too.”  It is his belief in original sin and our place in the historical narrative that characterize both Obama’s way of thinking and the message that he wants to impart to Americans. If all this seems intuitive, I can promise that Dr. Murphy had a way of saying it that was extremely interesting. And he emphasized that it was incredibly unique for a President to dwell on such extremely realistic topics as original sin, which separates Obama’s rhetoric from other Presidents. He concluded the lecture with a Q&A session that included both intelligent Q’s and intelligent A’s. All in all, the whole audience seemed to have found the talk stimulating.

As I said, it was one of the more thoroughly interesting talks I’ve had the pleasure of attending – the kind of lecture that gets the blood flowing to the philosophy lobe and keeps you on the edge of your seat. Dr. Murphy was at once elegant and entertaining, and he even managed to incorporate some Clinton humor, which will never go stale. I think this talk made an excellent impression for the department on everyone who attended.

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