9.2.09

Hearing what the Presidents Don't Say

Recently I have become enamored with the feed over at FlowingData, a collection of quality visualization projects. Today has several offerings, but I am most interested in Descry's project "Their First Words," which provides a searchable database of all inauguration speeches. The data is then presented in a proportional block-chart. Very smart, very slick.

Users can customize searches, and so I started with a simple search for "race|racism." The results surprised me a bit, but perhaps they shouldn't have. Before Rutherford B. Hayes, I could not find one use of the word (although the database spits back some results, the ones I examined highlight "race" as part of another word, such as "trace" or "embrace"). For the most part, before the Civil War, the word race was completely foreign to presidential inaugurations. When Pierce uses it in 1853, it clearly means privileged, white males:

"With the Union my best and dearest earthly hopes are entwined. Without it what are we individually or collectively? What becomes of the noblest field ever opened for the advancement of our race in religion, in government, in the arts, and in all that dignifies and adorns mankind?"
For the record, Obama used the phrase only once:

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Obama's passage seems to realize the hope of Hayes so many years before:

With respect to the two distinct races whose peculiar relations to each other have brought upon us the deplorable complications and perplexities which exist in those States, it must be a government which guards the interests of both races carefully and equally. [...]

In the effort I shall make to accomplish this purpose I ask the cordial cooperation of all who cherish an interest in the welfare of the country, trusting that party ties and the prejudice of race will be freely surrendered in behalf of the great purpose to be accomplished.

I think Hayes would be happy.

But then I tried another search: for "gay." Nothing. "Homosexual." Not a single response. "Same-sex." Nope. If my little supposition is right, and American interest and empathy can be somehow related to the president's inaugural speeches, then perhaps we can see why things like Proposition 8 aren't passing. And I don't foresee a Civil War coming this time to force the issue. So the question, for those of us who care about this issue, is how to press these issues into language--how to get those president's talking. I am also wondering if we necessarily want to get these presidents talking. After all, the bible might have been used to support slavery, but I don't think it makes any explicit proclamations. Homosexuality, on the other hand...

My last search was for "discrimination." There were only 8 uses of this term in presidential history: 3 by Polk in 1845, 2 by Taft in 1909, 1 by Pierce 1853, 1 by Buchanan in 1857, and one by Reagan in 1981. While my "research" here is nothing more than an hour's play online, I think this supports the fantasy that America has somehow solved the question of discrimination and equality. I mean, if we aren't talking about it, then it doesn't exist, right?

P.S., and I figure mxrk can have some fun with this: there is only one response for "racism." Guess who?

3 comments:

Casey said...

You will be interested to read the first three or four paragraphs of Lincoln's opening speech in his fourth debate with Douglas in 1858:

http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/debate4.htm

Frightening. Here's an excerpt:

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality."

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Wow, I don't remember that in my American History class. Thanks for sharing.

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