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Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

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August 22nd, 2008 by dk

The world this week is preparing to be wowed by Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Denver. Unless the junior senator from Illinois manages to levitate above the football stadium where 75,000 people will be watching, he’ll have a hard time exceeding the mile-high expectations already in place.

At the last two Democratic National Conventions, things were very different.

Obama came to the 2000 convention in Los Angeles after losing his first congressional race. He arrived at the airport and his debit card was declined. Four years later, he was giving the keynote address in Boston, as a first-time candidate for the U.S. Senate.

His 2004 speech rejected the distinctions that have sliced and diced America into endless subsets. Never mind that politicians and their advisers have been the drivers behind this parsing of the public into various constituencies and interest groups. Obama exploded onto the national stage, insisting that blacks and whites are all Americans, that red and blue states together form the United States, that rich and poor must work together to make this nation stronger.

We ate it up. He spoke to the point with authority, because he embodied all those contradictions himself. His race, his constituencies, and his economic fortunes had been mixed. Joining them together was a singularly compelling image, uniquely his own. It seemed like magic.

University of Oregon professor David Frank was one of the first to explain the magic. He attributed it to “consilience.”

David Frank co-wrote with Mark McPhail an analysis of that speech for “Rhetoric & Public Affairs,” a professional journal read mostly by professors and practitioners of rhetoric. The subtitle of the essay was “ Trauma, Compromise, Consilience, and the (Im)possibility of Racial Reconciliation.” The larger issue addressed was whether the time had come for Obama’s unifying approach. (Frank said yes; his colleague was more skeptical.)

“Consilience” refers to the unity of knowledge, literally a “jumping together.” Edward O. Wilson wrote a well-received book “Consilience” in 1998, but otherwise the concept is seldom given its due.

“Consilience” was coined in 1840 by William Whewell, in a book titled “The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences.” In fact, Whewell also invented the term “scientist.” (They had previously been known as “natural philosophers” or “men of science.”)

Science and knowledge, even in 1840, were already falling headlong into reductionism, believing that understanding parts leads to understanding the whole. We’re learning now, but we’ve always known, that any whole reliably transcends the sum of its parts.

Science has taught us how to divide things into pieces. This table is made of wood, which is formed by sinews of cellulose, which is formed by molecules, which are made up of atoms, which form from protons, neutrons, and electrons, which contain quarks and gluons and exotic things we don’t yet understand, which might be actually more like strings than things.

Taking apart a Volkswagen engine may be satisfying, but unless you can put the parts back together, it won’t take you anywhere. If we want to get someplace new, we must return somehow to the whole, the unity. This brings us back to Obama’s style of consilience.

Politics is a small industry, even in an election year, but it is frighteningly focused on how to move people to a single, specific action. Over a billion dollars will be spent this year, and that’s on a single race. It remains to be seen whether Obama will choose to stay with the consilience model that brought him this far, or whether his advisers will fall back on the “old reliable” techniques that have worked in the past for both parties.

Can people be excited about and motivated to move toward a vision that unifies and lifts up? Can the hopeful force of consilience counter the divisiveness of fear? We’re about to find out.


Don Kahle ( won’t be at the Democratic National Convention, but a colleague of his will be blogging from there and posting right here. Kahle’s column appears on Fridays in The Register-Guard.

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