Obama’s Secret is Consilience

>world this week is preparing for Barack Obama to become president of the United States. The junior senator from Illinois has come a long way in a short time. Consider the last three Democratic National Conventions as data points to plot his trajectory.

Obama attended the 2000 convention in Los Angeles after losing his first congressional race. He arrived at the airport and his debit card was declined. He was broke, but not broken.

Four years later, he was giving the keynote address in Boston, as a first-time candidate for the U.S. Senate. He won that race for the United States Senate, but his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention set the stage for his run for the White House in 2008.

This summer’s convention in Denver was moved outdoors to accommodate 75,000 supporters, propelling Obama into the election that has just concluded. The vision he articulated so well in 2004 has become a reality in 2008.

His 2004 speech rejected the distinctions that had sliced and diced America into endless subsets. Never mind that politicians and their advisers had 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 states and blue states together form the United States; that the rich and the poor must work together to make this nation stronger.

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

University of Oregon rhetoric 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, an English philosopher who also introduced 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 teaches us 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.

Science divides. Consilience unites. Each benefits from the other.

Taking apart a Volkswagen engine may be satisfying, but unless you can put the parts back together, the parts won’t take you anywhere. The engine won’t run. This brings us back to Obama’s style of consilience.

Can people become 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?

Tuesday’s answer, from Oregon and 26 other states, plus the District of Columbia, and maybe two more states still counting votes, was “Yes, we can.”

Professor David Frank was one of the first to see it as a possibility, way back in 2004. This week that optimism spilled out onto the streets across the country on election night. A friend walked through the neighborhoods of Washington D.C. and described that city that night as “exuberant — a beating heart.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs. Kahle’s column appears on Fridays in The Register-Guard.