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Stephen Colbert's Speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner, 2006

In this speech comedian Stephen Colbert gives a hysterically funny account of the Bush administration and the White House Press Corps. President Bush and the member of the press are co-agents. Often he takes an idea of Bush's and carries it to its ridiculous conclusion and "gives people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument." The message seems to be that together Bush and the press have cuckolded the American public with a myriad of speech acts and policies that are illogical as well as destructive.

With Bush and the press as co-agents, the scene that contains them is Washington, D.C., the United States of America, and the whole world. The scene is in a state of economic chaos due to the actions of the co-agents. For example, Colbert states that democracy is our "greatest export. At least until China figures out a way to stamp it out of plastic for three cents a unit." He then salutes Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong and says, "Your great country makes our Happy Meals possible." This is a reference to the ubiquitous McDonalds, which makes unhealthy fast food, obese children, and visual pollution of the countryside. The whole speech is commentary on the American scene, about which he is not optimistic at all. About the economy, for instance, he quips, "Mr. President, please, pay no attention to the people that say the glass is half full... Sir, pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half empty, because 32% means it's 2/3 empty. There's still some liquid in that glass is my point, but I wouldn't drink it. The last third is usually backwash." He goes on to make fun of Bush's standing alone and taking a beating from the whole world that disagrees with his invasion of Iraq.

So don't pay attention to the approval ratings that say 68% of Americans disapprove of the job this man is doing. I ask you this, does that not also logically mean that 68% approve of the job he's not doing?"

He also makes fun of Bush's statement, "Let history decide what did or did not happen." If we take that statement to its logical conclusion, then books, "all fact, no heart," and "elitist, telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen" should be done away with so that everyone's right as Americans to decide what happened for ourselves can be exercised.

Likewise, he lambastes over and over again the acts (or lack of acts) of Bush's co-agents, the press. Fox News, for instance "gives you both sides of every story: the president's side, and the vice president's side." He "congratulates" the press for not investigating issues that are extremely important, such as, "tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out."

In general, Colbert does not emphasize the nature of the agents but rather focuses on what they do, their acts. The predominant ratio in this speech is scene: act in which Bush and the press have "changed the nature of the scene" and produced "a mutual conformity" between act and scene (p. 19). The acts of the co-agents have changed reality and produced economic chaos, war, and environmental havoc in contemporary society.

The emphasis on scene in this case indicates the opposite of "the maxim 'terrain determines tactics'" (p. 12), which -- if Bush were the rhetor -- would be his argument. Burke states, "the scene-act ratio can be applied in two ways" (p. 13) and goes on to say, "It can be applied deterministically in statements that a certain policy had to be adopted in a certain situation," (and we can see that Colbert did not apply scene this way) "or it may be applied in hortatory statements to the effect that a certain policy should be adopted in conformity with the situation" (p. 13). This is closer to Colbert's meaning.

More Perfect Union" - Remarks of Senator Barack Obama in Philadelphia, 2008

This speech by presidential candidate Barack Obama is a response to media bru-ha-ha over remarks made by the minister of his church, Rev. Wright. It is an important speech and a remarkable piece of rhetoric in that it frankly addresses American racial issues in a manner rarely encountered in this country and is so substantial in content that one could easily write 8-10 pages of analysis. The speech contains several "units," each with a different topic; however, a theme that runs throughout is "the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America." Each topic has a different agent. As he speaks about his candidacy Obama, himself, is the agent. He describes himself as a man of faith and states he believes "in the decency and generosity of the American people." He is a man that loves America, the only country "on Earth [where] my story is even possible." The scene is America from its beginning until now. Obama puts forth the view that "this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one." This view reflects the quantum science view that the universe itself is not made up of many parts like a mechanical clock, but that the parts are governed by the whole, and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Obama's statement implies a well-educated agent, and in fact, he admits he went to "some of the best schools in America." The act, in this unit is a series of steps he took in conducting his life. He married a descendent of slaves, grew up with his white grandmother, and "will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. The emphasis in this unit of the speech is scene:agent with agent predominating, an agent with ties and allegiances both to black and white communities.

In another unit of the speech Obama talks about Rev. Wright, the minister of his church. In this unit Rev. Wright is the agent. This agent is a complex person, neither a saint nor a devil. On one hand he has controversial views and "a distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America...." On the other hand, Rev. Wright's acts show him to be a Christian agent. The acts of Rev. Wright brought Obama to Christianity and taught him "obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor...served his country as a U.S. Marine;... studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and...for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth...housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV / AIDS."

The act of sometimes using "incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike" seems less important in this predominantly Christian context. In this unit of the speech Rev. Wright's many Christian acts result in scene, which is a church that is actively involved in the community and working hard to make life better for the inhabitants there.

The emphasis in this unit of Obama's speech is on the ratio of scene: agent. We see an agent that is clearly dedicated to God's work but not in any sense a perfect agent. He is a human being that has been influenced and shaped in his attitudes by the past scene of racial bigotry and a racially divided society. Scene has a strong influence on his behavior because he has had negative experiences and been discriminated against and felt the effects of racism.

Because of that, Obama forgives him because he can't help it. Rev. Wright's irrational remarks reflect feelings that have arisen in response to his background, his experience in the past. In a sense, the scene has more power than the agent does in this ratio -- not all the time, of course, but in the instances when the Rev. Wright uses "incendiary language" and speaks in a divisive manner. The focus on scene as the prevailing influence excuses Wright's negative behavior without overtly saying that he would like us to overlook the problem or at least not to take it very seriously. Obama uses this strategy in a subtle manner that is quite persuasive and effective.


Burke, K. (1945). A…[continue]

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