I listened to President Obama’s inaugural address on NPR yesterday. The tone certainly galvanized me. It sounded like a jeremiad — “We’re going to do a 180, and it’s not going to be easy.” Hear, hear!
At one line, though, I just cheered:
“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.”
Let me begin to enumerate the verbal jiujitsu of this line. I love in particular the metaphor of the ground shifting beneath people. This image is not at a distance and cannot, in fact, be distanced from the hearer, the way an image appealing to the senses of sight or hearing could be distanced. People can imagine a visual image at any distance they choose, up to miles away from them, a tiny speck on the horizon. People can be deaf, willfully or through a deficiency in their senses, to a sound image. They can be deaf to bells of freedom ringing or imagine the promised land as seen from a mountaintop, far, far away.
The ground shifting beneath somebody, however, is immediate and palpable. The ground beneath your feet is touching you. To understand what the speaker is saying here, you have to imagine feeling it in your body.
Obama could have ssaid it so many different ways. He doesn’t say, “The landscape [around us] has changed.” He doesn’t say, “Change is coming.” Either of those are visual and imaginable from a huge distance away.
Not only are you touching the ground, but you also depend on it for support, of your body and by extension any political argument you make. People say metaphorically, “He [his argument] doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” but those legs are supported by the ground.
If the ground itself has shifted — well, the bases of our arguments and reasoning have changed.