In drama, the device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of[.]
Not much left to add about Obama’s Berlin speech, so I’ll just go all MoDo on you and make lazy uninformed aesthetic observations. In watching the video, I kept thinking back to Ezra Klein’s much-maligned description of Obama’s best speeches:
Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it.
Klein caught a lot of crap for using this gushing language, but there’s something to the underlying idea. If I could rephrase, I think what he was trying to say is that Obama’s speeches sometimes cause you to become suddenly (though fleetingly) aware of dramatic irony around you. That probably sounds pretty stupid, so let me explain what I mean.
The interesting part about dramatic irony is that the audience knows something the characters don’t. Because the audience knows more, the characters’ actions often resonate with the viewer in interesting ways. For instance, in the John Adams HBO series, the early friendship of Adams and Jefferson has a bittersweet tragic undertone even at its warmest moments because we the audience know what eventually happens. They the characters don’t.
Personally, I feel these same “undertones” when I watch old clips of presidential candidates before they won. For instance, when you see Bill Clinton stand up at the 1992 debate and ask the man how the economy has hurt him, that moment has its own historical undertones. That’s because we the audience know what eventually happened – Clinton won. And he won because he was more in touch with people’s economic troubles. This moment, then, symbolized the broader history.
Same deal with an early Reagan speech. When you hear it, you get the same kind of eerie but cool vibes because you understand that this moment was an essential part of his ultimate historical triumph. Same deal with the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Same deal with 2001: A Space Odyssey when the monkeys start using bones to crush things for the first time.
In other words, knowing the ultimate outcome gives those moments a different kind of meaning. Big “H” History was on the move – and these moments were snapshots and symbols of its march. They foreshadowed the rise. The poor ignorant characters couldn't recognize that at the time – but we know, because we’ve seen the ending.
That’s what I mean when I say that Obama makes us briefly aware of dramatic irony around us. Living in the present, we are the ignorant contemporary audience, unaware of the ending. But sometimes during Obama’s speeches – in brief fleeting moments – we get the weird sense that we’ve actually seen the ending too.
We imagine that, knowing the outcome, we are now looking back and watching “one of those moments,” understanding that these very moments will be seen as part of “the rise.” It would be like someone standing up in the 1992 debate and saying, “this is when it happened – this is when this guy won. I hope you all are paying attention.” (As an experiment, go back and check out Obama's 2004 keynote address and see if you experience something like I'm describing. The best bet is the 3:30 mark in Part 2).
Of course, McCain may beat him. Gushers beware – the polls are pretty close right now even though McCain is apparently trying to lose (maybe we could call it “The Producers” campaign). Anyway, if Obama loses, today’s Berlin speech will obviously have a much different type of undertone to future audiences. When they look back, the message of “hope,” the great speeches, the improbable Iowa victory – they’ll all have a tragic undertone because they’ll know he fell short. So this dramatic irony business can work both ways.
But anyway, that’s my attempt to rehabilitate what Ezra said. An Obama presidency – even if it accomplishes very little – would still be a world-historical event. And even though it might come to nothing, it might also just accomplish something big. If it does, today’s speech will be seen as “one of those moments.” And it was pretty frickin' sweet to watch.