March 16, 2008


The Wit & Wisdom of Barack Obama: Some of it may sound familiar (Andrew Ferguson, 03/24/2008, Weekly Standard)

There's still room for whimsy at the New Yorker magazine, I don't care what you've heard. Just the other day two of the New Yorker's bloggers (now there's a phrase to send Harold Ross spinning) were chewing over the widely noted eloquence of Barack Obama. They were struck by "Obama's wonderful line," as one of them described it, to the effect that "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Obama uses it as one of his signature refrains. Some of his followers even turned it into a music video.

So one thing led to another, as it does on blogs, and before long the bloggers began wondering, as they do at the New Yorker, what the phrase would sound like in French.

"You couldn't say it in French," blogged one of the bloggers.

"Are you sure about the French?" the other blogger blogged back. "Mine isn't good enough to know if 'C'est nous qui nous avons attendu' or 'Ceux qui nous attendons, c'est nous' would sound French to a French ear, or if it just would sound stupid." Oui, blogged the first blogger. It would sound très stupid. "My ear/memory tells me that it would be too weird to say, since I think there's a we/us thing that doesn't work."

Eventually a French journalist was consulted. He ruled summarily that, translated into French, "the Barack Obama sentence [le sentence de la Barack Obama] sounds weird to me."

So there you have it: You can't really say "We are the ones we've
been waiting for" in French. The matter was closed. The bloggers moved on. Good times indeed.

But wait. There was something tantalizingly incomplete about this brief discussion of whether the sentence sounds weird in French: What was missing was an acknowledgement of how weird the sentence sounds in English. What, after all, does "We are the ones we've been waiting for" mean, precisely? My hunch is that the sentence is one of those things that no one will admit to being confused by, like the movies of Godard or the tenor-sax solos of John Coltrane, lest your peers think you're a loser or a moron. Certainly Obama fans won't admit how obscure the sentence is--though several have claimed that it's lifted from a prophecy of the Tribal Elders of the Hopi Indians. Hopi prophecies are famously obscure.

But this is just wishful thinking. The origins of the phrase aren't nearly so glamorous or exotic. Two years ago, before Obama even said he wanted to be president, the left-wing-radical-feminist-lesbian novelist Alice Walker published a book of essays and called it We are the Ones We've Been Waiting For. Believe me: If the line had come from the Tribal Elders of the Hopi nation, Alice Walker would have been more than happy to say so. Instead she said it came from a poem published in 1980 by the left-wing-radical-feminist-bisexual poet June Jordan.

The Audacity of Hopi?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 16, 2008 6:08 PM

To me it sounds like a riff off Pogo's "We have met the enemy and he is us."

But then, everything that anyone says, has been said before, by different people, using different words, while trying to convey a different idea.

So when Hillary saids, "Elect Me" what she actually means is "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer" and when Obama says "We are the future" what he actually means is "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuher." But you're going to like him for saying it.

But then, I'm one of those people that fails to see the difference between one type of government where all control is centralized with government bureaucrats and another.

Posted by: John Dunshee at March 17, 2008 11:19 AM

This is probably just me, but whenever I hear "We are the ones we've been waiting for," I think of the episode of The X-Files where the two guys who've been taken over by an alien something-or-other say "We're not who we are! We're not who we are!"

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at March 17, 2008 11:26 AM

Good grief. We all know what it means: I am the one that you have been waiting for.

Posted by: b at March 17, 2008 12:08 PM