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Moving to Down-To-Earth Oratory for Working People

The Speech is his finely polished sword, a transcendent weapon. Seen and heard on a thousand YouTube postings, Sen. Barack Obama’s speeches have made a happening of that hoariest of campaign forms, the stump speech.

But Obama sheathes that sword more often now. He is grounding his lofty rhetoric in the more prosaic language of white-working-class discontent, adjusting it to the less welcoming terrain of Pennsylvania. His preferred communication now is the town-hall-style meeting.

So in Johnstown, a small, economically depressed city tucked in a valley hard by the Little Conemaugh River, Obama on Saturday spoke to the gritty reality of a city that ranks dead last on the Census Bureau’s list of places likely to attract American workers. His traveling companion, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced the candidate as an “underdog fighter for an underdog state.”

Obama, a quicksilver political student, picked up that cue. He often mentions his background as a community organizer but in passing, a parenthetical. Not this time. “I got into public service as an organizer,” Obama told these 1,200 mostly white Pennsylvanians in a local high school gymnasium. “There were a group of churches, mostly Catholic parishes, and they hired me for $12,000 plus carfare.”

That detail drew knowing chuckles in a town where the median income hovers at just over $20,000. “So I got myself believing that the most important thing is not to be an elected official but to hold them accountable.”

April Fool! The Purpose Of Pranks

Keep it above the belt, stop short of total humiliation and, if possible, mix in some irony, some drama, maybe even a bogus call from the person’s old flame or new boss. A good prank, of course, involves good stagecraft. But it also requires emotional intuition.

“You want to play on people’s weaknesses or dislikes, but not go too hard,” said Tommy Doran, a fire fighter and paramedic in Skokie, Ill., who as a rookie in Montgomery County, Md., was lured into the station’s kitchen and blasted with multiple cream pies. “For me it’s just the sort of dark humor we use to cope with the job and each other. Nothing dangerous or illegal.”

Psychologists have studied pranks for years, often in the context of harassment, bullying and all manner of malicious exclusion and prejudice.

Yet practical jokes are far more commonly an effort to bring a person into a group, anthropologists have found — an integral part of rituals around the world intended to temper success with humility. And recent research suggests that the experience of being duped can stir self-reflection in a way few other experiences can, functioning as a check on arrogance or obliviousness.