Thursday, July 29, 2004

I come not to praise speechmaking but to bury it: "The Decline of Oratory"

I've heard and/or read a good bit of, at least, the more significant speeches coming from the Democratic National Convention; I have wanted to be moved by rhetoric more substantive than "Anyone but Bush." So far, so good, at least from the highlighted speakers. They have moved me because they have appealed to my belief that the ideals we have laid out for ourselves in the Constitution not only are more than exhausted cliches but also are worth working toward both here and abroad--and not just so long as a Democrat happens to be the President. The "prime-time" tone has been to concentrate on vision--something that transcends 4 (or 8) years. It'll be interesting to see what the other party can offer in terms of vision. Not just promises; a mental image of what this nation should (NOT "could") be. I've grown weary of the general shrillness of political discourse these past few years; it would be wonderful if someone--Democrat or Republican; I'm not picky--could breathe some new rhetorical life into those platitudes, could compel a few more people to vote than might otherwise.

Off and on for the last few years, extending back from the later Reagan years to the present, I've wondered about that shrillness: what its cause(s) is/are. And then, yesterday, this article in The New Republic arrived. Though it's lengthy and 20 years old besides, it's well worth reading in its entirety. I want to draw your attention to these passages in particular, though:

In lamenting the decline of oratory in our time, we lament a far deeper loss in our civilization. (The lack of common allusions can be observed by any university teacher who, a generation ago, could be fairly confident that his students had read outside their assigned texts; but not now.) We cannot just blame the politicians. In this as in other respects, we get the politicians we deserve. If they do not inspire us with their oratory, it is partly because we are unwilling to be inspired. It is highly unlikely that, even as little as twenty years later, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. would appeal to us in the same way. Politicians need something to work from. All they have now are reckless, self-interested, and pampered groups. DeGaulle once asked in exasperation how anyone could govern a nation that made 230 kinds of cheese. It was the cry of an authoritarian against the extreme individualism of his people. But one may well ask how a politician can address great oratory to people who are now so self-absorbed.
* * * *
[I]f a politician today said, "Make the world safe for democracy," he would be laughed off television. How can any politician be an orator if Dan Rather chooses which of his words will be reported? Rather would probably say: "In an effort to revive flagging public support for his troubled campaign, the Democratic candidate today made an old-fashioned plea to 'make the world safe for democracy'"--and so in one sentence take away the politician's right to use his own language to elevate people and their purposes.

It is we who drive politicians to use jargon, words that evade and obscure the truth. It is we who make them say that troops are "advisers," that war plans are "scenarios," that invasions are "incursions," that bombing is "air support." It is we who are afraid of the truth that politicians would tell us. We do not wish to be confronted. We do no wish to be challenged. We do not wish to be inspired. We do not wish to act.

"We get the politicians we deserve." It's not that they are dumb and rhetorically tone-deaf; it's that we want them that way. We make fun of Bush's bragging that he doesn't read the papers, but then again, neither do we. We want our politicians to speak our language, and then we laugh at Bushisms. We got Bush in part because we expect nothing much out of ourselves, and we don't want a politician who will ask us for that nothing much. Gore's knowledge of the environment scared us. Please, Al: would you be a little dumber for us? Eloquence means more than a command of language; it is a heartfelt, direct speaking--as opposed to teleprompted, committee-written speeches--from one person to an actual, not a mediated or poll-determined, audience. We simply don't show much inclination for wanting to do our part to foster eloquence, so we don't get much of it.
What is both sad and more than a little frightening is that the people of my nation NEED to be challenged and inspired into action at the very moment when we are least-willing to hear such talk. A few posts ago, I linked to and talked about an article that makes the claim that we in the U.S. are weary of all the "excitement" of the past 3 years and we'd frankly like a rest, especially in the case of Iraq . . . and are we even willing to hear about Darfur, much less involve ourselves at any level there? To the matter of Iraq, though, the best the Democratic Party's platform can muster is, "People of good will disagree about Iraq." To its credit, the platform pledges that Democrats will stay the course there (to my mind, we have no choice, though I in no way agree with the means by which we've come to this end), but the rationale offered isn't an appeal to our ideals but to pragmatism and realpolitik, as seen in this passage from the July 4 Washington Post: "With polls showing that many Democrats want to bring U.S. forces home as quickly as possible, the draft platform declares, 'We cannot allow a failed state in Iraq that inevitably would become a haven for terrorists and a destabilizing force in the Middle East.'" Agreed. But notably missing from there is talk about our nation's long-term standing in the world, horribly damaged among Arab and Muslim nations and badly shaken among many of our allies. Staying the course in Iraq and establishing and nurturing a truly sovereign government there is the ONLY way we can begin to repair that damage and, in so doing, show the world that our ideals manifest themselves through our actions. But who is brave enough to say these things aloud? And are we brave enough not just to hear them but to be inspired to follow those who say them?

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