Monday, February 18, 2008

In Defense of Rhetoric

Although the battle for the Democratic nominee is still raging away, it seems that the attack points employed by both candidates are the same old war horses that we've seen for months now. Hillary is an uninspiring wonk with poor judgment (read: Iraq) and too many tendrils reaching into the pockets of big business; Obama is inexperienced and makes up for his lack of policy specifics with passionate talk. This negative narrative has become conventional wisdom in the campaign cycle, and the more the candidates try to distance themselves from their opponents' frame of criticism, the more embedded they become in a race to deny while simultaneously highlighting exactly those qualities ascribed to them by their competitors and the press.

Since Obama's crushing victories in the primaries on February 9th and 12th, Clinton has been ratcheting up the intensity of her now familiar attacks on Obama's inability to get things done and "manage the bureaucracy." In particular, she has seized upon Obama's abilities to captivate an audience as - oddly - a negative. Yes, the man's talents in oratory are really just a shield hiding the candidate from real administrative skills. Echoing her husband's "fairytale" jibes, Clinton said last week:

Speeches don’t put food on the table. Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night.

The subtext for these comments and others like them emanating out of the Clinton camp is the notion that commanding, inspirational rhetoric is nothing more than empty talk. Instead of policy specifics and the nitty-gritty of governance, smooth-talkers like Mr. Obama hoodwink the masses - many of which are young - into a naive belief in "false hope." The message, as noted in a NYT article from 2/17: "My opponent gives speeches; I offer solutions." Much of this constructed dichotomy between talk on one hand and action on the other has been manufactured by the Clinton campaign to counter the irrefutable reality that Obama is the superior orator. Instead of accepting the nuanced reading that one can be both an effective administrator and a skilled rhetorician, Clinton has adopted a black and white perspective that works political marvels. Indeed, in Clinton's narrative, her inferior speech-giving abilities come off as an asset, for lesser rhetorical ability = greater administrative acumen. In Clinton's smart political framework, therefore, Obama's talent is a liability.

This perception is of course not lost on Mr. Obama, who has dealt with such accusations in two very different ways. In response to the rising urgency of Clinton's attacks, he has offered a very frank disclaimer: "Don’t be fooled by this talk about speeches versus solutions. It’s true, I give a good speech. What do I do? Nothing wrong with that." At the same time, however, Obama over the last week has shifted gears noticeably in his stump speeches. While the big applause lines have still had their show-stopping moments, he's begun inserting more policy talk into all the unbridled inspiration. As the Times put it, he's showing off his "inner-wonk." More than just change his approach as a response to criticism, Obama has dealt a political master-stroke: he is simultaneously defanging Clinton's argument (he's weak on details) while also discrediting it (it's not a good argument anyways).

The political maneuverings of the election cycle are not the topic of this post, however. The complex pas de deux that the Democratic contenders have been engaged in over the last couple months highlights an interesting component to the political discourse, and one that will be making many more appearances on the road to November: rhetoric.

The term "rhetoric" gets a bad rap. I would be willing to bet that if you asked a lot of news-watching, reasonably well-informed citizens on the street if "rhetoric" is a negative or a positive term, the majority would peg it as negative. Indeed, Clinton's attacks on Obama are just one front in the media where the idea of rhetoric is negatively cast. Again, our familiar false dichotomy is at play in these characterizations: if you talk the talk, then you probably can't walk the walk.

But what is rhetoric really? Simply put, rhetoric is the art of skillful persuasion through the use of language. It's a concept that has had a central place in Western culture since the Greeks, where it was actually afforded the status of an art. Aristotle even wrote a seminal treatise on the topic, complete with a detailed break-down of the various components of a good speech, many of which apply quite well to any of Obama's rousing performances. Good rhetoric, said Aristotle, should be composed of three central elements: to set the stage, a speaker must have the proper ethos, or background, perspective, and credibility; he must grab the audience's emotions (pathos); and he must appeal to reason and logic (logos). In later years, rhetoric developed into different schools of thought, and the Romans codified it further. For over a thousand years, it was a central part of the educational program, and during the Middle Ages it was part of the trivium along with grammar and logic; to study the higher liberal arts like philosophy, mathematics and music, one first had to master the trivium. And the importance of classical rhetoric didn't stop there; in addition to influencing the ways these societies communicated, it deeply impacted the arts. Much of the Baroque aesthetic in German music, for example, was formed by applying rhetorical rules to sound. Like a carefully crafted argument, it was thought that a piece of music should employ devices to both emotionally move and intellectually convince the listener. In this capacity, JS Bach was the Obama of his day.

So what is the value of rhetoric? Indeed, rhetoric has not been such a well-respected component of our culture for centuries because it teaches you how to mislead crowds, an argument out of Mrs. Clinton's book. It is important because how one communicates their ideas is a wonderful reflection of how coherent, organized, intelligent, and convincing those ideas are. Rhetoric is not only the art of speaking: it is the art of thinking. A master orator, then, is not merely dazzling the captive audience with empty talk - he is persuading them of the veracity of his ideas.

Take George W. Bush. I'm not going to list off all the mutilations of the English language that have poured from this man's mouth - the reader is no doubt familiar with many of these. But beyond simple mangling of syntax and vocabulary, Bush's talk is all too good an indicator of what's going on upstairs. It's an embarrassment watching Bush struggle through speeches (a failure of ethos), repeating himself time and time again on talking points that don't have one iota of substance ("Freedom" is a good meaningless word that destroys pathos through its opportunistic insincerity and annihilates logos through its very meaninglessness). We should have known watching the man debate back in 2000 that he would make an awful president. His lack of rhetorical command reflects his utter lack of curiosity, intellectual depth, and clarity of ideas. No wonder his advisers had such an easy time hijacking his mind to parrot their extremist beliefs.

But powerful rhetoric is more than a window into a candidate's mind. It is also an essential tool for reaching consensus within a large and fractious group. When Obama talks about "one America," I believe him, and according to polls, so do many Americans (he is the Democratic candidate most well liked by the Republicans). The strength of his nonpartisan convictions truly are inspirational, and they inspire because they offer a real, tangible opportunity to heal long-festering political rifts. I should make it clear at this point that I am not a Obama maniac: my support was originally with Edwards. Nevertheless, the "hope" in his message is real, and Americans are responding to it. Rhetoric is the driving force behind his momentum.

Skillful oratory also plays an important role in educating both the citizenry and the political establishment. As Jonathan Alter writes in this week's Newsweek, the president is "Educator-in-Chief" (Roosevelt's phrase) just as much as he or she is the Commander-in-Chief. Central to enacting big change is the tool of language itself. As Alter writes:

All presidents who achieve big change have been first-rate communicators in the theater of the presidency. No FDR "fireside chats," no New Deal. No "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"—and the Berlin wall likely stays up for a while longer, whatever Ronald Reagan's other efforts.

This point was also driven home on All Things Considered today by Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice. Brinkley pointed out that all great American presidents have been great speakers. Without a talent for rhetoric, how can one individual capture the attention of the nation and the world enough to make change happen? Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK...they were all master orators.

Where rhetorical advantage can lead a candidate astray often comes in the form of making promises that are unrealistic, a point of which Obama has sometimes been guilty. We should certainly be on the lookout for this. But inspiration is not a rhetorical fault. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, we should not undermine Obama's abilities purely because he inspires people with fiery pathos - if you go to his website, you'll find that the logos is there as well (although not as fully elucidated as Clinton's or Edwards's). Wonkiness just doesn't make for as electrifying a speech. And in the theater of politics, the speech is the thing.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Z.

It got me thinking weird shit. Like this:

According to a basic contractarian model, the premise of democracy is that government exists by virtue of an agreement by its citizens that an overseeing system is advantageous to them all. The government, in other words, takes on the responsibility, for example, to protect the private property and rights of its citizens, who would otherwise have to defend themselves (their property and person) against those with conflicting interests - the chaos of the pre-governmental State of Nature. This, of course, requires the ceding of certain rights to the government. You don't have the right to murder someone for their sandwich, for example, but, as citizen of a state, agree to pursue your right to that sandwich through whatever apparatuses the government has to deal with such conflicts.

Of course, the contractarian model accounts for the origins of government. We do not find ourselves in a State of Nature. In fact, citizenship is seemingly not so much a matter of choice as a de facto function of our geographic location at birth. We don't explicitly agree to jack-shit. The State just _is_. But then, that's the function of elections, right? Every time you vote, you are implicitly signaling your consent to the basic premise of contract entered into by all the citizens: that the government can make certain decisions on our behalf in the broadly utilitarian interest of Order.

The bigger issue is this (and I promise this is all coming round to your post): The contractarian model was fundamental to the premises upon which American Constitution was founded. The Declaration of Independence even plagiarizes Locke so that "Life, liberty and the pursuit of Property" became "Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

This rewording is not insignificant. At the heart of Locke's contractarian theory, is Empiricism. The success of a government is measured by that which the majority of its citizens quantifiably own. Locke is appealing to a a cold Enlightenment rationalism. He presumes that citizens are able to make decisions about their government in their own interests based on a Rational negotiation of information that is "objective" and diverse (hence, media bias will be the death of democracy). And by "objective" I mean, transcendental, universal, positivist Truth with, as you will have noticed, a capital "T". No such "Truth" exists. It's a myth that discounts the gut, it discounts that, a lot of the time, we don't know what we want or why we want it. It's homogenizing and dangerous.

The "Happiness" rephrasing is no less problematic precisely because of its dissociation of liberty from property. By its logic, the government works if people are happy. Hence, slavery was not seen to be at odds with the founding principles of American democracy. Slaves were free to be happy, even if they owned nothing, not even themselves. Slavery was justifiable as long as the slaves were happy - something unquantifiable by most accounts.

That said, the happiness rephrasing might also be seen as a recognition that the cold hard Empiricism does not speak to every part of us. It's a rhetorical escape clause. It allows wiggle room in opposition to cold, hard fact of quantifiable property.

This is where the fundamental split between great Rhetoricians (like Obama) and frumpy politicians (like Clinton) is at work. In a sense, you're choosing between two evils -

On the one hand, the cold Empirical reasoning of Clinton: "See what I've done. Look at the evidence. If for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, then look at my past actions. Ergo, I should be elected."

On the other hand, you have the untested and vague waters that is Obama's rhetoric: "Elect me, and things will change. I'll make you happier. I'll make people respect America again. I'll make you proud. I'm a feel-good candidate".

Of course, my distillation of the split renders each of the candidates' posturings reductively. I know this to be the case. I know Obama has policies. And Clinton is not immune to emotional appeal - hence New Hampshire.

The point that I'm making is this: I think the very fact that the Pathos / Logos binary is being played out at the moment, is not so much a reflection of the candidates themselves, as it is a glitch in the matrix of the system itself.

Neither of the candidates is responsibly marrying logos and pathos. They're stuck in the binary not because they represent Logos and Pathos respectively, but because the system is built on a dangerous and false set of assumptions. It's an inevitable rather than accurate account of their supposed differences.

So...don't get me wrong, I'm no America bashing. No state I know anything about doesn't have its knickers in this particular knot. And I'm an optimist, I believe in the essential goodness of people, and, so, if I was choosing a candidate - which I'm not because I'm a Dirty Furrner - I'd choose the one that understand people best. And by people, I don't mean demographics or core constituencies. I mean people - fucked up, irrational, sad, sometimes homeless, sometimes greedy, sometimes generous, good, bad people.

And that, I think, you can tell by the way candidates shake hands, the sincerity of their smiles, as much as you can by what they say and how they speak.

Zach Wallmark said...

Intriguing point, and one that digs much deeper into the heart of the issue than what I have initially laid out.

You're right - the founding documents of this nation rest on some very contradictory rhetoric. The deletion (property) represents the Logos of the proposition: that this was to be a nation founded on the free pursuit of material wealth, a rational foundation. On the other hand, you could just hear the wig-wearing gentlemen snoring at the wonkiness of such a foundation. So they sexed it up with a term that is more ephemeral but more emotionally satisfying - the Pathos proposition, happiness.

While the rhetorical crux of the Declaration of Independence is an interesting paradox, however, the conceptual basis for the document was, I believe, intellectually consistent, at least for the framers in the late 18th century. And here's why: in a nation founded on the principle of the economic self-determination of the individual (white male individual, that is), pursuing property is easily conflated with pursuing happiness. This was the birth of Homo economicus, where personal happiness is determined to a large extent by material wealth and possessions.

The problem you so eloquently diagnose points to a glitch in rhetoric, but not necessarily a glitch in the system itself (again, at least for white males - everyone else has had to deal with founding documents that give them "freedom and happiness" while their reality has belied that fact). But I'll have to do some more thinking on this. It's a very interesting question.

chris bailly said...

Great post, great commentary. Thanks, anonymous, for that great rundown of the social contract. I wonder about the change of property to happiness. So much else of Locke's philosophy survived the revolution, and survives today. (Believe me, as one studying for the bar in Massachusetts) And certainly the existence of the contracts clause and the takings clause in the Constitution shows pretty well that the founders believed government interference with property rights was a big danger. Could just be a way of condoning slavery, or maybe simply a way of making the document their own. Interesting to think about.

I have to say, though, that I agree with Zach that this rhetoric/substance debate is rather artificial. As anonymous pointed out, the binary exists due to a false set of assumptions, not necessarily a real divide between the pathos and logos. As Zach pointed out, the discussion should be about the proper role of rhetoric in a presidency/society, not some false duality in which rhetoric equals lack of substance. Why this duality then? As for my own view, I think anonymous nailed it with his point about media consolidation.

I think the media always needs a narrative during election season. To the extent that facts conform to the narrative, they are highlighted. When they don't fit, ignored. If they are too big to ignore, like the early primary results in Iowa and New Hampshire, then the narrative changes. But always a tenuous relationship exists between narrative and reality. The current narrative is, of course, rhetoric versus substance. This is an outgrowth of the experience versus judgment narrative (ethos versus ethos) that didn't quite catch on. The point I'm making is that if there is a glitch in the matrix, it is from the business of news. Both Clinton and Obama can deliver a good speech (just compare to Bush) and both are more of a policy wonk then 99% of America. The difference of one being better than the other at either policy or speaking is a matter of degrees, not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Personally, I support Obama for a number of reasons, but relevant to this discussion is that he can hire someone like Clinton to be his policy adviser. He knows enough to shape the broad policy outlines, and leave the details to people who do that as there full-time job. Clinton, on the other hand, has to give her own speeches. She has to single-handedly inspire the nation. Now, whether you agree or disagree with me is immaterial. The point is that if we buy into the way the discussion is framed by the media, we are selling ourselves, and the candidates, short. We'd be electing a person based on a false perception of them, rather than the reality of that person's relative merits.

To tie this in with the social contract, look at how the bounds of the social contract have been tested over the last seven years. Bush has about him a sense of illegitimacy to many people. I'm not just talking about the fact that more than half the country didn't vote for the guy in office. I think we could have gotten over that. I think the underlying problem is the bait-and-switch that occurred between Bush's campaign and his presidency. If one thing sticks out in my mind about Bush's campaign, it is his slogan "compassionate conservatism", and his repudiation of the concept of nation building.

He came into office and it was immediately apparent that this guy was one of the most conservative men to inhabit the white house in decades. Post-9/11, his non-interventionist foreign policy went out the window, and judging by reports of Iraq plans prior to 9/11, never really existed.

The media described (with the help of Bush and his team) a man that did not exist. In the same way, the cold, ice-queen policy wonk, the empty-headed speech-maker, and the maverick, inside-but-outside-of-the-beltway moderate conservative are all candidates who do not exist. If we elect that persona, will we be pleasantly surprised their first day in office, or horrified.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your essay – a very well framed argument. It is always interesting to me when candidates, who have a valid point to make, overstate their point. I think it makes them look bad. It’s kind of the political equivalent of Gresham’s law in economics (bad money drives out good money) – bad arguments make your good arguments look weaker. That’s why, when I argue a case, I’m careful to press my point to the limit, but not go over the limit and ruin the credibility of my entire argument (and my argument in the next case).