Thursday, September 1, 2016

Our failures of political rhetoric are asymmetric// xpostfactoid Andrew Sprung

Our failures of political rhetoric are asymmetric// xpostfactoid Andrew Sprung

The study of rhetoric can yield great insights into the way power is structured and masses of people are moved. But those who study rhetoric closely are prone to mixing up cause and effect.

So it is with an essay by New York Times CEO Mark Thompson that usefully traces The Dark History of Straight Talk -- that is, of politicians' claims to authentically channel the mystical will of the people. Simpson begins with Shakespeare's rendition of Mark Anthony's funeral oration for Caesar, in which he claims to be "no orator," but a "plain, blunt man," eschewing the rhetoric that was the chief marker of political authority in Rome. He moves on to reaction against the rationalist language of the Enlightenment, to the hookup of "anti-rhetoric" with nationalism and Heidegger's fetishization of "authentic" language, culminating in his embrace of Hitler. Finally he focuses on the anti-elitism and demonization of out-groups by the current crop of authoritarians in western democracies, culminating (for the moment) in Trump.

All good so far. But here's where I think Thompson confuses conditions that make large numbers people responsive to "authenticism" with the current condition of rhetoric itself:

What we have lost and must strive to regain is a conception of rhetoric that strikes a balance between the demands of reason, character and empathy, and that strives for genuine truthfulness rather than theatrical “authenticity.”
That makes me wonder whether Thompson has ever listened to a certain Barack Obama, who won the presidency by sheer force of rhetoric -- and whose rhetoric has arguably balanced "reason, character and empathy" as powerfully as any president's since Lincoln (whose rhetoric Obama constantly, consciously channels).

Re the qualities Thompson thirsts for: for empathy, I suggest watching Obama tear up when speaking of the Sandy Hook shooting, or listening to him sing Amazing Grace after the Charleston, or read how he delineates the emotional logic of those who perceive reverse racism in his More Perfect Union speech in March 2009*, or lays out the plights of individuals who lack health insurance in his speech to rescue the health reform bill in September 2009.******

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