Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our failures of political rhetoric are asymmetric

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.**

For reason, hear him affirm in a moment of rising hysteria that terrorism is not an existential threat to the U.S., or that Iran is not a threat comparable to the Soviet Union, or that the country is failing its children and citizens by eschewing gun control measures, or that our current problem of political polarization is not insurmountable:
My point is not that politicians are worse, it's not that issues are tougher, and so it's important for us to understand that the situation we find ourselves in today is not somehow unique or hopeless. We've always gone through periods when our democracy seems stuck, and when that happens we have to find a new way of doing business. We're in one of those moments. We've got to build a better politics, One that's less of a spectacle and more of a battle of that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work.
..or witness him telling the truth about systemic racism in Dallas last month***, but also explain how police are on a hair trigger in communities awash in guns.****

For character, consider the combination of reason and empathy documented above. Or, hear Michelle Obama, speaking for both of them, at the DNC, also last month:
That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight -- how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith.  How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level -– no, our motto is, when they go low, we go high....

I want a President with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed --  -- and we give back, even when we’re struggling ourselves, because we know that there is always someone worse off, and there but for the grace of God go I.

I want a President who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters –- a President who truly believes in the vision that our founders put forth all those years ago: That we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story. And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other -– no, we listen to each other. We lean on each other. Because we are always stronger together.
In fact, it's not just Obama, or the Obamas. If you were dropped out of a time capsule to watch the key speeches at the DNC this July, you might have thought we were living in a golden age of political rhetoric. There was Bill Clinton, master-narrating the highlights of Hillary's precocious early work on behalf of children and racial equity; Biden's intense, condensed indictment***** of Trump;  and the unexpected highlight, Khizr Khan's grief-laden brandishing of the Constitution as he highlighted Trump's promises to violate its core protections. Khan's was not a politician's speech, but it was part of our political discourse, and a credit to the Democrats who recruited him and let him go on stage without a script to vet.

And finally, in the week Thompson's essay appeared, there was Hillary Clinton -- the scripted, the cautious, the rhetorically pedestrian wonk -- laying out a plain-spoken, meticulously documented, finely structured and morally essential warning of the dangers of Trump's embrace of  white nationalism.  There was nothing self-righteous, exaggerated, hysterical or untrue in this indictment and warning. It elicited not a peep of protest from Republican leadership. It was a matter of duty, a release of democracy's antibodies against incipient fascism. And Clinton capped it with an equally plain-spoken, topical, easily relateable counter-vision:
And I promise you this: with your help, I will be a president for Democrats, Republicans, and independents. For those who vote for me and for those who vote against me. I will be a president for all Americans.

Because I truly believe we are stronger together.

And this is a vision for the future rooted in our values and reflected in a rising generation of young people. The young people in America today are the most open, diverse, and connected we’ve ever seen.

How many of you saw the Olympics? I was so proud. I always get carried away every time the Olympics are on. And you look at the diversity of our athletes. Just look at our fabulous Olympic team representing the United States of America.

Like Ibtihaj Muhammad, an African-American Muslim from New Jersey who won the bronze medal in fencing with grace and skill. Would she even have a place in Donald Trump’s America?

And I'll tell you, when I was growing up, in so many parts of our country, Simone Manuel would not have been allowed to swim in the same public pool as Katie Ledecky. And now together on our swimming team they’re winning Olympic medals as teammates.

I don't know about you but I don't think we have a person to waste. We want to build an America where every person has a place where if you work hard and do your part, you can get ahead and stay ahead. That's the basic bargain of America. And we cannot get to where we need to be unless we stand together and stand up against prejudice and paranoia and prove once and for all that America is great because is America is good.
The resonance of Trump's racist and scapegoating appeals is a symptom of deep and dangerous dysfunction in our political, social and economic life. The growth in the past twenty years of right wing alt-reality media, enabling and enabled by the success of economic policies that ripped the lid off income inequality, exacerbating global economic forces putting pressure on wages, has led to wage stagnation and a failure to adapt (say, by empowering service workers as we once did factory workers) that leaves millions receptive to scapegoating and fabulist, fraudulent promises to bring back a golden age that never was.

The failure, though, is not one of rhetoric. Failures of policy make the rhetoric that describes incremental, pragmatic solutions ring hollow. The rise of alternative reality media, which even conservative talk show hosts are now acknowledging cuts the factual ground out from under conservatives who would counter Trump's lies, renders a large segment of the public deaf to reason.

My hope if that the country will one day hear Obama in retrospect. You can fault his execution of progressive policy to greater or lesser extent, as you choose. But no one should claim that he hasn't spoken to the country clearly for the better part of a decade.


Some speech excerpts cited above:

March 18, 2008
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. 

**Sept. 9, 2009
But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here -- people of both parties -- know that what drove him was something more.  His friend Orrin Hatch -- he knows that.  They worked together to provide children with health insurance.  His friend John McCain knows that.  They worked together on a Patient's Bill of Rights.  His friend Chuck Grassley knows that.  They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.

On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience.  It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer.  He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick.  And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.

That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling.  It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling.  It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.
*** July 12, 2016
We also know what Chief Brown has said is true:  That so much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.  (Applause.)  As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools.  We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment.  (Applause.)  We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs.  (Applause.)  We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book -- (applause) -- and then we tell the police “you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.”  We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs, and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience.  Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind.  And then we feign surprise when, periodically, the tensions boil over.

We know these things to be true.  They’ve been true for a long time.  We know it.  Police, you know it.  Protestors, you know it.  You know how dangerous some of the communities where these police officers serve are, and you pretend as if there’s no context.  These things we know to be true.  And if we cannot even talk about these things -- if we cannot talk honestly and openly not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle.
**** July 9, 2016
And if you look at the pattern of death and violence and shootings that we've experienced over the course of the last year, or the last five years, or the last 10 years -- I've said this before -- we are unique among advanced countries in the scale of violence that we experience.  And I'm not just talking about mass shootings.  I'm talking about the hundreds of people who have already been shot this year in my hometown of Chicago -- the ones that we just consider routine.

Now, we may not see that issue as connected to what happened in Dallas, but part of what’s creating tensions between communities and the police is the fact that police have a really difficult time in communities where they know guns are everywhere.  As I said before, they have a right to come home -- and now they have very little margin of error in terms of making decisions.  So if you care about the safety of our police officers, then you can't set aside the gun issue and pretend that that's irrelevant.

At the protest in Dallas, one of the challenges for the Dallas Police Department -- as they're being shot at -- is because this is an open-carry state, there are a bunch of people participating in the protest who have weapons on them.  Imagine if you're a police officer and you're trying to sort out who is shooting at you and there are a bunch of people who have got guns on them.

***** July 27, 2016
A man who embraces the tactics of our enemies, torture, religious intolerance. You all know, all the Republicans know. That's not who we are. It betrays our values. It alienates those who we need in the fight against ISIS. Donald Trump with all his rhetoric would literally make us less safe. We cannot elect a man who belittles our closest allies while embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin. No. I mean it. A man who seeks to sew division in America for his own gain and disorder around the world. A man who confuses bluster with strength. We simply cannot let that happen as Americans. Period.