Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Electoral rhetoric, can anyone communicate anymore?

Note: A slightly different version of this appeared as my weekend op-ed in the Valley City Times-Record and was written and submitted before the Biden-Palin debate that night.

Verdict: Palin didn't do too bad. Partisans called if for their favorite in both cases, which means at least a draw. Republicans have been quite forthright in criticizing Palin's performance in the Couric interview.

Point remains, if you can't whup Joe freakin' Biden in an honest debate, you're not ready for prime time.

Doesn't mean she'll never be ready though. Either way, she's earned her scars in the big leagues.


“Men do not long continue to think, what they have forgotten how to say.”
C.S. Lewis

I suppose it's no secret that I'm not entirely thrilled with any of the candidates on either of the presidential tickets.

That's a litotes.


A litotes (lee-TOE-tays) I said. That means a deliberate understatement, especially when expressing a thought by denying it's opposite.

“Donald Trump is not exactly a poor man,” for example.

It's a term in formal rhetoric, for what's commonly called “a figure of speech.” In rhetoric, there are names for different kinds of figures of speech – hundreds of them.

So what the heck does that have to do with the fate of America and the Free World?

I'm making a point about the importance of a leader being articulate – and that, by the way, was what's called a rhetorical question, or “erotema.”

Rhetoric, the art and science of speaking and writing persuasively, is part of the trivium, the first three of the seven liberal arts, composed of logic, rhetoric and grammar. Trivium is the root word of “trivial,” because a scholar in the Middle Ages was expected to know this before he went to college. And in those days you could enter college at 14.

Nowadays, if we encounter logic and rhetoric at all, it's as college freshmen and soon forgotten. And I'm afraid it shows in our public discourse.

Right now, Democrats are crowing about John McCain's wooden, uninspired and soporific delivery and Sarah Palin's deer-in-the-headlights performance in the Katie Couric interview.

And don't tell me she was ambushed by an obviously hostile interviewer. I can see that, but it goes with the job description. An expression about heat and kitchens comes to mind.

Republicans are pointing to how Obama's soaring eloquence changes to fumbling hesitancy the second his teleprompter breaks down, and Joe Biden's inability to even modify speeches he steals whole, to fit his own life story.

A “gaff” was how I heard that described. No, once is a gaff. A repeated pattern over one's entire career is a plagiarist too arrogant and lazy to even paraphrase.

Face it, the last presidential candidates we've had who could deliver a knock-your-socks-off speech, were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

So what? Surely the content of the ideas is more important than how they're expressed? After all, neither Washington, Jefferson nor Madison were accomplished public speakers. Dan Rather would have torn any of them apart in a press conference. It wasn't until Lincoln that we got a really world-class orator as president.

But folks, for good or ill, this is the TV age, and the electorate is addressed in person, in their living rooms far more than in the pages of newspapers. We've gotten back to our roots in Athenian democracy where our leaders have to stand up before an audience and explain themselves to the whole people.

The study of rhetoric was born with democracy in Athens, and developed further during the early Roman republic. It stagnated during times of monarchical despotism, and only revived with the rise of parliaments. Unfortunately, it seems to be stagnating again, and that does not bode well for our republic.

Though the word today has a somewhat negative connotation, similar to “propaganda,” it actually marks the emergence of the idea that there might be a better way to secure the cooperation of large numbers of people, than “Do this or I'll kill you.”

Persuasive speaking and writing are to some degree a talent, but they can be learned and improved. Some people were born with better voices than others, but that can be improved too. Take a course, join Toastmasters.

If you can't express yourself persuasively, it raises legitimate questions about how well you really understand what you are trying to say. Studies of athletes, for example, have shown a close connection between the ability to describe something and the ability to do it well.

If you don't understand the techniques of persuasion, you are left vulnerable to the crudest kind of appeals to emotion, prejudice, verbal abuse and ultimately to the default option of force.

After all, what are the “liberal arts” but the knowledge necessary to live the life of a free citizen?

Note: Another plug, the best online source for rhetoric is the Silva Rhetoricae, maintained by a professor at BYU.


  • At 2:07 PM, Blogger Ted said…

    Can anyone communicate anymore?
    If this election is any indicator, the answer is a hands-down NO!
    Like yourself, I've heard plenty of crudely-expressed jingoism and propaganda, but very little that actually sways or persuades with solid reason instead of scare-tactics.


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