What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

American oratory.

Writing in the Claremont Review of Books, Diana Schaub delivers a fine review of a new two-volume collection called American Speeches, published by the Library of America. The effect of reading this essay is to induce at once pride and sadness; for America was once a land of great orators, in our Congress most of all, but today the quality of her rhetoric has fallen into grave decline. Professor Schaub effectively demonstrates this decline by contrasting the two volumes, the one consisting of oratory up through the Civil War, the other after the war.

Juxtaposing the two volumes reveals striking changes in the locus and character of American political rhetoric. The cover art epitomizes the shift. Volume I has a painting of a robed Patrick Henry declaiming before the Virginia House of Burgesses. It is clear he is speaking to a body of distinguished equals, men who will have their own thoughts on the matter at hand, and one suspects, rather high standards for persuasive speech. The second volume has a photo of President Kennedy speaking in front of three microphones to an undepicted, but one assumes mass, audience. In the first volume there are only seven speeches by sitting presidents, including three from Lincoln. In the second volume, there are 34. Even more telling is that from the Revolution through World War I, there are 19 congressional floor speeches, mostly by senators. After Henry Cabot Lodge’s speech in opposition to the League of Nations, there is not a single floor speech (though there are two brief statements made in committee). Oratory and Congress have declined in tandem. The erudite Lodge was the last to employ extensive Latin in a speech; there is one simple Latin phrase in Kennedy’s “ich bin ein Berliner” speech, but nothing like the full sentences from men steeped in literature and history.

The only compensation for the decline is that as the speeches get worse, they mostly get shorter. When all you have are bullet-points, your ammunition is pretty quickly spent. Modern presidential speeches are composed of dry, detailed lists of promised programs sandwiched between warmed-over boilerplate. It's the very combination that Tocqueville predicted: the boring particulars and the vapid generalizations; “the intermediate space is empty.” The richness of earlier rhetoric, particularly in the Senate, is on display in the great triumvirate of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. Volume I contains the speech each made in the Senate on the Compromise of 1850. Clay's speech alone is 67 pages long and must have taken at least six hours to deliver. This is not filibustering where a senator reads aloud names from the phone book. This is closely reasoned argumentation on the constitutional powers of the federal government with respect to slavery. Seeing the length of these speeches, I intended to skim them but couldn't. They were gripping precisely because they made demands on the listener. [. . .]

Hierarchy may be antithetical to democracy, but it is essential to logic. The replacement of paragraphs with bullet-points indicates the democratization or leveling or atomization of logic. The equality of all sentences destroys the connectedness of thought. This scattershot technique of contemporary speechmaking can bowl you over, if the speaker has sufficient force of personality, but it can't pierce your mind or heart, and it certainly can't do it as written rather than spoken. Like Shakespeare's plays, Lincoln's speeches are as powerful in the study as on the stage.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. It is the quintessential public craft of a healthy self-governing republic — that system of politics where, according to Publius, government by “reflection and choice,” may supplant the ancient curse of government by “accident and force.” Rhetoric, as Richard Weaver argued, appeals to the whole man: a creature who both reasons and feels, who is tethered inevitably to the natural world of passions, but who may transcend these passions — discipline not eradicate them — toward that higher reason, that logos, which is his joy and his challenge.

One cannot help but wonder whether as our oratory goes, so goes the vigor and honor of our beloved republic. The method of rhetoric that consists of “dry, detailed lists of promised programs sandwiched between warmed-over boilerplate,” is a rhetoric of passion and desire merely, an appeal to the animal nature of man at the expense of his higher nature. It is, in truth, the perfect rhetoric of Liberalism, which has given us a politics fit for animals.

Comments (5)

The method of rhetoric that consists of “dry, detailed lists of promised programs sandwiched between warmed-over boilerplate,” is a rhetoric of passion and desire merely, an appeal to the animal nature of man at the expense of his higher nature. It is, in truth, the perfect rhetoric of Liberalism, which has given us a politics fit for animals.

This is an astute observation, to which I would add the inevitable effects of the universal franchise, universal schooling, and mass culture generally, as contributory causes of rhetorical declension. If rhetoric must now be calibrated to millions who possess neither the inclination nor the aptitude to meditate upon questions of public moment, it is not to be wondered that it offends the ear and lacerates the soul.

From Daniel Webster and John C Calhoun to Harry Reid and Alberto Gonzalez. If you want a marker of a nation's decline that's as good as any.

I think it was Pascal who said the problem of Western man is he can't being alone in a room for five minutes, he'd be flabbergasted at today's culture and modernity.

We are a nation of moments, instances, ephemeral cycles lasting hours, with a toy industry that has extended to ostensible adults whose favorite gadgets can be seen glued to their ears, holding prolonged but idiotic conversation, "Honey have you put the pea soup up yet?" Anything to use the toy and fill the time and remnants of mind.

Which mind, when used, is geared to dollars, an isolated urge and fascination, unconnected to any substance that would elevate us beyond the sensual, the momentary.

In Thucydides the story is told of Themistocles arguing, debating, for a revamped and larger Athenian fleet. When done the Athenians comment among themselves not only on the stated needs and premises of his oration, but the force and beauty of his rhetoric. He must be right, they say.

An elegant rhetoric is the tool of persuasion, the mark of the educated statesman or scholar, as it shows the speakers quality it also refines and inspires the listeners, it is part of a better civilization and a better people.

What sort of policy changes would bring it back? Or is that the wrong question? Perhaps the educational system, which is a disaster, is a large part of the problem. In which case no amount of monkeying with the form of government is going to help.

Lydia, Kirk talked about the natural aristocracy. the better minds preserving our literary patrimony, exemplars for a higher culture, preservers of the Western traditions.

George Will used to have a delightful habit on the old Sunday Brinkley show of quoting from the classics, to illustrate or emphasize a point on current events. How apt, how educative and yet pertinent. If you remember the cast from those days, well it would be nice to say it was lost on Sam Dondaldson and the giggly Cokie Roberts. But worse, Will was laughed at so often he just gave it up.

So who and where is that small cadre that will brave mute, uncomprehending silence at best, an idiotic condescension at worst?
After all, if you as an insider know what Senator A said to Senator B who needs Aristotle, Cardinal Newman, or current events forbid, Edmund Burke.

But they are there Lydia, just as you are, or Paul Cella, or Maximos. So there is a kind of hope, a hope that a small cadre will help reintroduce
us to who we are, more important, why we are.

The educational system? It took a long time for it to become a disgrace and it will never reclaim what honor or justified pride it once, and to whatever extent, held. Private schools are a start, gradations of change in curricula are needed, the past has to be honored, and religion not regarded as an aberration of the mind.
The last two, true for the schools but more so for society at large.

We will never reclaim what we once had, it's irretrievably gone, but if only we can rekindle the substance, the heart of it, and to a decent degree, this generation and the next will have done it's part in an honorable enterprise. Not impossible is all that I can say.

Fine comments, johnt.

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