clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, May 05, 2004
I'll admit that it bothers me that I come down so hard on my friends on the left sometimes, because, well, because I agree with them, or at least with 2/3 of what they have to say, and we share the same goals, so why be so argumentative? For all the importance that I give to the maxim "the perfect is the enemy of the good," isn't that what I'm doing by getting so bothered by the rhetoric of radicalism? Shouldn't I be heartened by expressions of support for feminism, anti-racism, peace, income redistribution, etc., rather than disgusted and annoyed? Aren't I being too picky?

Maybe. But it's important, I think, that what particularly bothers me is speech, specifically political speech. I'll support a petition for something right up until the point where I actually read the damn thing. And yeah, that's stupid, but I don't think it's stupid to get annoyed at the simpleminded, self-righteous statements made by musicians, entertainers, and peers with whom I otherwise agree. One on level, it's that you're getting mad at someone who isn't there, preaching to the choir as if they were the enemy, and the roar of approval becomes equivalent to a conversion, which of course is not the case, and not helpful. What everyone agrees upon already is invoked as if it's in doubt. What's the point? It's self-aggrandizement, and it's dumb.

But I think the thing that really dismays me, beyond even the faulty reasoning or naive grasp of political realities, is how dull it all is. For all the rich tradition of political speech in this country--there's little anywhere that's comparable to the rousing prose of the Declaration of Independence, and that was nominally written by committee!--what I hear coming out of the mouths of my contemporaries is either simplistic or didactic, either amounting to "this sucks!" or a stilted white-paper presentation of the facts that nevertheless manages to be ideological and should be a footnote to the rhetoric rather than the major purpose. There's no language to rouse, just to reinforce. There's no credit given to the audience's knowledge, just an assumption of ignorance paired with either condescension or contempt. This doesn't really seem like a productive political technique to me. There's always been ignorance and apathy in politics, but the way to overcome it is not, I think, to attempt to bury it or deride it. It needs to be overcome, not pandered to. We need to rise above.

I can't think of a single great piece of American political rhetoric since the mid-60s. Some of the speeches of both Kennedys were genuinely inspirational and uplifting; little since has even approached that. So it's partially that the current generation sorely lacks for viable examples, and, of course, it's partially the rise of the mass media. I think it gets conveniently blamed for a lot more things than it's really responsible, but its effect on politics has been pretty clear. Political rhetoric has devolved because rhetoric plays a much smaller role now on the broad stage presented by the media, and words live forever to be twisted and reused, if they're not ignored outright. The example from our elected officials has been away from specific language toward ambiguous symbol, non-verbal cues, and non-explicit statements. Politics has always been in part, of course, the business of saying one thing and meaning another, but never before has there been such impetus to engage in ironic or ambiguous statement, and never before has there been such use of symbols, and visuals, and gestures. There are a lot of reasons for this (the weakening of the party system, hastened by the mass media, explains a lot of it, too), and I'm not saying it's necessarily Bad For Democracy, but I do think it's been severely damaging to political speech.

But just because our politicians have made speech a liability doesn't mean that we citizens can't still engage in it. What we have is, almost entirely, our voices, and to use it to merely spread information or to endorse a policy position seems like an injudicious use of the resources available to us. Why do we speak as if we are trying to subdue an unruly child when we could unambiguously, politely but without apology, attempt to convince others of the rightness of our case? Isn't that what we're supposed to do?

I'm not saying that we could realistically expect a return to the unamplified, three hour speech-a-thons that characterized 19th-century politics. But I think that the spirit of those times, if not the particulars, could be productively revisited, and for a young audience, no less. (We are, after all, already used to one-to-many presentations it from college classes, ha.) I'm probably the poppiest, short-attention-spanniest person I know, but I still get teared up when I read Lincoln's second inaugural, and if you don't, I want to know what the fuck you've been reading lately. Just as the spirit of a Bartok string quartet can be precisely conveyed by a three-minute rock song, so can the spirit of an epic speech from 200 years ago be conveyed in one today. What is important is not the content as much as the form, the rhythms and cadences and the perspective from which it comes, and the willingness to trust the listener. For everything that's changed with technology in the last 50 years, what will never change is the ability for humans to persuade other humans with nothing but their voices, and that is a power we all have. I simply wish we would use it with the precision that it presents as a possibility, and with a frequency that better represents its importance. And I especially wish leftists would use it. If we're going to get burned by anti-intellectualism, the thing to do is not embrace that criticism, but to use that smartness that we have for good.

Do I sound like a grumpy old man? Yeah, probably; I think I do half the time, when I'm not harping on about something ridiculously juvenile. But this is what I think, and what I'm going to try to do.