Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Language, Rhetoric and Good Intentions

I’ve had a large dose of political fatigue these past few days. Last week I was in Cyprus for the Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and had the opportunity to watch the three main presidential candidates slug it out in a Valentine’s Day Debate. On Sunday, Kosovo declared independence. Over the weekend and all through this week, I’ve been watching Hillary and Barack escalate their attacks on each other in the media.

Rhetoric, of course, is considered a positive attribute in a politician, which is why we remember past heroes of the genre such as Pericles or Alcibiades. And it’s certainly better to have a President capable of communicating in good English, rather than one who cannot: we must only remember the Current Inhabitant of the White House to appreciate this.

The fact, therefore, that a candidate is a good orator should not be considered a negative attribute. Blaming Barrack Obama for speaking well is as disingenuous as blaming Bill Gates for dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft.

Yet rhetoric is a fragile thing. The same words that are so effective in a heated campaign rally are damning on the written page. This is where, I think, our modern political system and language fail us. Thousands of people attend a campaign rally, yet millions more read the candidate’s words the day after.

Let’s take a look at some examples: The Washington Post reported today (Obama, McCain Roll to Wins in Wisconsin) on some campaign speeches of the two candidates in the run-up to the Wisconsin primary. Here’s what Hillary said:

"Both Senator Obama and I would make history…But only one of us is ready on day one to be commander-in-chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to defeat the Republicans.”

On the face of it, this statement is absurd. Given past mistakes and political biography, there’s nothing in the record of either candidate to indicate this would be true:

• Neither has served in the armed forces, fought in combat, or ordered troops into battle;

• Neither has been an entrepreneur or corporate manager: they are both professional lawyers and politicians, and many of their statements betray a glaring misunderstanding of economics;

• Defeating the Republicans is not what I imagine most Americans would want. I believe we want solutions to day-to-day and longer-term problems, and in this respect cooperation with Republicans-and all Americans-will be essential.

Now let’s take Obama’s statement, quoted in the same article:

"The problem that we face in America is not a lack of good ideas…It's that Washington has become a place where good ideas go to die."

For those who have studied logic, this statement is similar to the Epimenides paradox: “All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan.” If Washington is indeed a place where good ideas go to die, why in the world are you hell-bent on going there? Indeed, how many good ideas have you killed since you joined the Senate in January 2005?

The problem of rhetoric and language in the political sphere must be put in context. Language is used to fire up supporters, to deliver an easily-digestible narrative of “us versus them”, the “good versus the bad.” The real world, of course, doesn’t work that way. On January 21st, 2009, the day after the Inauguration, whoever is President will have to work with the opposing party to pass legislation. He or she will have to work with states governed by members of the opposite party, and may have to order troops into combat who identify with the opposite party.

The Democratic candidates are hammering John McCain with his statement on keeping troops in Iraq for 100 years. John McCain is hammering Obama for his "eloquent but empty call for change" and the "confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate.” Hillary and Barrack are attacking each other daily.

Yet at the end of the day, these people are all Americans, and are all expressing their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly. Neither party will have an enduring majority, so the tactic of alienating a significant portion of the population is rationally harmful to one’s own self-interest, let alone to an enlightened, collective interest.

The impact of campaign rhetoric is lasting. Repeated over and over again, it leads of a form of psychological conditioning with a grave impact on candidates, supporters and opponents. The fact that we have now separated official campaign media with unofficial supporters (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) merely adds to the corrosive acidity of modern political life.

Despite my hopes for this election, and for the American polity as a whole, I can’t help remembering that old canard: It’s only the people who can’t succeed in business, science or arts that run for political office. Given today’s electoral system and wider political climate, I certainly would never consider doing so. No ethical person would, given what it costs in money, honour and spirit.

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