16 September 2008

Stormy Applause: What Happened to American Speechmaking?

Part of the anti-intellectual attack on the Obama campaign is a critique of his speechmaking skills. For starters, Senator Obama is criticized for being nothing but a speechmaker. On top of that, Republicans indulge in the counterfactual proposition that Obama is a bad orator. They accuse him of stuttering without a teleprompter near. Following the Clintonites, they harp on supposed haughty mannerisms that make him, in their eyes, look aloof and condescending. For anyone with any sense of history, it only looks like Republicans haven't heard a proper political speech in a long time. So why haven't they?

In the September 10 New Republic John McWhorter, a linguist and public intellectual, ponders the devolution, depending on one's perspective, of the art of political oratory in America. "If Abraham Lincoln were brought back to life," he writes, "one thing that would throw him, other than electric power and the Internet, would be that audiences disrupted his speeches by clapping every three or four lines."

Lincoln was not unused to interruptions; check out transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates for many citations of cheers and heckling. But generally speaking, McWhorter is correct. "To speakers in Lincoln's day, a public address was typically a lecture. In our time, it is more often a love-in, more about the speaker 'connecting' with the audience than teaching it anything new; hence the constant interruptions for clapping."

From there, McWhorter goes on to speculate on the evolution of oratory. Even "primitive" tribes have oratorical traditions of stylized speech that's meant through exaggeration of everyday speech to hold audiences' attention. Perhaps naively, McWhorter argues that past Americans were able to combine grand oratorical style with concrete substance. Now, he claims, "our tolerance for both substance and formality has eroded." He cites the familiar explanations: microphones made booming voices and physical gestures less necessary, while television made the old style look corny and pompous. At the same time, he suggests that there is still an art to oratory, that "the intonations of casual speech are a kind of music; and when wielded effectively, they can satisfy in the same way as a good song." Obama, he claims, has figured this out, but that assertion doesn't account for the hostile reaction some people have to the Democrat's oratory, and the perception that Obama is talking down to them somehow. The best McWhorter can do there is hint that "his detractors [were] seeming challenged in even following his lines of argument" in Obama's Philadelphia "race" speech.

The curious thing about McWhorter's little article is that he doesn't really try to explain how we got to the call-and-response style of speechifying that would supposedly baffle Lincoln. That struck me as curious because I thought I had it figured out as soon as McWhorter first brought up the idea, and was waiting for him to confirm it. I have to wonder if he never did because the truth might be a little embarrassing for Americans.

Anyone interested in international politics who's old enough to remember the Cold War at its frostiest ought to recognize the sort of speechmaking that is regularly interrupted for applause. It was practiced in the Communist bloc, pretty much anywhere that a dictator could be found with a gift for gab and a personality cult. Be it Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev, Mao or Fidel, or any number of lesser lights who were Great Leaders in their own lands, the custom was for the General Secretary or whoever to deliver the latest report on the fulfillment of the five-year plan in punishingly dull detail, only to be interrupted repeatedly by "spontaneous" outbursts of applause and praise from the audience. Unable to leave well enough alone, party reporters embellished their transcripts, to the point that it became routine on our side to satirize their constant use of terms like "stormy applause" to describe the audience response. For your edification, here's a short, apparently authentic sample from the works of Fidel Castro.

Historians have often noted that reactionary movements tend to imitate the phenomena they fear and oppose. Anti-communist movements like the John Birch Society supposedly imitated the structure of Communist cells, for instance, while anti-secular Islamic "fundamentalists" model their organizations, not on the original community of the Prophet, but on 20th century secular political parties. Isn't it just as plausible to suspect that American politicians felt a need to prove that they were just as popular as their Communist counterparts, and so built more opportunities for "stormy applause" into their speeches, even as they realized that the Commie applause was fake? And weren't both sides just imitating Mussolini and Hitler? How does one pick out "authentic" communication or genuine "connection" with the public when the 20th century has given us reason to hold all political oratory suspect? Didn't the dictators connect authentically with their respective masses? But reasonable communication and reasoned speechmaking has to be possible if democratic republicanism is ever going to work. The question for 2008 is whether generations of degenerate oratory have made it impossible for people to understand, much less appreciate, arguments that appeal to their intelligence instead of insulting it, or attempt to persuade them rather than flatter them. Since the Republicans have decided to run a pseudo-populist campaign against a chimerical "elitism," while Obama sticks with the game that got him here, we may have an answer soon.


crhymethinc said...

I have 2 points.
1) Perhaps Mr. Obama's oratory style is under attack by the "right" simply because deep down, they know he's right and can't flaw is logic, so instead they try to inflame people over the style.

2) I'm betting if you could watch the Roman civilaztion from it's Republic heights to it's era of Caesers, you'd find the same cycle. I'd bet when the Senate made a report to the people, they'd sit and listen, but when Caeser made a speech to the mobs, they went wild every few minutes. Maybe it has to do with mob mentality or maybe people in this country have been slowly getting stupider because there's just too much information for their poor little heads to digest, so they give up trying.

Samuel Wilson said...

Our whole concept of the "demagogue," the dubious character who tries to get power by whipping up the populace with speeches that flatter or enrage or make extravagant promises to them, goes back to Greco-Roman times. In those days, the mark of the "elitist" was the reluctance of someone like Coriolanus (see the Shakespeare play) to make speeches to the people at all. Today, Republicans are confusing matters by saying that Obama is both a demagogue (for preaching liberalism) and an elitist (for preaching liberalism). But if anything, Republicans themselves come closer to achieving that seemingly contradictory combination by preaching at the same time that they are ordinary folk like you and me, and that their privileges should be preserved.

If people are getting stupider, it's probably in part for the reason David Brooks suggested; the dogmatic individualism preached by conservatives and libertarians convinces them that they don't have to listen to anyone else "tell them how to live." In many cases, that results in people trying to figure it out for themselves without knowing how.

crhymethinc said...

But in most cases, it just leads to people not trying to figure anything out.