"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

American Eloquence–An Oxymoron If There Ever Was One

Anyone who has watched Question Time, the half hour dedicated to questions from Members of Parliament to the British Prime Minister and answers from his political opponents, comes away thinking that American politicians are bumbling, inarticulate rubes. The questions are sharp-edged, bordering on the ad hominem, often challenging the Prime Minister’s character and intelligence. “If the Prime Minister had only taken the time  to peruse his own Cabinet Secretary’s memorandum on the issue”, shouts one frontbencher, “then he might well have well have taken his counsel rather than run wildly like a dog after a rabbit.”

“Hear, hear”, rumbled his supporters.

The Prime Minister rises slowly, and retorts, “If the Right Honorable Member from Windermere would only peer out of his own rabbit hole, he might speak more sensibly. ‘Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it's getting!’” is all he can say, and we are tired of his dilatory nonsense.”

Question time

The entire chamber burst out in laughter. Everyone on both sides of the aisle knew the quote from Alice in Wonderland, and knew of Picky Bentley’s fondness for rabbit stew, and the Prime Minister’s riposte was applauded with cheers and jeers.  He had one-upped his diligent opponent and dispatched him back to the briar patch.

Alice in Wonderland Rabbit

An American politician would never face his antagonists in such an arena. Presidents say little in their increasingly infrequent news conferences, dismissing unpleasant questions by answering only what they want to say, not what was asked. Newsmakers on Sunday talk shows are just as self-serving, monotonous, and conflict-adverse as the President.  If the host goes beyond what the guest considers propriety and good taste – i.e. refusing to let a lame response go unchallenged – the guest will gather his marbles and never come back.


Worst of all is the illiterate hemming and hawing of all but the most literate politicians.  They cannot think quickly enough to round out a coherent phrase let alone be ironic or referential.  They need more time not only to understand the question asked but to frame a non-response. “I am not sure, uh, about that Bob”, said a ranking Congressman from Nebraska to the host of CNN’s State of the Union. “The people, uh, of Nebraska, uh, who are no different, um, than any other American, uh, want not only a deal but, um, a good deal.  We’re ranchers, after all, and know how to horse trade .”  Stumbling and groping for words, the Congressman had unwittingly dumbed down political discourse beneath the already limbo-low threshold.  Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor couldn’t string three words together without gasping for intellectual air.

Image result for image nebraska plains with cattle

Press secretaries are eloquent and glib, but they have been trained to say absolutely nothing. They refer reporters to other departments, to transcripts of previous conversations, or to the local news.  Their only concern is not to make a misstep or to say something that actually went on in the Oval Office or the West Wing.  Their job is to demur, defer, and dismiss. All their eloquence is spent on nothing substantive at all.

We voters are complicit in this inanity.  We don’t want our politicians to act and sound too big for their britches.  George W. Bush, graduate of Yale and Harvard, scion of the patrician Bush family of Kennebunkport, son of a President, grandson of a Senator, talked like a good ol’ boy because his Texan constituents demanded it. He deliberately avoided literary reference, metaphor, irony, and symbolism and spoke as plainly as the cowboys and oilmen who had voted him in office. 

Image result for formal presidential portrait george w bush

He is not the only politician guilty of hiding intelligence, education, and breeding. Speeches, whether addressing policy issues or wooing voters on a town square, have been carefully prepared to avoid anything that would suggest that the man delivering the speech is any better than those listening to it.  A Midwest version of democracy is what has ruined public discourse. Our leaders must appear as simple as the common man.

Faith and red meat have replaced dialectic. America is a nation of believers.  We know what we know and don’t have to waste time thinking about irrelevancies. We need no more than the Bible and words from the pulpit to guide us. America is great exactly because we have no French fops in garters and wigs or English lords of the manor. ‘Salt of the earth’ was meant to describe us, exceptional Americans who have reigned and ruled because of an unshakeable belief in God and country.

Image result for images babbitt sinclair lewis

It is not surprising that the British, intellectual legatees of Shakespeare, would put so much emphasis on articulate, witty, and intelligent speech.  The soliloquies of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear are committed to memory by British schoolboys.  The sharp wit of Rosalind and Beatrice emulated by young girls.  Othello was eloquent in his jealous rage, Iago in his evil designs. Posthumus was no less so in his long misogynistic soliloquies about the perfidy of women.  Cleopatra was marvelously theatrical in her expressions of ‘love’ for Antony.

Image result for image olivier hamlet to be or not to be

Nor is it surprising that Americans who accept an invitation to debate at the Oxford Union get the willies.  Englishmen, especially of a certain class, have studied and learned the art of debate.  Rhetoric has been a part of an Oxbridge education ever since the Middle Ages when educators applied the lessons of Cato the Elder.  The English language is a thing of beauty say these highly-educated members of the British ruling elite; so use it and use it properly.

Pamela Druckerman, writing in the New York Times (3.17.15) is more taken with the French:

Life at Versailles was apparently a protracted battle of wits. You gained status if you showed “esprit” — clever, erudite and often caustic wit, aimed at making rivals look ridiculous. The king himself kept abreast of the sharpest remarks, and granted audiences to those who made them. “Wit opens every door,” one courtier explained.

If you lacked “esprit” — or suffered from “l’esprit de l’escalier” (thinking of a comeback only once you had reached the bottom of the staircase) — you’d look ridiculous yourself.

Image result for images the sun king at versailles

This tradition of wit and repartee to gain advantage and to avoid humiliation is apparently alive and well in France:

Many children train for this at home. Where Americans might coo over a child’s most inane remark, to boost his confidence, middle-class French parents teach their kids to be concise and amusing, to keep everyone listening. “I force him or her to discover the best ways of retaining my attention,” wrote the anthropologist Raymonde Carroll.

Today children in America are brought up to be more politically correct than right or convincing.  One must be careful in all discussions to show deference, respect, and caring.  It is far more important to avoid hurting feelings than to win an argument.

This sense of ‘intellectual entitlement’ reigns in many offices.  Managers are obliged to solicit and listen to the most cockamamie ideas from the lowest of their staff to be sure they feel included. They may only be administrative gofers, but this does not mean that they don’t have something to contribute. “What an excellent idea”, replied the Vice President. “Thank you Amanda so much for sharing that.”

Of course the VP had paid no attention whatsoever to what Amanda had said – an inarticulate, rambling, thought relevant to nothing – but she felt obliged to reward her for her effort.  She should have replied like a Frenchman or a Parliamentary backbencher, calling Amanda out for wooly thinking, adolescent language, and intellectual indiscipline; but she held her tongue and did the American thing.  As a result, Amanda never learned to think or speak properly, and never moved up, on, or anywhere.

Druckerman notes that around the dinner table British guests quip rather than discuss. Avoid seriousness, enthusiasm, and eagerness. Once again, the English know what they are talking about. Gilbert and Sullivan were British after all; and what could capture the charm and easy with of The Mikado:

Three little maids from school are we
Pert as a school-girl well can be
Filled to the brim with girlish glee
Three little maids from school

Everything is a source of fun
Nobody's safe, for we care for none
Life is a joke that's just begun
Three little maids from school 

Three little maids who, all unwary
Come from a ladies' seminary
Freed from its genius tutelary
Three little maids from school
Three little maids from school
American musical theatre inherited much of Gilbert and Sullivan’s genius, but it remained on Broadway.  Dinner table conversations in Washington, carefully avoiding contentious or ‘intellectual’ topics, but devoid of wit and humor, are thuddingly boring. 
Of course there is nothing like a nasty political argument to ruin the turbot a la crème, and I am guilty of deflecting argumentative sallies until after the main course or of inviting only those friends who can take a punch and counter with snap. 
“Are you joking?”, shouted one. “You have no idea what you are talking about. Schopenhauer shares nothing at all with Nietzsche and even less with Augustine. You should exert some of your free will and stop watching so much television.”
My daughter laughed.  She liked Paul Levitz and said he was funny.  She and her brother both grew up to be just as funny and had no trouble defeating all comers when it came to arguments.  I was proud of them. 

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