January 11, 2006
Kennedy and Robertson: Burned by Hot Buttons
Over Christmas, I
reread several of Winston Churchill's speeches. Though over six
decades old, Churchill's words still move, empower and inspire.
Churchill mastered what rhetoricians call "emotional appeal
and exhortation," yet he never ignored or glossed the harsh
fact of Britain at war.
In his speech of
May 13, 1940, he said: "I have nothing to offer but blood,
toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most
grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle
and suffering." Churchillian lines like these were the product
of deep reflection and an acute, historically informed awareness
of consequences. These serious words certainly fired Allied hearts
and contributed to the defense of democracy.
Ancient Greek rhetoricians
admired -- and feared -- powerful speakers who had the gift of
emotional appeal and exhortation. My worn copy of "A Handlist
of Rhetorical Terms" lists over 50 types of emotional appeals.
From "amphidiorthosis" ("to hedge or qualify"
a dangerous or bold position ) to "threnos" (a lament),
thoughtful minds in the fourth century B.C. had analyzed every
plea, supplication, ploy and gambit.
Yet there's strong
evidence a healthy democracy requires rhetorical showmanship and
convincing verbal drama. (Hesoid argued that effective justice
also requires it, since a ruling judge must persuade aggrieved
parties justice has been served and not partisan interest.)
The vernacular of
government -- the wonk words, tech jargon, statistics, weasel-ese,
endless qualifiers -- is a calculated patois of obscurity, deniability
and sleep-inducing lethargy. The wily bureaucrat loves sleep,
and this love goes well beyond his post-lunch nap. Boring bureaucratese,
with paragraphs of passive verbs, helps keep the public snoozing.
demands transparency, responsibility and energy. The Marines argue
our common defense requires a few good men. A few good verbs and
metaphors won't ensure good government, but debate and discussion
energized by grand language further that goal.
However, hot rhetoric
untethered by fact or untempered by reflection undermines debate.
hot words often burn the unfettered and ill-tempered tongue that
Rev. Pat Robertson as a recent example of "failure to reflect."
When Robertson said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's
tragic stroke might be a divine rebuke for "dividing God's
land," a wave of deserved scorn and ridicule swamped the
silly man. The White House and The New York Times blasted
Robertson, a right-left political condemnation of a right-wing
Idiocy isn't illegal,
nor is lying -- at least, not if one lies in U.S. Senate hearings.
Ted Kennedy provides the recent example of hot, emotion-stoking
rhetoric untethered by truth.
On opening day of
Judge Samuel Alito's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Kennedy
opened up with a faith-based fire Robertson might envy: "Judge
Alito has not written one single opinion on the merits in favor
of a person of color alleging racial discrimination on the job.
In 15 years, not one."
statement is completely false. Alito found for plantiffs alleging
racial discrimination on the job in several cases (for example,
Zubi v. AT&T Corp. and Goosby v. Johnson &
because of his status as a left-wing political ayatollah, has
avoided Robertson's mass condemnation. His snake dance and sanctimony
is as poisonous as the Rev. Robertson's, however, and perhaps
more venomous, since his fib slanders Judge Alito.
Kennedy hasn't quite
escaped. Duke University Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, a left-wing
legal scholar, begrudgingly admitted on Hugh Hewitt's radio program
that Kennedy "was wrong. I'm not denying that."
Good for you, professor
-- best not deny hard judicial fact.
Defenders of Robertson
and Kennedy -- and who knows, there may be two or three out there
-- could argue that both are "merely playing to their political
base" by "pushing hot buttons" and "tossing
red meat." Here's my lamentation: In contemporary politics,
it seems flame raises more money than fact, and thus fund raising
trumps truth, decency and common sense. Tactical politics dovetails
with practical finances. The hot words are supposed "to drive
the news day" and "hit the news cycle," feeding
a "news machine" that thrives on sound-bites and glories
Robertson was burned
for his flame, and Kennedy should be. The likely burn in Kennedy's
case is Alito's confirmation.
2005 Creators Syndicate