NEWS

Rhetoric in a democracy and the need to bridge the divide

What is today’s equivalent of rhetoric? Rhetoric today is what it was when the Greeks developed the first theories of rhetoric 2,550 years ago: It is the art of persuasive discourse. It’s the study of the various ways in which we can solve our public problems through talking rather than fighting. The basic axioms that underline the art are that we shall all have the courage of our convictions but be open to persuasion by others, and that we should know both sides of the story and take into account both sides of the story, and that our democracy should train all young people in the art of speaking properly so that they can participate in their democracy, so they can have a voice. Rhetoric is not about propaganda, which is the art of offering people one choice. Rhetoric is the art of offering people two choices or more. Is any democracy teaching young people rhetoric? In America, our public school system is really floundering. Young people are supposed to be getting this kind of training but in order for the schools to succeed, they have to see this approach in the public sector, because young people model what they see, not just what they learn. And it has to be reinforced by their parents in the home. In America right now, the family is falling apart, the whole structure of the family. Fewer and fewer young people every year come from two-parent families, so it’s a vicious cycle right now. Our popular media has become coarsened, news coverage has become as much ideologically based; it has become one-sided and ideologically polarized. Effective written and spoken expression isn’t emphasized in the home any more so its harder to teach in the public schools, so many of us feel we need to revitalize the teaching of persuasive discourse. What about those who are involved in the public debate – the Op-Ed writers, the talk show hosts, the politicians themselves – shouldn’t they be providing the role models? Absolutely. I hope I made that clear, young people model the kind of discourse they see. We often think that our political discourse these days is driven by money and power and special interests. But in America increasingly, at least, we see the media is also in very much the same way being driven by money, power and ratings and, as someone said, its almost as if there’s a race to the bottom these days. George Bush seems to consciously avoid any form of rhetorical technique. Is that a tactic? He has made a series of mistakes over the years, Whether they are willful or not, or because he is not as articulate as Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or even his father, he has unfortunately turned some pretty poor phrases. He used the word that this was a crusade, the war on terror. A very bad choice of words. I know he upset Europeans after 9/11 when he said you are with America or against America. He often talks about America as leader of the free world, which can seem to be slightly arrogant when you hear it over here as we do in Europe. He used the phrase «axis of evil,» which struck people as a very polarizing kind of rhetoric. Overall, I have to give George Bush low marks for his overall mode of expression, but I give him high marks for his character, for his willingness to believe in something, to make difficult decisions and stick with them. I think in the long run, what he did was an act of judgment. There are certainly reasonable voices that disagree with him – 450 million Europeans, for instance. But if we all take ourselves back to the time when he was making these decisions, there is definitely a reasonable case to be made for what he did. I believe that this is what hasn’t happened in the European media. I believe that his rhetoric, the way he has said things, has sometimes prevented him from getting a fair hearing on both sides. I honestly believe that he should come here more often. And meet people and talk. Maybe listen to them a little bit… And listen more to the European Union, listen to his friends, and acknowledge the fact that he has been listening. One of the rhetorical techniques he uses too often is to appear self-righteous. It’s one thing to have the courage of your convictions, but has he been open to the possibility of other alternatives? He provokes in people a negative reaction because there appears to be a certain swagger, an arrogance in his voice, that in the long run are not in in his interests. That said, having lived through Vietnam, I give him high marks for having the courage of his convictions. Tony Blair does a much better job, he’s very skillful. He said, «Look, there are reasonable voices on the other side.» What can Bush do about his rhetoric? What Bush needs now is speechwriters… this campaign is going to turn on whichever candidate can convince the American people that he can bridge the enormous divide across the American people. Bush needs speechwriters who can give him the bigger picture… the promise to give some unity back to the American people. We’re tired of being two groups of people since Vietnam. Unless he can demonstrate to the American people that he can bridge the divide, I believe he is in big, big trouble. The only possibility he has is if John Kerry isn’t able to do that either… Europeans. .. can’t believe Americans fight about such petty things as gay marriage and affirmative action, Bill Clinton’s scandal, minimum-wage laws. but the reason we fight those things is we’re looking for ways to get at the other side. If there has been such division since Vietnam, why should it now be something that will decide an election? In 2000, there were no big issues, no 9/11, no war on terror, the country was prosperous, everybody in Europe loved us. But now this is a critical time in American history. I haven’t seen a year like this since 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, there were riots at the convention, the Tet Offensive was going on, the anti-war movement, people marching in the streets. I think 2004 is a turning point in American history. We’ve alienated our allies in Europe – not just Bush but America in general, I think. We’re bogged down in a war with no exit strategy; we’ve lived with this cultural divide in America for 40 years. I can’t think of anything since 1968 that even resembles 2004. If you look at the polls, 60 percent of Americans believe we are at war and I am one of them. We haven’t been in anything like this since Vietnam. Is it a call to arms to Americans to pull themselves together? Yes, that is what America needs. Left-wingers, right-wingers – we’ve been fighting each other for 40 years. We need a candidate who speaks not just for a party but for a broader, common good. But isn’t Bush the president who has had a more extremist agenda than what we were used to? No, no. Bill Clinton polarized American politics – not so much the American public but American politics – easily as much as George Bush has. There was a time when Ronald Reagan polarized the country in the same way. So no, these presidents represent the victory of one ideological position over another, and with the predictable results – a divided nation.