I listened to some of President Obama’s Cairo speech this morning, and based on the snippets I heard and the summary and analysis I’ve read so far it maintains his reputation as the most rhetorically effective President since Reagan, and probably since Kennedy. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Kennedy’s Commencement Address at American University in June 1963. Kennedy’s speech wasn’t addressed to his university audience so much as to the Soviet Union, and Obama’s approach today was similar, to build bridges to the potentially hostile audience through emphasis on mutual values and goals while not denigrating American values. I recommend listening to or reading Kennedy’s address if you’re unfamiliar with it, but this is my favorite bit:
So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.
I submit that it would be difficult to find a more rhetorically effective paragraph in the annals of Presidential speeches. It acknowledges differences without threat, urges common goals while recognizing that not all of them will be met, and summarizes in brief but compelling fashion the underlying joint humanity even of political enemies. President Obama’s speech today tried to make the same points.
One difference between the speeches is in the specificity of proposals. Kennedy, for example, announced that he and Krushchev would soon begin discussing a test ban treaty, and that the US wouldn’t conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere if other states also refrained from such testing. Some commentators and pundits have already begun criticizing Obama’s speech for not articulating more concrete proposals. He didn’t do this, he didn’t do that. He said he was opposed to this, but didn’t say what he would really do. Depending on the perspective, the list of things left out is long: he didn’t denounce Muslim terrorists or dictators, he didn’t articulate a clear solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he didn’t talk about civilian casualties in Pakistan. (Of course, there’s a raft of more inarticulate criticism. If you want to descend into the morass of what passes for common opinion in America, you might sample the comments here.)
The criticism that he didn’t address everything in one speech is a ridiculous one, and one that has been plaguing Obama since the beginning of his Presidential campaign. For one thing, it’s an example of what I recently saw referred to as the "but what about" fallacy. (I thought I’d read this in philosopher Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian blog, but I can’t find it there. If anyone knows the source, I’ll be happy to link to it.) The idea of the fallacy is that whatever claims, arguments, or assertions someone makes, instead of addressing them, it’s easier to evade them and just say, "but what about X topic you didn’t talk about?" That response appears to point out a flaw in the opponent’s position but is really just a variation of the red herring fallacy. "But we’re not talking about X; we’re talking about W," might be the best response.
The other major criticism that has dogged him from the beginning is that his speeches are "mere rhetoric," as if a speech is ever anything but rhetoric. Criticism of this sort is different from the "but what about" fallacy, but it’s still usually a nonsensical criticism mouthed by people who don’t understand how language works. Language is symbolic action. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, often through argumentation, and according to Chaim Perelman the “aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent." The goal of "mere" rhetoric is to persuade, to win people to our positions, to eliminate barriers of distrust and dissent, to reduce threat because, as the psychologist Carl Rogers argued, threat hinders communication.
Rhetoric is more than just argument, the logical appeal. There are also the emotional and ethical appeals, and Obama is a master of the ethical appeal, the appeal based on character. The character manifest in this speech, and in many of his other speeches, is of a person who understands the world is a complicated place, who recognizes difference and reaches out to the "other," who presents positive values while not dismissing those he doesn’t agree with as evil or stupid, who is so strong in his own convictions that he doesn’t need to demonize the opposition through divisive rhetoric and inane catch phrases, so balanced and calm that he doesn’t feel compelled to rise to the challenge of blowhards. It’s this rhetorical appeal in particular that so many politically motivated people in America neither have nor understand. The demonstration of hatred, the obvious unwillingness to consider the positions of others, the inability to even understand difference, the incapacity for empathy or sympathy, the unrelenting hermeneutic of suspicion, the utterly obvious willingness to say or do anything to win regardless of truth or principle – all of these traits undermine the ethical appeal and yet are rife in our political culture and manifest in many of the critics of this President and his speeches.
The problem for these critics is that they just don’t know what to do with such a politician. If you’re an overweight, multiply divorced, substance abuser, it’s hard to attack the character of a healthy man in a lengthy stable marriage with two loving children. If you’re a blowhard who knows only how to manipulate social divisions and is so rhetorically challenged that you’re considered merely an evil joke by your opponents, it’s hard to smear the character of a man who quite obviously shares none of your cynicism or passion for the complete destruction of people of good will with whom you happen to disagree. Regardless of any specific problems of Obama’s policies that could be articulated, so many of his critics just seem like spoiled, screaming youngsters compared to him. A glimmer of hope for America – seen fleetingly in some Republican reactions to the nomination of Sotomayor – is that the nuanced worldview and the balanced, measured rhetoric of President Obama may by some miracle elevate the level of political discourse in the country. It’s never been particularly elevated before, but there’s always that hope.