But What About? and “Mere Rhetoric”

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.

10 thoughts on “But What About? and “Mere Rhetoric”

  1. Wayne,
    This is a great piece. You put things so well, so intelligently. Obama certainly has proven to be an absolutely masterful politician (When I first heard him in 2004, I knew he “had it”). I think the person who is most capable of challenging Obama toe-to-toe is Mike Huckabee (because of his cheerful demeanor as well as character)
    Regarding this though:
    “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.”
    What I find frustrating about our President is that when it comes to the difficult social issues it seems to me that he really is not interested in letting the most civil and persuasive cases of his opponents from being known – views that many, if not most of Americans weould resonate with when articulated in an intelligent, easy-to-understand, and winsome way. Perhaps it is not difficult to demonize your opponents when you talk about having open discussion and debate about difficult issues (like at Warren’s civil forum, which was good, but should also have had a “civil debate” aspect), but then keep the microphone to yourself.
    I don’t want to be overly cynical of course, but this is what I see.

  2. Perhaps it is not difficult to demonize your opponents
    should say
    Perhaps it is not difficult to NOT demonize your opponents

  3. I see your point, Nathan. When writing this, I was thinking particularly of the speeches rather than other forums. I’m considering writing one on Obama as a master of kairos as well, especially in the speech responding to the Rev. Wright controversy. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Warren forum, since by then I knew who I was voting for and why, so I can’t comment on that one in particular. However, it’s not like the opposition isn’t extremely visible and vocal. How much of it is worthy of response? If the goal is an elevated political rhetoric – and I think that’s one of Obama’s goals – then much of what counts as opposition isn’t worthy of response.
    How can one really respond to the inanities of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and worse without devolving into a shouting match? What was the comment from the press secretary? Something like, “we’re happy to have Limbaugh as the spokesman for the Republican Party.” In my view, it’s unfortunate for the Republicans to have such people on their side, and they’ve done more damage to the intellectual and ethical credibility of the Republicans than people like Al Sharpton ever did to the Democrats. When the usual response of the opposition is inarticulate rage, the best response is silence.
    Depending on what policies or stances one opposes in the current Presidential administration, I’m sure there are articulate defenders of the opposition stance, but unfortunately for the civic discussion they don’t get much exposure. I don’t see that as Obama’s fault, though. I see it as a flaw in the Republican machine. The most public voices that are praised even by the politicians themselves are the lowest grade of anti-intellectual populism around.
    There was a time long ago when the Right, however one might define it, had articulate public voices. Trade William F. Buckley for Rush Limbaugh, Russell Kirk for Glenn Beck, or Irving Kristol for William Kristol, and you can easily see the intellectual degeneration of the public voices of the Right. Until the Republicans start deliberately cultivating and highlighting intelligent and articulate proponents, they won’t be a worthwhile rhetorical opposition for Obama. Instead, he can put forward his own positions and continue to try to develop dialogues with opponents, and let the Republican politicos look like spoiled children whining and screaming over real or imagined minor details just to get some attention.
    I’m heartened that some are beginning to respond to the new tone, though. Just compare Rush Limbaugh to Jeff Sessions on the Sotomayor nomination. Unfortunately, if the Republicans were in power, Sessions’ tone and approach might be very different, which is another point for Obama. He IS in power, and yet he’s still cultivating the same calm, reasonable tone he always has.

  4. Wayne,
    I really appreciate the tone and thoughtfulness of your response. Thank you.
    “I’m sure there are articulate defenders of the opposition stance, but unfortunately for the civic discussion they don’t get much exposure. I don’t see that as Obama’s fault, though. I see it as a flaw in the Republican machine… Trade William F. Buckley for Rush Limbaugh, Russell Kirk for Glenn Beck, or Irving Kristol for William Kristol, and you can easily see the intellectual degeneration of the public voices of the Right. Until the Republicans start deliberately cultivating and highlighting intelligent and articulate proponents, they won’t be a worthwhile rhetorical opposition for Obama.”
    This was well put. Maybe you are right. I’m not sure though: in my more cynical moments I think that there are lots of persons who are just as intelligent as folks like Buckley (like your own Robert George for example) – and that they get on things like Fox News – but they don’t get a wider forum where they are able to actually debate things (and the soundbyte nature of all media is horrible). Sometimes I wonder if the environment has changed so much that where intelligent conservative spokesman who were socially conservative may have been able to get a wider hearing in the past, its just not the case today (and of course, this would be partially the fault of social conservatives, for not being successful in shaping the culture this way in the first place in the marketplace of ideas). Of course, I am glad to get your perspective as well. If you are right, I hope that people who are more socially conservative will have the intelligence to recognize persons who not only sound smart to them, but to persons from the opposite perspective as well…
    But this would require less cheerleading and more thinking.

  5. I think we can could both agree on the sorry state of the soundbite culture, and especially the political echo chambers. The mediums of communications are wide open now, but there isn’t any debate. Political writers increasingly write for the converted.
    My analysis of the current state of conservatives is based partially on George Nash’s book The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America. If you haven’t read that, you should. It’s a great survey of conservative intellectual life in America from the 1940s to the 1970s or thereabouts. At the time, conservatives faced a media culture that wasn’t sympathetic to them and had few outlets for publishing. The popular magazines were either lowbrow or liberal. The academic journals were all liberal. The publishing houses were all liberal. The television stations were all liberal. Unlike today, conservative intellectuals didn’t have the Internet. So what did they do?
    Buckley founded the National Review. Henry Regnery founded his conservative publishing house, which published Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Others founded ISI, which started publishing a journal specifically for college students. The Young Americans for Freedom was founded. Kirk founded Modern Age to create a space for conservative academics and intellectuals to publish. The movement they started raised the intellectual tone of conservatives, and distinguished them from the John Birchers and other extremists.
    What happened? Victory, of a sort. It seems to me that “conservative” became equal to “supporter of the Republican Party,” and the Republican Party – like most political parties – wants power but doesn’t have coherent principles. Is it a libertarian party that wants to dismantle the state or a right wing religious party that wants to dictate morality to everyone? It can’t be both. Thus the drive to stay in power at any cost rather than develop a more coherent philosophy as an earlier generation was trying to do. Or the tendency painfully obvious on the WSJ Op Ed pages to defend EVERYthing done by President Bush and Republicans and attack everything done by the opposition. There was a time when politically aware conservatives were aware of Russel Kirk or Richard Weaver. Now they’re aware of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.
    The Right has more channels of communication and opportunities to have intelligent debate than ever before. And what do we get? Rush Limbaugh. The Fox News gang. Ann Coulter. Hardly a raging bunch of intellectuals, no matter how intelligent some of them might be. They want victory, not debate, and hate nuance. There are plenty of places for conservative intellectuals to speak, but nobody wants to hear them, including, it seems, most conservatives, and conservatives have for the most part abandoned academia (and that’s its own very complicated story).
    I don’t see much hope for an elevated political discourse in America. It’s always been brutal since colonial times. But one tiny ray of hope is a President who can articulate complex ideas in a calm and reasoned way and who tries somewhat to create consensus rather than divisions.

  6. Wayne,
    Thanks again for some wonderfully thoughtful diaglogue.
    You said “They want victory, not debate, and hate nuance.”
    I think you are right about those you mention (Limbaugh, Coulter) – and I suspect this colors how persons see any conservative who will not condemn the proud loud-mouths wholesale***
    Which is perhaps why not even these nuanced fellows can get a hearing?:
    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2009/06/18/lament-for-a-bioethics-council/
    Yes, it may be true that these men did not strive for “consensus” the way the President would like, but can one honestly say that their convictions about ethics are not “reasonable”.
    I would guess that if, after being given a hearing, and being rejected by the one holding power, that they would participate in some sort of process in order to ensure that the policy that came from the President would minimize what they believe is evil as much as possible. Of course, open the release of the policy, they would certainly want to reserve for themselves the right to say: “We worked with the President, and he listened to us a bit, but he did not take our advice to the degree we wish he had, and we are therefore diappointed in the final product.”
    But that’s not the kind of result the President wants (although I personally, would respect him more if he was as concerned with this kind of human transparency as he is economic transparency…). And so its easier to let them go.
    Of course, this is somewhat understandable and I think it is his right to do this if he wants to (I think its good to model having people who oppose you vigourously [but believe in the rule of law] on your cabinet) – what concerns me is that I sense from the President that he would prefer that this way of doing things didn’t just happen among in his immediate cabinet/employees – but that it would gradually happen more across our country like the ripples caused by a rock in the pond (fairness doctrine, conscience clauses for doctors, etc.)
    Coherence? Huckabee’s answer is the best, I think, and will figure in prominently if he runs again: the amount of formal government needed in a society does not only have to do with the size of the country, but is also directly related to the character and behavior (regarding some recent moral battles, check out this powerful argumentation: http://jennifer-roback-morse.com/articles/disposable_father.html )of its people (and hence, though we may want small government, we need to realize this important fact [this is also argued very well by Jenniefer Roback Morse, author ot the above article, in her "Love and Economics"])
    Our current president’s coherence? Check this out: http://www.slate.com/id/2213707/
    Again, I don’t meant to be overly critical. There is much to learn from our current President, and I respect him as the leader of our land.
    And – FYI, I usually vote Republican while holding my nose. If democrats were more welcoming to persons with socially conservative views, I would vote Democrat more often.
    Thanks again,
    Nathan
    ***though, in my estimation, it is social conservatives who are more willing to admit and apologize for the flaws of those among them, probably because they, do have some real strong moral convictions about right and wrong [which is why they can be hypocrites]

  7. “And – FYI, I usually vote Republican while holding my nose.” Ha. That’s more or less what I do, except with the Democrats. We’ve moved a bit off topic, in some ways. My comments on President Obama are specifically about his rhetorical prowess, rather than a defense of any of his specific policies, which frankly I’m not willing to defend. It seems obvious to me he can’t build consensus with people radically opposed to him. I think what I was getting at – and I’m still working through this a bit in my mind – is that compared to Bush and Rove (much less the vocal and visible group of non-politician “conservatives” in the media) and some other Democratic candidates, he didn’t try to attain political victory by creating divisions. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have a devil term, and by that I mean a word or phrase or group that he would throw up for us all to hate in order to use that hate to bring us together.
    For some politicians and commentators, the list of devil terms is long. Depending on the person, we’re supposed to hate socialists, liberals, homosexuals, feminists, immigrants, drug addicts, and the French. We’re told, for example, to hate “big government” by a government that began two neverending, incredibly expensive wars and a policy of “homeland security” that inevitably increased the cost and scope of government.
    Regardless of what people want (and I really don’t know how that could be determined effectively), there’s never going to be “small government” again in the United States. This is an argument I’ve had a couple of times with a friend of mine who keeps voting for politicians who claim they’re libertarians. Almost no politicians since 1932 have really tried to reduce the size of government, only its composition. The most aggressive talking President was Reagan. The government is the problem, not the solution, he said, thus trying to get us to hate the government. So what happened under Reagan? Government got larger, including the establishment of yet another cabinet level department. Government doesn’t get smaller; the main change is in which parts of the government are larger than others. Under Democrats, this tends to be the social welfare agencies. Under Republicans, it’s the military wing.
    Regardless of whether I agree with them or not, I think social conservatives have been sold out by the Republican Party, who knows they’re never going to vote for Democrats. So social conservatives are told that the Republicans are the party of family values and small government and such, and I just don’t see that. The Republicans are the government of the wealthy and the transnational corporations and the financial class. It seems to me that social conservatives – much like social democrats – don’t really have a party to call home.

  8. “It seems to me that social conservatives – much like social democrats – don’t really have a party to call home.”
    I think this is right.
    “I think what I was getting at – and I’m still working through this a bit in my mind – is that compared to Bush and Rove (much less the vocal and visible group of non-politician “conservatives” in the media) and some other Democratic candidates, he didn’t try to attain political victory by creating divisions.”
    Yes, I agree (I think our President is very smart to not use any language that could be construed as incendiary). I think it makes sense to focus on common ground – build consensus, if you will – although I think that when you try to do this by failing to address tough issues in an honest and open fashion, we are all the poorer. An interesting question perhaps: do you think that the Republicans, if they actually were to be concerned about the concerns of social conservatives and talked about them intelligently (will probably only happen if someone like Huckabee can get any ground), could actually be seen as NOT being divisive by the majority of those in the media. Do you think its possible? My sense is that this will be almost impossible to do – because the moral issues themselves affect people – especially those in the media – so deeply.
    “It seems obvious to me he can’t build consensus with people radically opposed to him.”
    Right, but there are many highly intelligent folks who I believe would work with him, trying to influence him as best they could (while again, reserving the right to say that “I wasn’t totally happy with the end result…”, which in my mind, we, as good citizens, should be able to do…) And seriously Wayne – if social conservatives were more intelligent, more kind, more winsome, and eager to engage in intelligent and civil dialogue (yes, they might be unwilling to bend on some issues, but many of them believe strongly that it is not so much power that should win, but ideas, arguments, and the ability to change hearts and mind), would that be better for the President, or worse?
    I suspect worse. : )

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