2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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England: The refining of rhythmic rhetoric


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2/9/08 Irish. Times 6

Barack Obama has replaced the 20th century politics of sincerity and intimacy with older, more dramatic forms of political communication which, centuries ago, brought the entire Commons to its feet.

In February 1787, the great Irish playwright and politician, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, rose to speak in the House of Commons. He was proposing a motion to put one of the most powerful men in the world - the governor of the East India Company Warren Hastings - on trial on a charge of stealing vast sums from an aristocratic Indian family.

The quest was, on the face of it, pointless. Hastings had the full support of the Tory government, and the government had an overwhelming majority in parliament. Sheridan had just one weapon - rhetoric.

He spoke for five and a half hours. His speech was a closely argued exploration of evidence Hastings had given to an inquiry. It was a guided tour of legal affidavits, of the finer points of Islamic inheritance law, and of crimes against the natives of a very far-off country. But it held its audience spellbound.

One MP, Sir Gilbert Elliot, wrote to his wife next morning that the speech was "still vibrating in my brain". As he listened, he wrote, "the bone rose repeatedly in my throat, and tears in my eyes . . . The conclusion, in which the whole force of his case was collected, and where his whole powers were employed to their utmost stretch, and indeed his own feelings wound to the utmost pitch, worked the House up into such a paroxysm of passionate enthusiasm on the subject, and of admiration for him, that the moment he sat down there was a universal shout, nay even clapping for half a second; every man was on the floor, and all his friends throwing themselves on his neck in raptures of joy and exultation." The effect of Sheridan's rhetoric was such that it overturned a huge government majority. The impeachment of Hastings was set in train.

If people has been told that 200 years later, "rhetoric" would be a bad word, a term of political abuse, they would have been completely baffled. The T-shirts being sold this week in the US to supporters of Hillary Clinton, with the slogan "Obama: Rhetoric With No Substance" would have seemed self-contradictory. Back then, rhetoric was itself the substance of politics.

RHETORIC USED TO be the place where art met politics. It was a compound of language, performance and ideology, which aimed to give public affairs the immediacy, depth and emotional impact of a work of art. And it remained a potent force until the 1960s: Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech is in many ways the high point of one great stream of western rhetoric - the black preaching tradition. But, even then, rhetoric was a fading force.

It was retreating under a number of pressures. Fascism had demonstrated the dangers of demagogy and discredited theatrical, emotive political language. The conjunction of aesthetics and politics - the very terrain of rhetoric - was Walter Benjamin's definition of fascism. At the same time, the classical and Biblical traditions that underpinned rhetorical training were losing their grip on the western imagination. And, above all, there was television. While radio had proved surprisingly amenable (think of Winston Churchill's wartime speeches), TV was allergic to rhetorical politics. On the small screen, only the most formal of settings, and the most heightened atmosphere - Charles Spencer's classical eulogy at the funeral of his sister Diana, for example - could allow high oratorical performance to seem anything but hammy and insincere. A fine old-fashioned orator like the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock became the much-mocked "Welsh windbag".

Yet, quite suddenly, rhetoric has re-emerged in the US Democratic primaries. Not the least extraordinary of Obama's many remarkable features is that he has emerged almost entirely as a figure of speech. As a relative unknown in 2004, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic Party convention. It was a finely honed construct, calculated to embody in language the bi-racial history that is central to his own appeal. Part of it was rooted in Martin Luther King and the cadences of the black Baptist pulpit: "I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs . . ."

The other part was rooted in Graeco-Roman rhetoric, with its rhythmic repetitions and carefully balanced full stops: "If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription drugs . . . that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent." The strange thing is that this rhetoric, repeated and refined, has carried Obama through to the status of political superstar. It still works. And Obama has followed the logic of that discovery by shifting his political arena back from TV to the theatre, to live performance in front of a large audience. He has replaced the 20th-century politics of sincerity (however fake) and intimacy (however illusory) with older, more linguistic and dramatic, forms of political communication.

The leap is so large that it may not succeed at one go. But it seems part of a larger cultural shift, echoing, for example the relative decline of recorded music and the resurgence of live concerts. Maybe, in a post-modern era when culture is ubiquitous, we want our political leaders to be artists again. Maybe we may yet live to see a parliament swayed by the force of oratory rather than a party whip.


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