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Ever since 4 July 1777 when citizens of Philadelphia celebrated the first anniversary of American independence with a fireworks display, the “rockets’ red glare” has lent a military tinge to this national holiday. But the explosive aspect of the patriots’ resistance was the incendiary propaganda that they spread across the thirteen colonies.
Sam Adams understood the need for a lively barrage of public relations and spin. “We cannot make Events; Our Business is merely to improve them,” he said. Exaggeration was just one of the tricks in the rhetorical arsenal that rebel publicists used to “improve” events. Their satires, lampoons, and exposés amounted to a guerilla war—waged in print—against the Crown.
While Independence Day is about commemorating the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence, the path toward separation from England relied on a steady stream of lies, rumor, and accusation. As Philip Freneau, the foremost poet-propagandist of the Revolution put it, if an American “prints some lies, his lies excuse” because the important consideration, indeed perhaps the final consideration, was not veracity but the dissemination of inflammatory material.
In place of measured discourse and rational debate, the pyrotechnics of the moment suited “the American crisis”—to invoke the title of Tom Paine’s follow-up to Common Sense—that left little time for polite expression or logical proofs. Propaganda requires speed, not reflection.
Writing became a rushed job. Pamphlets such as Tom Paine’s had an intentionally short fuse. Common Sense says little that’s new about natural rights or government. But what was innovative was the popular rhetorical strategy Paine used to convey those ideas. “As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain,” he wrote, playing upon the sensational language found in popular seduction novels of the day.
The tenor of patriotic discourse regularly ran toward ribald phrasing. When composing newspaper verses about King George, Freneau took particular delight in rhyming “despot” with “pisspot.” Hardly the lofty stuff associated with reason and powdered wigs, this language better evokes the juvenile humor of The Daily Show.
The skyrockets that will be “bursting in air” this Fourth of July are a vivid reminder of the rhetorical fireworks that galvanized support for the colonists’ bid for independence. The spread of political ideas, whether in a yellowing pamphlet or on Comedy Central, remains a vital part of our national heritage.
On 2 September 44 BC, Cicero launched into the first of the most blistering oratorical attacks in political history, attacks which ultimately cost him his life. The following is an excerpt of the Second Philippic, a denunciation of Mark Antony, from the Oxford World’s Classic Political Speeches. Do we hear echoes of contemporary political rhetoric in these harsh tones?
Conscript fathers, I have something to say in my own defence and much to say against Marcus Antonius. As to the former theme, I ask you to listen to me sympathetically as I defend myself; as to the latter, I shall myself make sure that you pay me close attention while I speak against him. At the same time I beg of you: if you agree that my whole life and particularly my public speaking have always been characterized by moderation and restraint, then please do not think that today, when I give this man the response he has provoked, I have forgotten my true nature. I am not going to treat him as a consul any more than he has treated me as a consular. And whereas he cannot in any sense be regarded as a consul, either in his private life, or in his administration of the state, or in the manner of his appointment, I am beyond any dispute a consular.
So to let you appreciate what sort of consul he professes himself to be, he attacked my consulship. Now that consulship, conscript fathers, was mine in name only: in reality it was yours. For what decision did I arrive at, what action did I take, what deed did I do other than by the advice, authority, and vote of this order? And now do you, as a man of wisdom, not merely of eloquence, dare to criticize those proceedings in the very presence of those by whose advice and wisdom they were transacted? But who was ever found to criticize my consulship except you and Publius Clodius? Indeed, Clodius’ fate awaits you, just as it did Gaius Curio, since you have at home the thing which did for both of them.
Cicero. Source: NYPL.
Marcus Antonius does not approve of my consulship. But Publius Servilius approved of it — of the consulars of that time I name him ﬁrst, because his death is the most recent. Quintus Catulus approved of it, a man whose authority will always remain a living force in this country. The two Luculli, Marcus Crassus, Quintus Hortensius, Gaius Curio, Gaius Piso, Manius Glabrio, Manius Lepidus, Lucius Volcacius, and Gaius Figulus approved of it. Decimus Silanus and Lucius Murena, who were then consuls-elect, approved of it. Like the consulars, Marcus Cato approved of it — a man who in taking leave of life showed great foresight, especially in that he never saw you become consul. But Gnaeus Pompeius above all approved of my consulship in that, the moment he saw me on his return from Syria, he embraced me and congratulated me, saying that it was thanks to me that he would once again set eyes on his country. But why do I mention individuals? A packed senate approved my consulship so strongly that there was no one who did not thank me as if I were his parent, and who did not put it down to me that he was still in possession of his life, his property, his children, and his country.
But since the many distinguished gentlemen whom I have just named are all now lost to our country, I turn to the living. Out of the body of consulars, two are still with us. The gifted and judicious Lucius Cotta proposed a thanksgiving in the most complimentary terms for those very actions which you criticize, and the consulars I have just named, together with the entire senate, accepted the proposal — an honour which I was the ﬁrst civilian since the foundation of our city to receive. Lucius Caesar, your uncle — what eloquence, what resolution, what authority he showed as he denounced his sister’s husband, your stepfather! He was the man you should have had as your guide and mentor in all your decisions throughout your life — and yet you chose to model yourself on your stepfather rather than your uncle! Although unrelated to him, I as consul accepted Caesar’s guidance — but did you, his sister’s son, ever ask his advice on any public matter at all?
Immortal gods, whose advice, then, does he ask? Those fellows, I suppose, whose very birthdays we are made to hear announced. ‘Antonius is not appearing in public today.’ ‘Why ever not?’ ‘He is giving a birthday party at his house outside the city.’ ‘Who for?’ I will name no names: just imagine it’s now for some Phormio or other, now for Gnatho, now for Ballio even. What scandalous disgrace, what intolerable cheek, wickedness, and depravity! Do you have so readily available to you a leading senator, an outstanding citizen, and never consult him on matters of public interest — while all the time consulting people who have nothing of their own, but sponge oﬀ you instead?
Your consulship, then, is a blessing, and mine was a curse. Have you so lost your sense of shame, together with your decency, that you dare to say such a thing in the very temple where I used to consult the senate in its days of greatness, when it ruled the world — but where you have now stationed thugs armed with swords? But you even dared (is there anything you would not dare?) to say that in my consulship the Capitoline path was packed with armed slaves. I was, I suppose, preparing violence to force the senate to pass those wicked decrees! You despicable wretch — whether you do not know what happened (since you know nothing of anything good) or whether you do — you who talk with such utter lack of shame before such men as these! When the senate was meeting in this temple, did any Roman equestrian, did any young noble except you, did anyone of any class who recalled that he was a Roman citizen fail to come to the Capitoline path? Did anyone fail to give in his name? And yet there were neither enough clerks nor enough registers to record all the names that were offered. After all, traitors were admitting to the assassination of their homeland, and were compelled by the testimony of their accomplices, by their own handwriting, and by the almost audible sound of the words they had written to confess that they had conspired to set ﬁre to the city, to massacre the citizens, to devastate Italy, and to destroy their country. In such a situation, who would not be roused to defend the national security — particularly at a time when the senate and people of Rome had the sort of leader under whom, if we had a similar leader now, you would have met the same fate that those traitors did?
Cicero (106-43 BC) was the greatest orator of the ancient world and a leading politician of the closing era of the Roman republic. Political Speeches presents nine of his speeches that reflect the development, variety, and drama of his political career. Among them are two speeches from his prosecution of Verres, a corrupt and cruel governor of Sicily; four speeches against the conspirator Catiline; and the Second Philippic, the famous denunciation of Mark Antony, which cost Cicero his life. These new translations by D. H. Berry, Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Leeds, preserve Cicero’s oratorical brilliance and achieve new standards of accuracy. A general introduction outlines Cicero’s public career, and separate introductions explain the political significance of each of the speeches. This edition also provides an up-to-date scholarly bibliography, glossary and two maps.
For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.
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Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects Obama’s speaking style. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
President Barack Obama’s first press conference was serious, measured, and according to Mark Nikolas (Politicalbase.com), three grade levels more complex than President George W. Bush’s first press conference.
A cursory glance at readers’ comments to Nikolas’ post reveals sharp disagreements about both the empirical claim and its implications. Since I have used the Flesch readability scale to score the rhetoric of every president since George Washington, I will venture to offer some observations to suggest that George Bush and Barack Obama aren’t all that different.
Superficially, they couldn’t be more different. While the former president is a self-styled cowboy who has rejected his northeastern roots in favor of a Texan down-home speaking style, the current one is a former professor of constitutional law who (if one recalls his speech on race in Philadelphia at the height of the Jeremiah Wright fiasco) will not demure from pontificating on things complex and controversial. I doubt many people will argue that Bush was a more sophisticated speaker, but people disagree about whether or not his simple sentences were delivered at the expense of complex thoughts.
Complex thoughts can be simply expressed, his defenders contend. But Einstein also said that “things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Consider John Robert’s question to President Bush in his first press conference in 2001: “I’m wondering what message he (the Secretary of State) will take from this administration to leaders of the Middle East in the area of sanctions that matter, sanctions that are effective on the regime?”
President Bush answered in his inimitable style: “I have said that the sanction regime is like Swiss cheese. That meant that they weren’t very effective. And we’re going to review the current sanction policy and review options as to how to make the sanctions work. But the primary goal is to make it clear to Saddam that we expect him to be a peaceful neighbor in the region, and we expect him not to develop weapons of mass destruction; and if we find him doing so, there will be a consequence.”
President Bush dedicated little time to “review options” on improving the efficacy of sanctions on Saddam’s regime. And the conditional clause “if we find him (Saddam) doing so” (developing WMDs) was far from satisfied before the President rushed to war. The fact is it was by our president’s slovenly words that we were led to do rather foolish things, as George Orwell warned.
Yes, we need a president who connects with the people. Simple words can conceal complex thoughts. But that is exactly the problem. If we allow presidents to sweet talk us with simple platitudes, and assume that complex negotiations and deliberations are going on behind the scenes and outside of public earshot, we abdicate our role as citizens to adjudicate the direction of public policy. A seduced citizenry cannot hold their executive accountable. Eloquent platitudes generate applause, not reflection. As a component of democratic discourse, they are, like Swiss cheese, utterly inadequate.
Lest this may sound like a partisan post, let me say that Obama is not immune to the draw of anti-intellectualism. The President’s and Secretary Geitner’s messages on the economic stimulus package and especially TARP 2 have thus far been woefully lacking in detail. The President is back to being the Poet-in-Chief, taking his message on road as if he never left the campaign trail. The stock market takes no partisan sides, and it has not taken kindly to the president’s eloquent generalities.
Life is like a box of chocolates, Mama Gump once told Forrest. Profound truths can be simply said, but what we need now are concrete solutions, not quotable verses. President Obama may be speaking at a higher grade level than President Bush, but so far, he appears no more adept at offering us precise answers. The President can use his words – simple or complex – to educate or to obfuscate. The choice is his.
I'm going to wrap up my series on Beginnings this week and will start up a new one next week. Please post topics you would like to know more about, and I will surely let you have my two cents.
Today I want to encourage you to zip some creativity into your first chapter language this week. You've got a nifty plot going with a winning hero, and now it's time to brush in the details. Yes, you might want to head over to your poetry tool box and add some imagery and emotion through your word choice.
Think onomatopoeia. Add some words that make noise. So, sigh a melancholy air release or bang, bash, and boink away! Zoinks, Batman! This is great in picture books but you might be surprised to find that YA authors slip in noises too to spice up that first chapter.
Don't stop with making some noise. Chip in some alliteration and assonance along with that onomatopoeia. Add some simile and metaphor. Pull out your classical rhetoric textbook and check out those figures again. Or just head over to The Forest of Rhetoric. I go there regularly to toss on some genius.
Don't go crazy overboard! Nobody wants a little salad with their croutons.
Yes, you are going to fine tooth comb that first chapter and you are going to strike every boring word. You aren't going to run or walk anywhere. You'll dash, dive, saunter or tiptoe. You will make that first chapter the most sparkly writing ever. I know you will.
Whew! You've got lots of work ahead. Good luck as you go forward. After all this you should have a fantabulous first chapter.
Still no doodles. Waiting on the computer fairies to wave their magic wands and heal my sick, sick laptop.
My playlist hit is Josh Radin and "No Envy, No Fear."
My quote for the week:
The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. Ann Frank
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Obama’s gestures. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
President Barack Obama gave his first speech from the Oval Office last Tuesday. It wasn’t great, as most commentators have noted.
To begin with, the White House appears to believe that body language is presidential language. Our eyes were constantly drawn to the bottom quarter of the screen, where the president’s hands seemed to have taken on a life of their own. If our democracy has degenerated from deeds to words, we’re now becoming accustomed to gestures. Our great deliberative democracy, reduced to a series of hand flicks.
The words weren’t that good either. Even though the President was, understandably, trying to signal strength and decisiveness with words and gestures, he had to lace his speech with tentative caveats in a bid to lower our expectations about what can be achieved and how soon – another presidential goal on Tuesday night. As a result, the speech was wishy-washy, tepid and pointless. It looked and sounded like a damage-control skit, and the president looked like he had George Clooney’s PR job in “Up in the Air” – telling the American people harsh news and artificially sweetening the news with an a dose of saccharine.
Talking about enlisting scientists and experts doesn’t help when they can’t even agree on the size of the oil spill. And everyone can see that the purpose of telling the American people how serious the problem served, selfishly, only to tell us that the president feels our pain. It is gratuitous at best and condescending and worst. Empathy and euphemisms together do not eloquence make.
The administration was hoping for a game-changer in this speech. But not even the weight of his office was able to help this young, politically inexperienced president stave off the inflexion point he did not intend. From now on, it looks like there will be no more free passes from Rachel Maddow and the liberal media.
If Obama is our era’s Greatest Communicator, then perhaps the only good that came out of this speech is that we may begin to realize that no rhetorical wizardry can solve our nation’s crises. There is no messiah, and there is definitely no rhetorical messiah. Indeed, I would go one step further and hope that we all realize that eloquence is not the solution to our problems. Eloquence – our atavistic yearning for a grand orator, a Cicero who can inspire our nation into action – is the problem itself for it is a phantasm that too often has become a substitute for deeds.
The next time the president is in political trouble, and he has nothing to offer but damage-control dribble, then perhaps he shouldn’t say anything at all. Let the pundits and bloggers chatter, but lie low and just get down to work, for goodness sake. Sometimes, a measure of humility, in spite of popular expectations for presidents to speechify and to perform, can help a president ride out of a po