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If you’re looking to learn rhetoric, I’m your huckleberry. Here’s a comparison of the varieties of rhetoric in American politics–two speeches by men who are and were respectively senators. Each talk is about the same length — seven minutes and change is a short speech — and with the same purpose, apparently, to congratulate and exhort America’s callow youth. Sen. Sasse of Nebraska is first. He gave this speech, which is alright, not very good, the sort of mediocrity we expect in politics and celebrity culture, broadly speaking. He seems to be a good man, wears his successes lightly, and he’s handsome, so it’s likely to go over well:
Acting in the TV circus
Sasse has poor delivery because he doesn’t practice and doesn’t take this seriously. His online detractors are mainly worshipers of cool, which is silly, but look at it as you would a speech by a real politician or at least a stand-up comedian. He makes three big mistakes:
- He always stares into the camera. Insistent earnestness is a bad idea.
- He doesn’t make pauses, which is almost as bad. He should have a bit of confidence that people will laugh or be taken aback now and then.
- His body is too stiff, too. I take it takes discipline to move your arms so much without moving otherwise, but it’s a skill for a circus juggler rather than a public speaker.
All three problems show he is beholden to how TV is presented to audiences. It doesn’t fit the new world of screens, mostly small, mostly informal. Since he’s not even pretending to be a real politician, he might as well embrace the new digital way kids deal with telecommunication.
Also, you cannot be a real conservative public figure and talk about “Tiger King” — it’s pathetic. One at least hopes this is just hackery from his writers and he has not wasted his time with such trash. Also, that’s too big a tie knot for such a small collar. In a way, it shows conservative pride to dress badly or inadequately, since it shows solidarity with the great state of Nebraska, where apparently it’s expected. I’ve never been there, so I don’t know, but they like this guy. A Senator, however, should dress with some dignity.
Now listen to the only admired speaker in American politics in our time, former President Barack Obama. The competition makes him look like a master at work. This is how TV is done. This is what maintaining eye contact is supposed to be. This is what the fake intimacy of the screen — his face is in your face — is supposed to achieve.
You may find yourself angry or repelled instead of won over, warmed-up inside, and sighing — but that rejection, too, is a sign of the power of rhetoric. This is mastery of the medium, or people thought it was. But even if they were right, it doesn’t matter anymore — it’s been rendered obsolete.
TV has decayed into social media, so that even celebrities are forced to be there — and it is not Obama, but Trump who shows how the medium in its decadence is useful. It’s not noble images, but scandal; it’s not idealization, but reality TV; it’s not selling fantasies, but taking them down. Myth-busting is the last thing TV is useful for, which goes together with democratic envy of the glamour of the idols and a desire for revenge against people who profited from promises that haven’t come true. (Consider the recent speech on the epidemic by former President Bush, which instantly disappeared, because nobody gives a damn about the pretense of nobility anymore.)
Preparing to go digital
Conservatives and Republicans should learn by looking at Fox News since they probably can’t stand to watch anything else, and then not do anything they see. The audience of TV is old people who, whatever their virtues and vices, are not the future. Political communications on the model of TV are now obsolete; the future will be digital technology, which is a very different sort of thing, even if in both cases you see people talking on a screen.
If you want to understand the difference, start from the fact that celebrities are constantly destroyed for old statements. This is because celebrities and their handlers still think it’s like TV — one and done, over and forgotten, only the glow and the brand endure, but you gotta stay relevant, keep piping up, see what it gets you — but it’s not that way anymore. Instead, it’s like Faulkner said: “The past is never dead, it isn’t even past. There’s always someone who hates you dragging it up. Digital communications involve perfect machine memory with instant recall — access, search, distribution. The human correlative is reputation — it precedes you, though it is your past.
So communications should give conservatives an advantage. TV was about fantasy and imagination; Digital is about memory, and we are all about the enduring power of the past, including the unpredictable consequences of past actions. Lessons learned, all day, every day. It should be our time but we’re failing miserably, largely because we’re wedded to the foolish ideas of communications derived from the TV model.
At their best, conservatives seem busy tearing down the celebrities of the liberals, using reputation against those beautiful images liberal media set up as idols for worship. This is worth doing, but it is dangerous; it’s not just that it encourages dark passions more than is prudent, but it encourages an entire class of parasites. For every remarkable talent like Tucker Carlson, there are lots of losers who feed dark passions and thus encourage conservatives to be parasites of liberalism — to be able to think of nothing but how wrong the NYT or CNN is. Instead, building new institutions and new reputations is necessary.
Perhaps youthful-looking Sen. Sasse, he of the unbuttoned collar and no jacket, like the cool professionals, is too old to adapt to the new communications technology. He seems to think being a Senator is an adjunct of TV, not the other way around. But someone out there is the future of conservatism. And someone out there had better learn how to deal with the new situation.
What is the meaning of my suffering?
So let’s close with the important problem involved in this commencement, what makes it memorable: the pandemic. Sasse makes three remarks about China that are supposed to assign blame. The rhetoric is calculated, starting with “Thanks, China!”, but it ends with “thugs.” There’s that conservative anger underneath the folksy “git’er done” manner. But this is mentioned as an aside and his speech doesn’t have any message. It is not, therefore, serious. This is not because he makes a lot of jokes. It is unserious because it lacks unity or coherence.
The aim of the speech is to give a portrait of the admirable conservative man, himself. His contempt for psychology, his admiration of grit, resilience, etc., his talk of his family in their generations, the putting high school behind as a big mistake and becoming adults and self-made Americans. This is bound to fail, by the way. Faulkner, again, would remind us, high school is never dead, it’s not even past. Sasse is betting that parents and communities have prepared young Americans for adulthood. If you believe this is true, you should not only enjoy his speech but also, as they say, sit pretty and say God bless America! It’s all going to be fine.
Obama’s speech is coherent, aiming to answer a simple, but very important question: What is the meaning of your suffering? Everything you’ve been deprived of by this pandemic is because of everything Progressives hate: sexism, racism (though notice his subtle refusal to use the word in favor of racial disparity), the status quo, old-fashioned ways of thinking. Everything Sasse upholds — your family! — is what Obama calls cynicism. That is the political disagreement in America. But Obama is able to say what the suffering is about and how to use it to do something good. He is able to say why you should be proud of your suffering: It proves older Americans are stupid. They have failed you. You’re better than them. You’re the future. That makes his speech coherent.
Sasse, instead, tries to say adults are better than kids — they used to be fitter, what with climbing rope, they know more, etc. You define yourself as an adult, forget high school. (Of course, that is partly in contradiction of the opinion that character formation is what matters, which would occur in considerable part in high school.) But he makes a hash of it; by the end, we do not know why anyone should want to be an adult like Sasse. He doesn’t say what he should, that what matters in life is your family, those around you right now, not high school. Obviously, most people don’t care for Sasse, so he’s not in a position to rely on his reputation. Nor is there a TV media campaign trying to sucker the nation, make him seem beautiful and brilliant — that’s reserved for failed Dem politicians. (Notice in this case, too, how attempts to make myths nowadays fail. Digital is unforgiving.)
Sasse kids around so much, you can’t take him seriously. And he has no answer to the real question: What is the meaning of my suffering? What’s it about, what’s it for, what do I do? Resilience means endure it and then forget about it. Go on with your private life; college maybe, maybe not, marriage maybe, maybe not, some job or another until you move on or you get fired or bankruptcy happens. He has nothing to offer in this case, of course — he’s a public figure, not a matchmaker or employer. If that’s the conservative message, Progressives will win. Suffering is about justice with them. They promise solutions and dignity. They may be wrong, but they’re serious.Published in