Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Conservatism & Progress: A Tale of Two Commencement Speeches

 

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:

  1. He always stares into the camera. Insistent earnestness is a bad idea.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  1. Tocqueville Coolidge

    This is a very interesting comparison. It reminds me of what Douglas Murray was referring to when he spoke with Ben Shapiro on Shapiro’s podcast recently: “progressives”/“liberals”/“the Left” has all the talking points, all the seriousness, all the glamor. They talk about Inequality, for example. Conservatives get excited about some tax loophole. Who gets excited about conservatism?

    Murray credited his conversations with Roger Scruton for that insight and I remember hearing him talk (very recently before his death) about how the power of the left is that leftwing slogans can be shouted through a megaphone or printed on a banner. You can’t print “it’s more complicated than that” or “some things should be preserved” on a sign. 

     

     

     

    • #1
    • May 20, 2020, at 1:53 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Maybe there are ways of dealing with this problem. If I ever run into a politician who does, I’ll make sure to write a post about him!

    • #2
    • May 20, 2020, at 2:30 PM PDT
    • Like
  3. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    I’ve also heard this complaint a lot–recently, one of Mr. Murray’s British friends, Mr. Ed West, published a book about it–Small Men On The Wrong Side Of History.

    For my part, I start from something else: Why don’t conservatives recruit better talent in politics & opinion?

    • #3
    • May 20, 2020, at 2:34 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    As conservatives we like to say we rely on reason while progressives resort to emotion. Then we say we better understand human nature. If that were true we’d be more successful politically because our strategies would be based on an understanding of the humans in our society today, not as we would like those humans to be, or as we imagine they should be. Certainly, on a tactical level of implementation I see progressives as having a much better understanding of human nature. 

    • #4
    • May 20, 2020, at 9:49 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    I think so–we stand for nature as much as Progressives stand for historical transformation (including of nature)–but we are nowhere near as serious about standing for nature, or we wouldn’t be locked out of the culture. Arizona is a wonderful example–it’s taking in a lot of immigrants from liberal America. But conservatives in Arizona might lose the state, because they’re not doing the work of organizing, persuading, & perpetuating their beliefs…

    • #5
    • May 21, 2020, at 1:26 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Tocqueville Coolidge

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    I’ve also heard this complaint a lot–recently, one of Mr. Murray’s British friends, Mr. Ed West, published a book about it–Small Men On The Wrong Side Of History.

    For my part, I start from something else: Why don’t conservatives recruit better talent in politics & opinion?

    I would like to read that book. However West can be “wet” or cuckish or whatever term you prefer (that I have borrowed from the Brits!) he recently suggested via Twitter a commission of “experts” composed of ex-PMs … 

     

    • #6
    • May 21, 2020, at 2:01 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Tocqueville Coolidge

    One thing conservatives can’t seem to get away from in the BEST scenario is that while the Left is pie in the sky etc., “we” are pragmatic beancounters. This does not win hearts. 
    But the worst is the shamefaced preambles: “I am not homophobic/racist/sexist, but” …

    This probably won’t come off well, but the best opportunities for a conservative revival might come from the YouTube counterculture, which is decisively un-woke, and it exposes that dark totalitarian side of the woke culture with humor and mockery. Joseph Paul Watson stuff. Also during the past months I forwarded to many wavering friends, with evil intentions, the quarantine song that Black Rifle Coffee’s Mat Best made. All these goodlooking people cracking jokes and singing a rollicking country song while holding their guns. It was youthful, irreverent, stylish … very magnetising.

    • #7
    • May 21, 2020, at 2:14 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. MISTER BITCOIN Member

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    As conservatives we like to say we rely on reason while progressives resort to emotion. Then we say we better understand human nature. If that were true we’d be more successful politically because our strategies would be based on an understanding of the humans in our society today, not as we would like those humans to be, or as we imagine they should be. Certainly, on a tactical level of implementation I see progressives as having a much better understanding of human nature.

    WRONG

    GREEN NEW DEAL IS A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE?

     

    • #8
    • May 21, 2020, at 4:17 AM PDT
    • Like
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    As conservatives we like to say we rely on reason while progressives resort to emotion. Then we say we better understand human nature. If that were true we’d be more successful politically because our strategies would be based on an understanding of the humans in our society today, not as we would like those humans to be, or as we imagine they should be. Certainly, on a tactical level of implementation I see progressives as having a much better understanding of human nature.

    WRONG

    GREEN NEW DEAL IS A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE?

     

    Mark’s talking about the tactical level of politics–so what would count, to take your example, is whether talking about the Green New Deal is better than whatever conservatives offer. The stakes of course have to do with political morality as it applies to young Americans, especially the ones who are going to be very influential in the next generation. Are they likelier to adopt this Progressive view or reject it?

    I think, once again, Progressives will win & conservatives will scream in the void that it’s not fair-

    • #9
    • May 21, 2020, at 6:22 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Tocqueville (View Comment):

    One thing conservatives can’t seem to get away from in the BEST scenario is that while the Left is pie in the sky etc., “we” are pragmatic beancounters. This does not win hearts.
    But the worst is the shamefaced preambles: “I am not homophobic/racist/sexist, but” …

    This probably won’t come off well, but the best opportunities for a conservative revival might come from the YouTube counterculture, which is decisively un-woke, and it exposes that dark totalitarian side of the woke culture with humor and mockery. Joseph Paul Watson stuff. Also during the past months I forwarded to many wavering friends, with evil intentions, the quarantine song that Black Rifle Coffee’s Mat Best made. All these goodlooking people cracking jokes and singing a rollicking country song while holding their guns. It was youthful, irreverent, stylish … very magnetising.

    I think online conservatism is a very serious change–it is simply abandoning the conservatism of the previous generation. They’re never going to care about Reagan or Buckley or whatever… It’s a good example of generational & technological change, what I talk about as digital vs. TV. The new identities & communities built online simply do not communicate with the past & they identify older conservatism with FOX or other spectacles. Like TV, it’s not something they watch.

    I dunno how successful it will be–that will depend on whether it produces anything worthwhile by way of institutions & leaders.

    • #10
    • May 21, 2020, at 6:25 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. ctlaw Coolidge

    I give Sasse a 9.5 out of 10.

    The writing was excellent. Obama has access to 99% of Hollywood. Sasse’s writer was a pro. almost worthy of @andrewklavan

    Sasse’s delivery was darned good. Deadpan comedic timing is tough and he seldom missed by much. If Sasse can juggle and has a European wife, @daviddeeble is in trouble.

    His appearance (poorly shaven and loose tie) was an issue. He should either have looked better or worked it into the comedic routine.

    • #11
    • May 21, 2020, at 10:01 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    As one rates liberals by Hollywood standards, one rates conservatives by Nashville or, better to say, Branson standards. He didn’t do well.

    • #12
    • May 21, 2020, at 10:43 AM PDT
    • Like
  13. Tocqueville Coolidge

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    As conservatives we like to say we rely on reason while progressives resort to emotion. Then we say we better understand human nature. If that were true we’d be more successful politically because our strategies would be based on an understanding of the humans in our society today, not as we would like those humans to be, or as we imagine they should be. Certainly, on a tactical level of implementation I see progressives as having a much better understanding of human nature.

    WRONG

    GREEN NEW DEAL IS A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE?

     

    Mark’s talking about the tactical level of politics–so what would count, to take your example, is whether talking about the Green New Deal is better than whatever conservatives offer. The stakes of course have to do with political morality as it applies to young Americans, especially the ones who are going to be very influential in the next generation. Are they likelier to adopt this Progressive view or reject it?

    I think, once again, Progressives will win & conservatives will scream in the void that it’s not fair-

    Whether younger generations are seduced by this Green New Deal, far left vision depends really on whether they perceive the Left as constraining and ”judgy”, which it increasingly is. That used to be the Right’s thing and the left was all “let the klan march” etc and now the Right, for me, as an ex-Leftist (recovering Democrat?) is the rebel side. What’s deeply annoying is how leftist still lay claim to the “rebel” credential, when they basically control mainstream society. But I find that much of the humor and irreverence is used by the right because the Left is so po-faced.

    • #13
    • May 21, 2020, at 1:45 PM PDT
    • Like
  14. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Rebel is right–the right is locked out of powerful institutions & cannot wield power effectively even when elected to office. It’s a bad time…

    Yes, our elites are not amused but censorious. Conservatives once defined marriage & they were the angry people. Liberals now define marriage, & they are the angry people.

    • #14
    • May 21, 2020, at 2:24 PM PDT
    • Like