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Political Rhetoric, Present and Future

Spring / Summer 2011 Tête À Tête

Political Rhetoric, Present and Future

article7GB discusses the global state of the art of speech-giving, speech-making and agitprop with public intellectual John Ralston Saul

GB: Who are the best speakers in the world today, politically?

JRS: Long silence. The reason for which there is a ‘long silence’ is that, with the gradual bureaucratization of politics, we have ended up with – through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – politicians increasingly reading speeches written for them by somebody else; that is, politicians being made to feel that they were not the real political leaders, but rather – in a sense – heads of a large bureaucracy. The result has been that politicians may think that they have a responsibility to speak in a solid and measured way – with the consequence that they not only became boring and bad speakers, but sound artificial and are not listened to. Modern speech writers started adding in ‘rhetoric,’ which sounded artificial, and led to people listening even less to political speeches. This also came with a rise in populism; that is, we saw the revival of populist speaking – with populist politicians winning power here and there – meaning that the speech writers started putting populist rhetoric in as a gloss on top of the boring managerial material that they had been producing. So what we now have are sensible, elected leaders giving speeches that, at one level, are boring, solid stuff and, at another level, cheap rhetoric. For example, the introduction of the personal story – “the other day, I saw Private Joe, who lost his leg, and he said to me, and I said to him…” We hear heads of state and heads of government using this, which, of course, references back at a very low level to New Testament methodology, and at the same time to Hitlerian and Mussolinian rhetoric. If we go back and read their speeches, these 20th century leaders were already digging into the ‘personal story.’ What we end up with is the populist personal story and the boring, solid rhetoric of administration – all of which misses completely the purpose of public speaking, which is to talk about ideas and how they relate to the public good.

Who does political rhetoric well today? I think that when Barack Obama is on, and when he is not paying attention to the speech writers, he is very good. For example, his speech on race during the 2008 presidential election is one of the finest speeches given in the US in a very long time. It is a brilliant speech. On the other hand, the speech he gave in Tucson in January of this year – following the mass shooting in that city – was an example of him being scripted to do the said ‘personal story.’ It was not great speaking, and he missed an important opportunity there.

In Britain, there is nobody that comes to mind. In France, Sarkozy is extremely intelligent and talks ideas, but somehow he does not strike people right; and there is nobody else there. Italy is an embarrassment. Spain, no. Germany, no. There were great people like Willy Brandt – a great speaker in the full tradition of the great orator. Great speakers, like Brandt, are very much themselves; that is, they do not sound like anybody else. So the fact that they do all sorts of odd things is simply part of their character; it is a sign of honesty. In short, the more speakers sound like someone else, the less honest they come across, and the less people listen.

GB: What about great political speakers in non-North American, non-Western countries?

JRS: In South America, we have a rise of quite a few populist speakers like Chavez – although I do not think that that is great public speaking.

Many political leaders think that it is dangerous to speak well. In fact, they are looking to bore people – and we feel that. As a result, when we stand up and say real things, people are quite shocked. And that is because they are always working on this level of measurement. If we take someone like a Trudeau or an FDR, or an LBJ, or a de Gaulle – someone like that – they knew that speeches are not about who will like them and dislike them. Speeches are actually about whether people will respect you because you have spoken to them in a way that they take to be honest – as if they are treated in a way that is intelligent. Trudeau was often boring, but his secret was that, even when he was being insulting, he was talking to you as if you were as smart as he was.

GB: In this hyper-modern era, what is the proper function of political rhetoric?

JRS: At the moment, it is not fulfilling its function. At the moment – fundamentally – the political rhetoric that we are getting is structured as an anti-democratic tool because – as I say – it is written by somebody else. Often, today’s political actors have not even read their speech until they give it. They might have glanced at it. We are – in many ways – suffering from what I described, in The Unconscious Civilization and Voltaire’s Bastards, as an absence of belief among public leaders in the true value of public discourse.

GB: Can good political rhetoric or public speaking only play its proper role in a democratic context?

JRS: There is always this thing – are we a democracy or not a democracy? The truth of the matter is that it is an accordion, and of course there are other civilizations where it might look much less democratic, but it may have all sorts of mechanisms for public discourse. I think about Thailand, for instance. I think about a friend of mine named Sulak Sivaraksa, who is probably the greatest political Buddhist, thinker and talker. He brought down dictatorships in Thailand a couple of times, went to jail. Nobody has ever killed him; they are afraid to kill him. He is a great public speaker in a slightly arcane way, such that when he says something, he simply says it – and you know that it is not rhetoric in the sense that it is distanced from people’s reality. It has an impact.

GB: Can one be a great public speaker in a non-democratic context?

JRS: No, not in a dictatorship.

GB: Was Hitler a great public speaker?

JRS: No, I think not. I do not speak German, but I watched very carefully Leni Riefenstahl’s work on him. I never have really understood why it is not obligatory that all university students – in fact, all high school students – should have to sit carefully through the full version of Triumph of the Will. If one wants to understand democracy, rhetoric, populism, modern advertising and cheating, much of it is born in Triumph of the Will. A great deal of what Hitler and his people were using is now the meat and potatoes of the advertising industry – indeed, the meat and potatoes of a great deal of bad rhetoric. They invented the stuff about the personal stories because, of course, they were supported by the working class.

GB: So this is the ‘egoization’ of rhetoric?

JRS: It is about producing rhetoric that has nothing to do with reality. Populism has always existed: that is what Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is about; that is what Mark Antony is doing. But the real modernization of rhetoric happens in the 1930s. Because people do not go back and look at the actual intellectual model used by Mussolini, Hitler and other people, they do not recognize when those tools are being transferred by speech makers into selling of a political programme.

Very few technocrats – inclined as they are to avoid public discourse – actually understand the choices that they are making, because they have not stepped back and looked at the history of rhetoric – particularly in the 20th century. Marshall McLuhan understood what was going to happen in communications almost half a century before most of the machines that would do it were invented. He did not have to imagine machines in an H.G. Wells way. In the same way, the genius of the Nazis and Fascists was that they understood – even when the mechanics of communication were very limited – how many doors were opened by communications technologies, and what you could do with them. And that is why speech writers and advertisers are today still living off of what was invented by those people.

GB: How should an aspiring political rhetorician understand his or her role in the context of the proliferation of these new media (like Twitter, Facebook and Google)?

JRS: Generally, it is what I said at the beginning: it all comes back to saying precisely what it is that you wish to say, and not what someone else wishes you to say. In order to do that, you have to know what you wish to say – and in order to do that, you have to be educated in a certain way. This does not mean going to particular universities; rather, you have to have read an enormous amount. For example, in most journalism schools – which are highly relevant in all of this – people are essentially trained as if they were technocrats, whereas what a journalist really needs is a very thick skin and – even more importantly – a very strong ethical core. The ethical core is built on reading an enormous amount, and on understanding the nature of political battle – intellectually and ethically. For within two weeks of getting your first job, somebody is going to come to you to try to get you to change your story – because you are insulting their advertisers, insulting the owner, or something of that ilk. If you do not have that ethical core, then you cannot write the appropriate article. The same thing goes for people going into politics. The core of a great political leader is not cleverness; it is ethics! That is why, when you have great leaders, it almost does not matter whether they are to the right or left of centre – provided that they have an ethical core. So de Gaulle – I did my PhD on de Gaulle – would, of course, make mistakes. But he knew a great deal about style and the relevance of style to content. He was brought up in a republican tradition by a gentry family. That is very interesting, and he knew that. He had that capacity – as most great speakers do – to reach back into the language of the past in order to get you over the present and into the future. You cannot, as a great speaker, remain in the language of the present.

GB: Do you think that we are entering an era of increased (global) multilingualism, including in political rhetoric?

JRS: Yes. We went through 50 years of people believing that English was the only language that mattered. And, of course, that was particularly pushed by people who only spoke English. My experience going around the world all of the time is that it is absolutely true that English is the working language of international restaurants and hotels, and that there are a lot of people who have got 50 to 100 words; that is, enough to get by. That has nothing to do with actual rhetoric or actual language or conversation; it is just nuts and bolts. The story of the last 20 years is the gradual collapse of a belief in globalization, and the return of nationalism. We have seen, as a result, for instance, a very serious return of German in Germany.

GB: Have these new micro-technologies like Facebook, Google and Twitter facilitated this task of public conversation?

JRS: Hard to tell. We are in the middle of it. One day we have got these incredible breakthroughs – like the young people in Egypt and Tunisia – and that is obviously a great positive. On the other hand, we have governments and corporations spending billions of dollars to control all of this. The Chinese government has been amazingly successful at shutting stuff down. And business has been working furiously to commercialize all of this – turning it into just another way to sell beer, or to sell ideas. We really do not know what the end-game will be. The arguments that are really prescient – Harold Innis’ and McLuhan’s – show that all of this has been coming for over half a century. We have known for some time that this is going to change the way that people communicate; however, we do not actually know at this point what the effect will be. It may be as simple as this: that people will feel that they are at sea, and that they therefore have to go into rooms to be together, and to have people give old-fashioned speeches.

GB: Do you have a view about the character and quality of Canadian political rhetoric?

JRS: I have read most of Wilfried Laurier’s speeches, and he was one of the great speakers of the 20th century. He invented a way of speaking that is really astonishing, because he inherited what, by European standards, should have been a permanent civil war among Protestants, Catholics, Anglophones, Francophones and immigrants. He came to power in Canada at a point when it was a mess. His whole approach – his whole discourse – sought to demonstrate to people that they could live together while being different. That is in his speeches. He would pretend that it was English liberalism, because that was his clever way of getting by both the church and the Toronto elites. But it was not English liberalism; it was something that he had invented. He was certainly the greatest speaker that Canada ever produced. His speech, late at night in Parliament after the hanging of Louis Riel, is probably the single greatest speech ever given in Canada. It is a wonderful speech. He stands up in the House – as the deputy leader of the Liberal party (the leader was Edward Blake). There is this long silence. Everyone in the House is hoping that the issue will just go away: the Conservatives know that they have done the wrong thing; and the Liberals feel that if they take the side of the Métis, they will lose elections for the rest of time. Laurier stands up, and says something like: “I know that no one wishes anyone to speak on this subject; however, I feel obliged…” After this wonderfully slow opening, there are entire paragraphs that are extremely moving and astonishing.

GB: Canadian political rhetoric is not taught in schools. Would you agree?

JRS: This is sad and wrong, because Canadian political rhetoric is actually very interesting. LaFontaine and Baldwin are very interesting. Diefenbaker in his prime was a very interesting speaker – very, very interesting. Lévesque was a fascinating speaker, because he was speaking ‘under-rhetoric;’ that is, he was chatting with people. In many ways, he resembled John A. Macdonald in his methods. Macdonald spoke in a very modern way; he would often turn his back on the Opposition in the Commons, and just chat with the members of his party. Pearson was painful. He just hated public speaking, but of course he said what he thought. It was one of those things where a great man – one of the greatest prime ministers Canada ever produced – stumbled through speeches; but these speeches were about something.

Canadian political rhetoric is very interesting, because, at its best, it is all about figuring out how to talk to people who do not speak the same language, and who live in different regions and have different religions. So the rhetoric is very inclusive. One is speaking to a working coalition of people, and one cannot lose or alienate parts of this coalition if the country is going to function.

On a final note, I should say that some of the most fascinating Canadian rhetoric comes from the Aboriginals. Big Bear and Louis Riel come immediately to mind! Big Bear – arguably the greatest speaker in Western Canada prior to the Métis rebellion – spoke some four or five Aboriginal languages. He would be regularly called upon to speak with other nations – holding court for four or five hours at a time. He spoke standing and – anticipating Innis and McLuhan – in a spatial mode.


John Ralston Saul is the International President of PEN International, and Co-Chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. His most recent book, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin, explores the lives of the fathers of Canadian democracy, and is part of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians book series, of which Saul serves as General Editor.

(Photograph: India Today Group / Getty Images)

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