Eloquence, debates, and the election

Verbal facility is one of God's great gifts. A few among us are born with the capacity to charm or even inspire others with words. To be sure, it is a capacity which can be cultivated, but as with athletic abilities, intelligence, and a sense of humor, some are more favored than others, seemingly from birth. Early success in exploiting an inborn capacity leads to an inclination to develop it even further.

The explosion in the practical application of knowledge which created the Industrial Revolution, and which is now extending the Information Age, has led to a far greater premium than ever being attached to the ability to manipulate symbols, including words. Vast industries are entirely devoted to the skilful production of words, from mass media to law to education.

One of the defining characteristics of the contemporary American professional elites is that most of their membership has attained their status and income through the capacity to produce polished prose and compelling verbal presentations. For this sociological niche, at least a minimal degree of eloquence is a quick and simple methodology for determining the worthiness of a new social or business contact. A person who stumbles over words, loses his way between subject and verb, or mispronounces items in the common vocabulary is likely to be unworthy of further attention, too stupid to matter, or an embarrassment if admitted into one's social or business circle.

After all, the people in charge of our cultural institutions, our universities, our media, our nonprofit organizations, our law firms, and many other commanding heights of the elite, all got there by being good in school, and gaining access to postgraduate professional training. They are who they are and where they work, principally by means of their skill with words. It is almost essential to their belief in their own worthiness, and the justness of their exalted positions, that verbal facility be strongly related to intelligence, and even to virtue.

Scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and others fluent in numerical analysis may be granted a pass, should the actual production of speech and prose be less than dazzling. We might call this the 'Einstein exception.' Of course, the dirty little secret of the American educated class is that a shameful percentage are only vaguely numerate, at best, in the realm of statistics, economics, and higher math. For them, facility in numbers is certainly to be admired, but hardly to be celebrated as the sole indicator of intelligence. The less attention devoted to it, the better, as a cursory examination of most business journalism will reveal. 

For those who do not qualify under the Einstein exception, however, the judgment of this elitist social stratum tends to be ruthless. If you don't speak well, you can't very well be credited with the ability to think well. You are, in fact, a dolt.

Which brings us to the recently—completed round of presidential debates.

Any debate is, by definition, a verbal contest. 'Winning' a debate therefore consists of using words well, or at least better than your opponent. John F. Kerry, college debater, law school graduate, and former prosecuting attorney, as well as Senate veteran of twenty years, is fairly polished in the production of nice—sounding sentences, which seem to satisfy the rules of grammar. The questions of logical consistency, quality of thinking, and strategic vision are entirely separate issues. On these grounds, I think Bush clearly won the last two debates. But on the pure ground of self—presentation, Kerry supporters have a case to make.

The non—elite majority of American society has watched enough courtroom dramas, political dramas, and real life speeches to appreciate the general qualities which go into 'winning' a debate. But it is not in the least clear that they think debating skills are the same as political leadership or virtue. Perhaps that is because most people do not conceive of themselves as having earned their social and economic position through verbal skills or writing skills, and therefore do not make as strong a connection between eloquence and virtue as do the educated classes.

In fact, in contrast to the Europeans, the majority of Americans stubbornly cling to the notion that a plain—spoken leader, the John Wayne or Gary Cooper archetype, is likely to be the better leader when things get tough. Deeds, not words, tend to matter, perhaps because Americans are the world's pre—eminent doers — going to the moon, developing the internet, creating most of the world's wonder drugs, and winning the wars, while others prefer to debate.

When Americans go to the polls on November 2nd, they will be choosing a leader, not a debater—in—chief. And they understand that we are at war with an enemy which will attack us where we live, and kill as many of us as possible. Despite the inclination of the multilateralists to attempt to solve this problem with talk, people who live in a world of deeds more than a world of words are likely to vote for the man of action, not rhetoric.

The contest is not the debates; the contest is the election. The last two debates have advanced Bush's cause, regardless of what people may tell pollsters about who 'won the debate.' We are now in the home stretch, the time when people assemble the pieces of the puzzle, and figure who should lead us in perilous times. President Bush has positioned himself well for this final stage of the contest.

Verbal facility is one of God's great gifts. A few among us are born with the capacity to charm or even inspire others with words. To be sure, it is a capacity which can be cultivated, but as with athletic abilities, intelligence, and a sense of humor, some are more favored than others, seemingly from birth. Early success in exploiting an inborn capacity leads to an inclination to develop it even further.

The explosion in the practical application of knowledge which created the Industrial Revolution, and which is now extending the Information Age, has led to a far greater premium than ever being attached to the ability to manipulate symbols, including words. Vast industries are entirely devoted to the skilful production of words, from mass media to law to education.

One of the defining characteristics of the contemporary American professional elites is that most of their membership has attained their status and income through the capacity to produce polished prose and compelling verbal presentations. For this sociological niche, at least a minimal degree of eloquence is a quick and simple methodology for determining the worthiness of a new social or business contact. A person who stumbles over words, loses his way between subject and verb, or mispronounces items in the common vocabulary is likely to be unworthy of further attention, too stupid to matter, or an embarrassment if admitted into one's social or business circle.

After all, the people in charge of our cultural institutions, our universities, our media, our nonprofit organizations, our law firms, and many other commanding heights of the elite, all got there by being good in school, and gaining access to postgraduate professional training. They are who they are and where they work, principally by means of their skill with words. It is almost essential to their belief in their own worthiness, and the justness of their exalted positions, that verbal facility be strongly related to intelligence, and even to virtue.

Scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and others fluent in numerical analysis may be granted a pass, should the actual production of speech and prose be less than dazzling. We might call this the 'Einstein exception.' Of course, the dirty little secret of the American educated class is that a shameful percentage are only vaguely numerate, at best, in the realm of statistics, economics, and higher math. For them, facility in numbers is certainly to be admired, but hardly to be celebrated as the sole indicator of intelligence. The less attention devoted to it, the better, as a cursory examination of most business journalism will reveal. 

For those who do not qualify under the Einstein exception, however, the judgment of this elitist social stratum tends to be ruthless. If you don't speak well, you can't very well be credited with the ability to think well. You are, in fact, a dolt.

Which brings us to the recently—completed round of presidential debates.

Any debate is, by definition, a verbal contest. 'Winning' a debate therefore consists of using words well, or at least better than your opponent. John F. Kerry, college debater, law school graduate, and former prosecuting attorney, as well as Senate veteran of twenty years, is fairly polished in the production of nice—sounding sentences, which seem to satisfy the rules of grammar. The questions of logical consistency, quality of thinking, and strategic vision are entirely separate issues. On these grounds, I think Bush clearly won the last two debates. But on the pure ground of self—presentation, Kerry supporters have a case to make.

The non—elite majority of American society has watched enough courtroom dramas, political dramas, and real life speeches to appreciate the general qualities which go into 'winning' a debate. But it is not in the least clear that they think debating skills are the same as political leadership or virtue. Perhaps that is because most people do not conceive of themselves as having earned their social and economic position through verbal skills or writing skills, and therefore do not make as strong a connection between eloquence and virtue as do the educated classes.

In fact, in contrast to the Europeans, the majority of Americans stubbornly cling to the notion that a plain—spoken leader, the John Wayne or Gary Cooper archetype, is likely to be the better leader when things get tough. Deeds, not words, tend to matter, perhaps because Americans are the world's pre—eminent doers — going to the moon, developing the internet, creating most of the world's wonder drugs, and winning the wars, while others prefer to debate.

When Americans go to the polls on November 2nd, they will be choosing a leader, not a debater—in—chief. And they understand that we are at war with an enemy which will attack us where we live, and kill as many of us as possible. Despite the inclination of the multilateralists to attempt to solve this problem with talk, people who live in a world of deeds more than a world of words are likely to vote for the man of action, not rhetoric.

The contest is not the debates; the contest is the election. The last two debates have advanced Bush's cause, regardless of what people may tell pollsters about who 'won the debate.' We are now in the home stretch, the time when people assemble the pieces of the puzzle, and figure who should lead us in perilous times. President Bush has positioned himself well for this final stage of the contest.