From this morning’s Guardian, an analysis by David Edgar of political rhetoric in our fair nation, cued by the fact that Five Years Ago Today in front of a quarter of a million people in Grant Park in the city of Chicago, a skinny black kid with big ears said that change had come to America.
Has it been five years? Yes, it has.
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?
This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:
Yes We Can.
Mr. Edgar makes an interesting claim, looking at two of my favorite figures: contrasts and triples. The choice to emphasize rhetorical contrasts reveals a mind that thinks in binaries, conflicts, choices. Good and bad. Right and wrong. Us and them. Triples and lists, on the other hand, reject the duality of the contrast, the purity of the chosen, the rejection of the other. For the triple-speaker, differences are not to be heightened but to be overcome.
Contrasts and triples express different views of the world. Contrasts reveal binaries and present choices, multiples accrete evidence for a single case. Which you choose betrays not just your subject but your attitude.
The contrasts in this rhetoric—reveal and present, contrasts and triples, subjects and attitudes—make sense in light of David Edgar’s uncompromising leftism.
Er… sort of. I am mocking the idea because, you know, it’s mockable. But it’s also true that the persona of the writer/speaker is created through these choices. It’s a nebulous process, but there are, in the end, actual texts to look at, and it does make a difference. It’s not as simple as counting 30 examples of contrast but only nine lists in John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural. A contrast can be used to deride false choices; a triple can serve to hammer home to perfidy of the enemy. Looking at Your Humble Blogger’s own post from five years ago yesterday should make that clear. But in a general way, subject to the better analysis of close reading, the choices of tropes will go alongside the choices of ethos and persona.
And yet, of course, close study of this speech and of the last five years of our politics shows how little any one speech, or even any one campaign’s worth of speeches, really can do to change our political culture. If it’s true that Our Only President spoke in triples as an expression of his hope for the future to hold new norms of cooperation and communication and compromise, his disdain for the false choices of partisan politics, his own unwillingness to place himself outside the restrictions of dialectic, then the contrast is between his speech and his administration. What we heard and what we experienced. Words and events.
The study of rhetoric is fascinating (to YHB, anyway) and important. A good speech is better than a bad one. A speech is persuasive or inspiring or memorable because of its rhetoric. But a speech is just a speech, after all. There is so much more to do.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,