In the days following the US election there's been considerable discussion both online and IRL about how bad Barack Obama's inspired victory speech made our own Prime Minister's style (and content) of public speech look by comparison.
I thought this was a little harsh, particularly in the light of the Apology to the Stolen Generations speech and the sincerity and passion with which Rudd delivered it. I also think we are suffering from short-memory syndrome, considering the much starker contrast between Obama's public presence and performance and that of our own former Prime Minister.
It can't be denied, however, that the contrast was a little painful. The last PM this country has had - and indeed the only PM it has had in my lifetime - who like Obama combined charismatic physical elegance with powerful oratory and highly-developed on-his-feet verbal skills was Paul Keating, and even Keating spoiled it: the public speaking skills were habitually undermined by the coarseness and cruelty he was capable of (and really enjoyed) when speaking on his feet, and his considerable physical elegance was likewise marred by the great big chips on both shoulders, which completely spoiled his line. At his best, however, he was mesmerising.
I don't know who wrote Obama's speech, but had Keating made a comparable one it would have been written, or at the very least shaped, by Don Watson, a man who has written history, biography, lectures, essays, comedy and screenplays, and who therefore understands better than most the importance of structure as the starting point for most kinds of writing. Rhetorical skills are not just about word choice; they are also about understanding exactly what you're saying, why you're saying it, and what you hope to achieve by it - and then by very carefully structuring your essay or speech to create the audience effect that you want.
During my years as an academic I learned just how much ferocious resistance there is among people who are passionate readers but not writers to the idea that a rousingly emotive piece of writing might actually have any kind of cool thought behind it, much less any close attention paid to writing technique. As with feminism, people who know little or nothing about rhetoric tend to use the word as a term of abuse, giving it connotations of insincerity, as in “empty rhetoric”. This mistrust of rhetorical skills is reinforced by such events as the savagely moving and, for the British royal family, utterly humiliating eulogy given at his sister's funeral by Charles Spencer, who appears to have barely seen his nephews since.
There's a strong capital-R Romantic desire for moving words to have been spontaneously generated, a desire that probably has something to do with the notion that the only authentic utterance is that produced by spur-of-the-moment gut-spilling. But genuine gut-spilling is, as Fran Lebovitz once remarked, just exactly as charming as it sounds, and is very unlikely to produce either an exquisite and heartbreaking lyric poem in complex metre or the speech that Obama gave on the day of his victory.
I think the point I'm struggling towards here is that rhetorical skill, as with so many other kinds of skill, is a neutral entity that can be used for purposes either noble or nefarious, but given that a large part of rhetorical skill involves persuading other people to your point of view, it deserves to be looked on with some degree of suspicion even when you are on the practitioner's side.
Or perhaps especially when you are on the practitioner's side. Obama's speech was carefully calculated to produce that Evangelical call-and-response effect - and it was the one thing about his speech that made me very, very uneasy. I am a child of the 20th century, and the sight and sound of 50,000 people in one place chanting the same thing - even when it's “Yes we can” - is always going to chill me to the marrow. Perhaps the mistrust of rhetorical technique is grounded in a well-founded fear of being manipulated. Some of us really, really hate having our tears jerked.
These are deep waters, Watson, and any minute now I'm going to start wittering on about art and affect and the fact that the word “aesthetic” is the opposite of the word “anaesthetic”, words to do with feeling and not-feeling. In the meantime the subject of Kevin Rudd coming a bad second to Barack Obama came up again yesterday over lunch, and my friend R, who spent six years living in New York, had a very simple diagnosis. “The Americans teach Civics and Rhetoric as a matter of course,” she said. “And we don't.”
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