Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Eloquence of Barack Obama

The moral of the story is: don’t get seduced by eloquence!

In Confucian cultures people distrust eloquence. They assume, I believe, that eloquence most often serves to seduce, to hide something, to deceive the public.

It is better to vote for achievement rather than for eloquence. One suspects that the message has gotten lost, but it is not a bad thing to be reminded of it. Especially, in terms of the calamitous presidency of an eloquent man, Barack Obama.

Richard Cohen lays out the case in the Washington Post:

The presidency has changed Barack Obama. His hair has gone gray, which is to be expected, and he looks older, which is also to be expected, but his eloquence has been replaced by petulance and he has lost the power to persuade, which is something of a surprise. You can speculate that if the Obama of today and not Winston Churchill had led Britain in World War II, the Old Vic theater would now be doing “Hamlet” in German.

Obama cannot persuade anyone anymore because his eloquence was always a sham. The more he accumulates a track record, the more people see him in action, the more they can judge how well or poorly he leads the nation and the world.

Cohen sees it slightly differently:

It’s not that Obama has lost his gift of eloquence. His problem is that he often has nothing to say. When he does, as after the mass murder in June at a Charleston, S.C., church, he can be moving and eloquent. It is on foreign policy particularly where he goes empty and cold. His policy, after all, is to avoid yet another Middle East quagmire. It entails the ringing call to do as little as possible.

Next, Cohen gets to the salient point. Eloquence will not survive a failure to have a policy:

Obama’s dilemma is not just that he cannot find the words to articulate his policy. He cannot stick to his policy either. His initial reluctance to act in Libya faded when Moammar Gaddafi threatened to massacre his opposition and the French took the lead. His determination to stay out of Iraq collided with the threatened genocide of the Yazidis. Iraq fell apart, the Islamic State seemed to come out of nowhere. Americans were beheaded. Women were enslaved. No boots on the ground became some boots on the ground — and then some more and then some of them helped the Kurds and mixed it up with the Islamic State. Reality rebuts policy, which unravels by degree.

Again, I would say that Obama’s manifest incompetence has drowned out his apparent facility with language:

To a large degree, Obama became president on the strength of his eloquence. To a large degree, that is what has deserted him. He is out of words because he is out of ideas. Consequently, he ought to listen to others. They’re not the ones who are popping off. He is.


Ares Olympus said...

Somehow this gentle rebuke again Obama's failing eloquence of our dithering president reminded me of a fun sort of poem from Wendell Berry balancing his unlikely humanity against a desire to control everything to save it.

Wendell Berry: A Warning To My Readers

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

Perhaps Obama should be more hardy, or more speedily petulant, like the terrible-2 aged FDR who said "I welcome their hatred." as he executive ordered himself a new country from scratch. If only Obama had let the investment banks fail and Wall Street burn in Fall 2008, perhaps we could have had that president, and a smaller economy by force would surely burn less fossil fuels.

Incidentally, Wendell Berry's views of climate change do not match up with Obama's Audacity of Hope in big government to save us, rather he sees a restoration of local community for local needs is what will save us from ourselves.

If we understand that Nature can be an economic asset, a help and ally, to those who obey her laws, then we can see that she can help us now. There is work to do now that will make us her friends, and we will worry less about the future. We can begin backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong. To the extent that we have moved out of the future, we also have moved out of “the environment” into the actual places where we actually are living.

If, on the contrary, we have our minds set in the future, where we are sure that climate change is going to play hell with the environment, we have entered into a convergence of abstractions that makes it difficult to think or do anything in particular. If we think the future damage of climate change to the environment is a big problem only solvable by a big solution, then thinking or doing something in particular becomes more difficult, perhaps impossible.

It is true that changes in governmental policy, if the changes were made according to the right principles, would have to be rated as big solutions. Such big solutions surely would help, and a number of times I have tramped the streets to promote them, but just as surely they would fail if not accompanied by small solutions. And here we come to the reassuring difference between changes in policy and changes in principle.

The needed policy changes, though addressed to present evils, wait upon the future, and so are presently nonexistent. But changes in principle can be made now, by so few as just one of us. Changes in principle, carried into practice, are necessarily small changes made at home by one of us or a few of us.

Innumerable small solutions emerge as the changed principles are adapted to unique lives in unique small places. Such small solutions do not wait upon the future. Insofar as they are possible now, exist now, are actual and exemplary now, they give hope. Hope, I concede, is for the future. Our nature seems to require us to hope that our life and the world’s life will continue into the future. Even so, the future offers no validation of this hope. That validation is to be found only in the knowledge, the history, the good work, and the good examples that are now at hand....

Unfortunately I don't think many people alive are sufficiently mature to ween ourselves off a drug that has intoxicated us for 3-4 generations.

President Trump has the simpler solutions - to use our "last hours of ancient sunlight" to build higher and stronger walls to keep as many poor people out of our gated communities as possible.

Sam L. said...

Cohen's problem was that he wanted to BELIEVE, and is now that he's almost concluded that Obama can't be believed,