“I SPEAK tonight for the dignity of man.” How one longs for words of this ambition in the current presidential debate in the United States. Hearing the rhetoric of US presidential politics of yesteryear set against the playground bitching of today, one is made acutely aware of the debasement in political discourse which we are currently experiencing.
Michael Goldfarb is an actor-turned-writer; so his interest in American politics comes through speech-making. In The Essay: All my presidents (Radio 3, weekdays), he recalled the rhetorical impact of the US leaders from Eisenhower to Obama, and, in the process, revised some common misconceptions — not least relating to Lyndon B. Johnson, who spoke of the dignity of man in the course of his campaign for anti-discrimination legislation, a speech Goldfarb regards as the single most important presidential speech of modern times.
We live now unarguably in the age of the “bully pulpit”: a term that Roosevelt coined to refer to the mass-media platform. (”Bully” in this case is a term of approbation, meaning “great”.) The art of the bully pulpit has become the crucial ingredient in electoral success. Carter’s notorious “malaise” speech, which opened with the fatal line ‘Tonight, I want to have an unpleasant talk with you,” broke an unwritten rule of the bully pulpit: you have to give people hope.
Thus, one of the most effective was Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention speech, in which he spoke of “the audacity of hope”. Sadly, nothing by Mr Obama since has risen to those heights, while current speech-making in US politics appears to interpret the “bully” part of “bully pulpit” in its more common sense.
The Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesday) have, for decades, provided, if not mass-media coverage, then at least a wider audience than is customary for academics and “public intellectuals”. The unfortunate consequence is an impulse by many recent speakers not exactly to dumb down, but to avoid technicalities that might, even for a moment, stretch the intellectual imaginations of an audience largely comprising non-specialists.
One of the pleasures of In Our Time is the challenge of hanging on to the intellectual coat-tails of experts as they hurry down unfamiliar streets. In the case of Kwame Anthony Appiah, I fear he is holding our hand and taking us past all the sights we have seen in the tourist guides.
Thus, his discussion of how different faith groups manage the politics of gender had the whiff of a GCSE Comparative Religion class about it, while his critique of fundamentalism went little further than a commentary on orthodoxy and orthopraxy. “I’m a big believer in conversation across difference,” he declared in the Q and A; it would be a courageous person indeed who declared the opposite.
The interesting material here came in the story of his background: he was the product of an interracial marriage between an anti-colonial activist from Ghana and the daughter of a Chancellor of the Exchequer. More interesting still might have been an account of his intellectual journey from scholarly work on semantics to this current interest in identity.