*** DEBUG END ***

Bully for you

28 October 2016


“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.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)