The eloquence deficit

Where is the oratory of yesteryear? Not in Parliament, on the streets, or even in the newspapers. We have become a society of irritable mumblers in which a genuine rhetorical flourish would be as welcome as a genuine social conservative.

So lend me your eyes while I perorate on behalf of Richard M. Weaver. He would be more worthy of attention than our whole tribe of politicians just for "Let it be offered as a parting counsel that parties bethink themselves of how their chieftains speak." But he wrote much more, in 1953, surprisingly relevant to getting us out of the political fog we are in.

In The Ethics of Rhetoric, a title unlikely to be welcome on Parliament Hill, he warned of "a real if obscure relationship between the vitality of what one is saying and the palatability of one's rhetoric." It is no accident, as they themselves liked to say, that Brezhnev-era spokesmen used such stiffly contorted prose, or that North Korean official statements defy parody. Nor is it an accident that our own politicians are windy without grandeur, humourless without solemnity, abstract without perspective, stuck in Weaver's despised "petty and contentious style."

Why has political discourse shrunk so far that we find the grand mid-19th century style embarrassing? Without denying its defects, Weaver suggests as one major problem the dwindling amount of agreement on which political orators might build. Particularly, without reliable audience belief in "the unity of past and present, the unity of moral sets and of causal sets," one cannot come to grips with the big picture.

As The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson just complained, "it is almost impossible in Canada to have any debate on anything of great substance ... We have no urgency these days to debate anything other than the here and now ..."

I claim it's because we don't agree that the past has lessons or that morality matters, but we do all still want money so politicians squabble over who will give us more. Hedonism is the last refuge of the morally vacant.

How did we get into this mess?

Here I was struck by Weaver's chapter on the language of social science, which he accuses of resembling "a parade of terms which seem to go by on stilts, as if it were important to keep from touching the ground." He cites two main defects. First, "In all writing which has come to be regarded as wisdom about the human being, there is an undertone of the sardonic. Man at his best is a sort of caricature of himself." But social scientists don't admit it.

Second, there's no metaphor. Vivid imagery is neither empty decoration nor a concession to our incapacity for sustained analysis. Rather, its underlining of relevant similarities is fundamental to real thought. Without it you get language "comparatively lacking in responsibility .... that one expects from those who have become insulated or daintified."

Political correctness has this quality: "Persons of size" misses everything important about unrestrained gobbling. But so does the peevish droning of Canadian politicians about the deficit, cost control in health care or even a juicy scandal. Wordy without eloquence, they invariably sound like a report by a Martian anthropologist on Political mores in early 21st century Canada.

To scoop one boring example from the tedious flux, declaring the production of maple syrup "an event of national historic significance," cabinet minister Jim Prentice droned: "The origins of this industry helped define our national identity and remain very much a part of how we recognize ourselves as a people."

Why? Was General Wolfe a maple tree? Or a tacky souvenir in the shape of a leaf?

It is no accident that our politicians talk this way. Our governments have, for 40 humourless years, been giant social science experiments, meddling with our habits, shaping our personalities and reengineering our society. And our petty and contentious chieftains are filled with panicky determination that their prose shall at no point touch the ground so when they say something silly, offensive or merely painful to certain voting groups, it isn't really about anything and cannot be made to haunt them in any specific future situation.

Weaver's diagnosis comes with a warning. If a society's debates "occur at a very elementary level, we suspect that the culture has not defined itself, or that it is decayed and threatened with dissolution."

Arguably Canada has both problems, if only we could argue in language that meant anything. For instance, "If certain government policies were announced in the language of the barbershop, their absurdity might become overwhelmingly apparent."

To be sure, my preference for authentic speech and lessons from the past is outdated. But I call that one of its virtues. Like in Rome. See, it was this big old city and ...

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson