06 September 2016

"But with words there is a structure that has two elements, number and gentleness,* and the arguments take their composition from the two; the order is arranged to make the point well-approved.  Yet in order to make a good structure of all these things memory is almost the only foundation, the light and the action."
--Cicero, On the Best Kind of Orators

*my translation of lenitatem; if Cicero meant levitatem I would say "weight."


More than any of its past kindred, this presidential race is impressing upon me the need for good oratory and the power of good public speaking.  Whether it was Bernie's habit of putting triune repetitions at the end of his sermons on civic engagement  ("if we stand together there is nothing, nothing, nothing we cannot accomplish") or the wretched lack of originality and, indeed, coherence from the Republican candidates at their primary debates, the forensic arts have been central to my understanding of what is happening politically.  Then again, I don't watch cable TV, I read Latin and I acquired a liberal arts education from a school with 'Communism' in its motto.

Now there are 63 days to go.   We are seeing what happens when a ruthless demagogue and emotional manipulator meets an established politician who is quite competent at her line of work.  I am relieved to see and hear that her choice of running mate is also quite competent at oratory.  My greatest fear is that this competence will be wasted on an electorate who has too little of that "light and action" that Cicero was writing about. 

"Rote learning" has long been disparaged in our educational system, guilty by association with paddling and memorizing lists of the state capitals.  Yet when we lost rote learning we lost something important.  It is kind of important for citizens of a democracy, as we claim to be, to be able to follow the thread of an oral argument and to remember pertinent facts about recent events that have immediate bearing on the validity of that argument.  We're not born with this skill, and neither does Facebook or Google render it superfluous.  

Pace various siliconical utopians, we dare not choose our leaders by scanning their CVs and health histories into a super-smart natural language algorithm that is clearly better for our times than the Electoral College.  (Zombie Herbert Hoover would still be President today had this been done in 1932 with punch-card tabulating machines and small armies of "computing" women workers.)  We must listen to our candidates and scrutinize them with our memories, as imperfect as they are.  If this scrutiny is too trivial, goodbye to our freedoms and our greatness.






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