Really interesting post about magic and rhetoric and why they piss off some people. Here’s the money section (though the whole post should really be read:
“All of that brings me to the Obama problem. He’s one of the only
public figures in my memory who has obviously actually studied
rhetoric. He can craft a helluva speech on anything you please (I’m
partial to the economic one
he gave at Cooper Union). He can show extraordinary rhetorical
restraint, as he does on the Senate floor, or he can do a real
high-wire act like he does at rallies, keeping the passion of the
restless crowd crashing in waves for nearly an hour. The average
American does not like listening to anybody talk for forty-five
minutes, but the average American does, it seems, like listening to
Obama. It takes a lot to keep people’s attentions if they haven’t
practiced by attending academic lectures for ten years. But he manages
to do it.
To this rhetorician, watching an Obama speech is like taking a class
in the epideictic craft. He deploys historical commonplaces in
brilliant ways, concedes points without conceding ground, and makes
agreement an almost viscerally pleasurable option for the listener. I
feel while watching him talk much like the lesser magicians Gopnik
describes as they watch one of the masters—full of awe not that “magic”
is taking place, but that someone is doing something they know enough
to know is wildly difficult.
The “just words” movement in the Clinton campaign reminds me very
much of the response Gopnik describes in those who know nothing of
magic-as-craft who watch a magic trick without belief in magic. “It’s
just a trick!” they say, not realizing how very difficult tricks are,
and how useful they can be for inspiring wonder and happiness in
people. They spoil the show for no purpose other than jealousy. What do
they win if the audience loses its sense of wonder? Anyone who knows
anything of the art of rhetoric, a real insider, would watch Obama to
Aside from the political aspects mentioned above, my main question is why? Why do people want to destroy the magic? Magic is a fragile thing whether is a performer sawing someone in half or a politician mezmorizing a crowd (of course now-a-days whenever you mention rhetorical skill some numnut will Hitler you — “you don’t want to be swayed by that, Hitler was a good speaker”, never mind that it makes no sense; just ’cause someone speaks well doesn’t mean that they are a fascist nor does someone’s oratorical skills stop your responsibility for thinking!). It seems that the desire to take away the magic is a selfish and nasty thing. By doing it, they are saying, I don’t buy it, I am unable to see the skill at any level, and so you don’t get to either. Perhaps Ms Clinton’s criticisms are sour grapes arising from fear.
But, really, think about it. Think about times that you burst the magic bubble. Why did you do it? I think that if you are honest with yourself you will see spite and jealousy play significant parts. I am reminded of one of my worst actions as a child. I told my little sister about Santa Claus. She is less than two years younger than me and this was probably her last chance to believe — indeed her doubts were real, but she wanted one last X-mas. I took it from her. Why? Well, part was my pride and excitement to be helping Santa (on that level, I think that my guilt deserves a little break — I’m bad at a secret if I’m too excited), but much of it was jealousy. I wanted to believe and if I couldn’t then she couldn’t either. I think that motivation is behind a lot of this.
I think that we should all remember that we are still that eight year old kid and we are all still capable of the cruelty of childhood.