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In an age of rhetoric, Australian politics is missing the American flair

The Conversation

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The busy schedule of elections and plebiscites in the Anglophone world has brought with it an increased interest in rhetoric – the art of public speaking. In particular, the recent Democratic convention in Philadelphia saw some major speeches, not the least by Barack and Michelle Obama, and others including Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

The notable speeches at the convention, including Hillary Clinton’s own serviceable contribution, helped to get her a bump in the polls at the right moment. The stakes were high, following on from the Republican Convention, where Trump’s long speech had a mixed response, but the controversial speeches of Melania Trump and Ted Cruz, in particular, held the nation’s attention. Trump himself is no mean orator, with a kind of aphoristic, syntax-free style, and an unrivalled capacity for getting his message and profile across.

The Australian political scene of 2016 could scarcely be more different. Campaign launches used to provide an important opportunity for a flurry of rhetoric on a political leader’s part, as Gough Whitlam’s did in 1972. But these events have lost much of their prominence now because election campaigns are constructed differently.

Party launches now occur nearer to the end of campaigning than the beginning, because the parties have to fund themselves after their launches. In the 2016 election the two main political parties launched their formal campaigns with only two weeks (ALP) and one week (Liberal Party) to go before the vote. After six weeks of three-word slogans about policies which had already been announced, interest was minimal in the speeches at the official campaign launches.

Indeed, as far as the speeches were concerned, the main interest was election night itself – that is, after the voting, not before it. Malcolm Turnbull offered up a rather graceless speech on the night of July 2, one which he probably regretted. Bill Shorten did somewhat better on the night, and in the campaign generally, although that was partly because expectations were so low.

It is worth reflecting on the ancient origins of “rhetoric”, which is a Greek word for the art of speaking in public. It developed in a very significant way in Greek antiquity with the rise of democracy.

Political power was a great stimulus for learning how to craft an impressive speech. Pericles, for instance, most famously, held the reins of power in democratic Athens by virtue of his great powers of persuasion. His prominence was such that, according to Thucidydes:

in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.

Pericles’ own speeches have not survived but we get a sense of them in the pages of Thucydides, notably his Funeral Oration, for fallen Athenian soldiers. His actual speeches must have been magnificent, given their impact within a city-state that was so focused on political rhetoric.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz, 1852.

But it is important to stress that, even before the advent of democracy, speaking well in public was an important ancient Greek virtue. For instance, the main Greek princes in Homer’s Iliad, our earliest European text, were expected to fight well, but also to speak well in the various assemblies.

And there were significant competitive elements to both activities. Some heroes in the Iliad are good speakers, but others are not. Achilles is a wonderful fighter, but he is ill-at-ease in the gatherings of the princes; whereas Odysseus, the wily craftsmen of words, is much more at home in the assemblies.

The greater level of interest in rhetoric in modern American political life is paralleled by its profile in the tertiary sector there. For instance, The University of California, Berkeley, has a Department of Rhetoric offering a full undergraduate program and graduate program. It describes itself as “committed to the study of rhetorical traditions from the classical to the contemporary eras”.

The University of Texas has a Department of Rhetoric and Writing offering a diverse range of courses focused on rhetoric and rhetorical traditions. Harvard has an endowed chair, the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory, once held by John Quincy Adams, although it has a poetic focus these days (and was duly held by Robert Fitzgerald and Seamus Heaney).

Many other American universities offer rhetoric within other disciplines, like English, Composition, or Communication Studies. There is some interest in the study of rhetoric in Australian universities too, although not usually as a discreet area of study.

On the whole, Australian political culture is far less concerned with rhetoric than ancient Athens, or the contemporary United States (which is not to say that we haven’t had some fine political speeches). There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Indeed, some people would see it as a positive virtue, given the extended history of good speeches leading to bad policy.

Paul Keating’s 1992 speech on Aboriginal reconciliation is widely admired as a great speech.

But one wonders whether some great political opportunities are currently being missed more than they were in the recent past. Gough Whitlam, a scholar of Greek as it happens, and an admirer of Pericles, set his campaign on track for victory with a memorable speech at Blacktown in November 1972. It ended,

I do not for a moment believe that we should set limits on what we can achieve, together, for our country, our people, our future.

It was uttered by Whitlam, but it could easily be Pericles.

There is no reason why our political leaders couldn’t have benefited from major speeches in the recent election, in the mould of Whitlam or Pericles or Obama. They might indeed have captured the imagination of the voters. But this would have required far more attention to speechcraft, and laying out an imaginative vision for the future, and far less to the costs of running a campaign.

The ConversationChris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Can we learn from Thucydides’ writings on the Trump of ancient Athens?

The Conversation

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

There is much consternation, and quite a bit of alarm, at the recent vote of the British people to leave the EU, and the equally astonishing emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for the US presidency. Early on in these campaigns there was a tendency to mock Trump as a bit of a laughing stock, and likewise the equally flamboyant Boris Johnson in Britain.

But with the Brexit vote done and dusted, and Trump crowned as candidate, no one is laughing now. Trump has virtually thrown out the rule book for pleasant political discourse, and seems to get away with just about anything. In many quarters the mockery of Trump is fast being replaced by abject fear that he might actually get elected.

It is worth pausing to reflect on a historical parallel for some of this, not the least because Trump is often described as a “demagogue” – a Greek term which we will probably see a lot of in the coming months. The word is innocuous enough in its etymology, simply meaning “a popular leader”, somebody who “leads the demos” (being the adult male citizenry of classical Athens).

Athenian democracy was “direct”, in so far as the decisions were ultimately made by the citizens themselves in the assembly. This is a process that many conservatives found quite alarming at the time – just as many people today are alarmed at the direct power given to the British electorate in the Brexit plebiscite.

Pericles. By Internet Archive Book Images, via Wikimedia Commons

The term “demagogue” could easily have been used to describe Pericles – the urbane and respectable voice of Athenian politics in the late 5th century BC. After all, Pericles was brilliantly successful in achieving office and carrying the day in the assembly.

But the historian Thucydides, a great admirer of Pericles, never describes him in this way, preferring to use it pejoratively of his opponent Cleon, a controversial figure with populist leanings.

Cleon was fiercely anti-Periclean, and seems to have been a kind of Donald Trump of ancient Athenian politics. Classical scholars have described him in the following way:

he was an effective, if vulgar, speaker, and seems to have been given to extravagant promises and extravagant accusations against opponents. He was one of the first of a new kind of politician, who were not from the old aristocracy, and whose predominance depended on persuasive speeches in the assembly and lawcourts rather than on regular office-holding.

Cleon came from a wealthy background, albeit not an aristocratic one (his father was a wealthy tanner). He wielded significant power in the assembly at various times, especially after the death of Pericles (in 429BC) – playing a crucial role in determining the fate of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos, which had revolted from Athenian control. Cleon convinced the Athenians to put the men of Mytilene to death – a decision that, upon reflection, was rescinded the next day.

It is in the context of a debate on the issue of how to punish the rebellious Mytilenians that Thucydides provides us with a long speech by Cleon to the Athenians, which ends in the following way:

Pay them back for it, and do not grow soft just at this present moment, forgetting meanwhile the danger that hung over your own heads then. Punish them as they deserve, and make an example of them to your other allies, plainly showing that revolt will be punished by death.

Thucydides. Chris JL/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The speech is actually written by Thucydides – a hostile source – but it gives us a sense of the rhetoric of Cleon, for all its brilliant clarity and violence. Indeed Thucydides’ assessment is that Cleon “was remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character”. Cleon ultimately died in battle in 422BC, seven years after his political enemy Pericles.

Thucydides’ History argues that bad public policy can do great damage to a city-state in crisis. Pericles had a clear vision of what strategy to adopt in their war against Sparta – to tend to their navy and not be drawn into risking the safety of the city and the empire. But Cleon went in the opposite direction, and is charged by Thucydides with abandoning the public good for private ambition.

Like much of Greek literature, Thucydides’ History focuses on the community response to the crisis of war. One reads of the increasing desperation of the city-state as the social and financial basis of the community starts to disintegrate.

The rise of the demagogues like Cleon in late 5th-century Athens might be seen as a culmination of various social, political and economic factors. Some of these elements also have resonances in our own times.

Political power could be achieved by speaking well in the assembly, regardless of one’s background. Indeed, being from a different, non-establishment, background could be a positive virtue.

And there were plenty of people who were prepared to offer instruction on how to handle oneself in the Athenian assembly (especially philosophers called “sophists”, or “wise men”).

One should not really press the Cleon/Trump parallel too much, given the 2,500 years between them and the very different cultural contexts. Nonetheless, at the beginning of his work, Thucydides does make some claims about human nature and the circularity of history that are worth bearing in mind :

It will be enough for me if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever (1.22).

There is a slightly ominous tone to these sentiments, given the experience of Athens in the Peloponnesian war. But we will need to wait and see how things play out in our own times before reaching a conclusion.

The ConversationChris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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