Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Anti-Intellectual Presidency

Elvin T. Lim is a political scientist from Wesleyan University and the author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush. The book looks specifically at presidential speeches, yet his observations have relevance across the spectrum of our nation’s political discussions. In an article I wrote for the Charles Colson Center I say this about Lim's book:

Professor Lim points out that the speeches given by presidents are increasingly filled with vacuous statements that do not invite rational disputation. Speeches are designed to maximize applause lines, stroke the emotions and appeal to our intuitions, while being lean on substantive content. As such, presidential rhetoric completely bypasses the type of higher order thought necessary for proper analysis.
Lim has amassed an impressive array of evidence to chronicle the steady dumbing-down of Presidential rhetoric. He calls this dumbing-down process “anti-intellectualism”, and with good reason. He contrasts it with the classical understanding of rhetoric. For the ancients, good rhetoric included logos (the weighing and judging of reasons for a particular course of action), ethos (the credibility of the speaker) and pathos (emotional appeal). “Presidential rhetoric today” Lim writes, “is short on logos, disingenuous on ethos, and long on pathos. 
Lim also criticizes Presidential rhetoric for its simplicity. He quotes the famous Presidential speech writer Peggy Noonan who once said, “It is simplicity that gives the speech its power... And we pick the signal up because we have gained a sense in our lives that true things are usually said straight and plain and direct.”
What’s wrong with Noonan’s approach? When Lim was being interviewed by Ken Myers, he suggested that “simplicity does not guarantee the truth, only the semblance of sincerity….It is true that most of the time when we are being truthful we say things simply and we don’t hide behind the obscuration of words – that’s exactly true. But that has no relation to the truth content of what’s being said at all. A highly rhetorically adept person can well articulate things simply and yet conceal them precisely via the simplicity of his words.”

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