The Left's rhetorical problem

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Sorry Dan and all: I didn't get home until about 7pm, freshly exfoliated from the sleet, and so didn't make it to any of the nearby Christian antiwar protesting. (But better sleet than snow, or it would look like Massachusetts here. Oh, sorry Dan.)

I did watch a report of the National Cathedral service and congregant reactions on a local news broadcast. OK, they were short clips, but I recognize the a certain rhetorical style far too common in the left-of-center: I call it Medicated Ambiguity. I think it is a learned style and it is high time to unlearn it.

Enter a Concerned Individual, who might be a Cleveland Park fortysomething father of toddlers or the Presiding Bishop of a Major Religious Organization. He or she has something terribly important so say because times like these call for important discussions. The delivery, however, suggests the speaker has been dosed with 10mg of Valium. You know the kind of slow, tender, unmodulated delivery of which I speak.

Now, I'm not making this up. I was listening to a podcast (direct link to MP3) of the Katharine Jefferts Schori on a bus this week on my way to Temp Job and I nearly fell asleep. Is that her plan? ("Akinola's asleep! Push him in a sack.") I have little idea what she was trying to communicate.

With Hubby's help, I have identified this style as a misuse and caricature of a typical public radio announcer's style, where, with well-chosen words, editing, and in a format demanding reflection, it works. Since speaking styles are learned, especially our public voices, have we ceded to NPR our rhetorical norms? Our tone? Our timbre? Our RP?

A radio announcing tone -- certain not that one, done badly -- does not simulate verve, encouragement, resolve, or real concern. Mixing the two makes its user seem woolly-headed, effete, unconnected and powerless, and thus untrustworthy for anything more difficult than a wine-and-cheese. Who needs the bulldog Right to make Liberals out to be latte-sipping nincompoops? Far too often, we project it verbally. (Not that the neocons and theocons don't have rhetorical problems. Hubris has made some of their top celebs speak with the charm and subtlety of a Vandal attack. Let's see what they do with that.)

An irony is that while last night's action from the Cathedral to the White House looked like something out of the 1968 playbook, it most surely didn't sound like it. It's time to say it like we mean it, and that will take some work.

A good place (I think) would be to listen to recordings of compelling speakers. (That was a required assignment in my seminary preaching class.) Suggestions anyone?

4 Replies to “The Left's rhetorical problem”

  1. Excellent point. Some of us on the left need to ask ourselves – “What would the speeches of MLK have sounded like if he spoke like some of us do on the left do these days?”

  2. Scott, sorry you couldn’t make it. I wound up in the overflow church (New York Ave Presbo), so I saw the main worship service projected on a screen.

    Most of the speakers in the worship service were, umm, less than inspiring. Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church (“the spiritual home of MLK”) was, however, excellent, in the best Baptist style. His pacing and timing were excellent, he made effective use of repetition, and he had a powerful message.

    The overall worship service was excellent, with a good liturgical flow and excellent use of music. I would guess that the huge worship staff at the National Cathedral was behind liturgy and music (they got credit in the order of service). Especially effective was a short hymn repeated throughout the service — I’ve included it in abc musical notation below (convert abc to sheet music or MIDI here) — with harmony that started out minor or modal, and wound up with a major chord in the final measure. Very nice to sing repeatedly.

    The congregational singing and music were in general excellent. That’s sort of my stereotype of Mainline worship — excellent music with radio-announcer preaching.

    X:1
    M:4/4
    L:1/4
    K:G minor
    (B2 G) B | A4 | B2 G B | A A3 | B2 G B |
    w:Ho_-ly God, Ho-ly and Might-y, Ho-ly Im-
    c c d d | G2 G2-|G2 (F A) | G2 G2 |]
    w:-mor-tal One have mer-cy up_-on us.

  3. I know New York Ave Presby. You must have been orbiting my apartment.

    The hymn is the Trisagion, so I wonder if the tune is Eastern and if it might be S102 in the Episcopal hymnal. (I don’t know that notation and I can’t get the link to work.)

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