I don’t want to poach on Stephen Cox’s territory in his monthly Word Watch column, but I have an observation to make about rhetoric. The observation is this: The function of rhetoric isn’t just to appeal to an audience; it is also to identify an audience. Lately this has been happening a lot, and with instructive results.
1. President Obama’s response to the question about whether he knew about the scandalous behavior of the IRS. He said that he didn’t know about the report on the scandalous behavior. This was a shockingly obvious dodge. It starkly revealed the president’s stupidity. But it was a carefully prepared response. It was a calculated dodge. It was calculated to appeal to partisan insiders, who knew (wink, nod) that the rhetoric was grossly misleading but hoped it would save some part of the president’s bacon. So it identified that audience. And it identified another audience — the general American population, which was expected to receive Obama’s claims with passive credulity, thus proving itself even stupider than the president himself.
2. Hillary Clinton’s screaming fit before a congressional committee, some months ago, about the causes of the Benghazi attack. Arms waving, she shrieked, “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”Never a good actress, Clinton wasn’t up to the role of Lady Macbeth, despite the fact that she is Lady Macbeth, and she had obviously been practicing her outburst. Now, who can take seriously a secretary of state whose head blows off at the suggestion that it might be of some interest to discover why people attacked an American diplomatic outpost and murdered an American ambassador — and on her watch, too? The answer is . . . the mainstream media! They took it seriously. Their commentators almost unanimously lauded her powerful and unanswerable performance. Of course, her act was precisely the opposite of strong and convincing; looking back on it, Washington insiders wince about the expectation that it would delude the rubes. But here are the two audiences that her rhetoric identified — the insiders and the rubes. The rubes, it turns out, were not fooled, but the insiders were.
3. The IRS folk and their government investigator, testifying before Congress late in May. The investigator seemed stupefied that his nothing-but-the-facts rhetoric didn’t cover all the bases: when asked why his interrogators had included IRS supervisors in their interviews with IRS employees, he was shocked, amazed. He hadn’t expected such a question — coming, as it did, from outside the charmed circle of Washington bureaucrats. The IRS directors were a hundred times worse. Asked the most obvious questions — obvious, that is, to anyone not in that circle — they used the rhetoric of word and gesture to convey the impression that they were the victims of lèse majesté. They didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know whom they had asked about what happened. They didn’t know who, if anyone, was “disciplined” because of what happened. Of one thing they were certain: they shouldn’t have been asked about any of it. To communicate this idea, they sighed; they sneered; they made faces; they made unfunny jokes about Easter egg hunts; they tried every form of rhetoric available to them to communicate the idea that the questions — again, the perfectly obvious questions — were grossly inappropriate and outré. They assumed that the only audience that mattered was people like themselves, people who are entitled to power and justifiably resent all attempts to wrest it from them. The rest of us couldn’t possibly be significant.
Well. What does this mean? It means one of two things:
1. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — wise leaders and their intelligent, well-educated, politically correct students and disciples, the modern-liberal establishment and power structure. This is the only audience that counts, either culturally or politically. The other America consists of people who, being perpetual fools and dupes, are out of power and always will be.
2. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — simpletons who are prepared to swallow almost anything, from the idea that prosperity results from giving the government all your money to the idea that Barack Obama is an honest man. The other America consists of people who know better, and are sometimes willing to do something about it.
I think I know which view is right. But I thank Obama, Clinton, and the minions of the IRS for revealing the issues so clearly, though so unconsciously, in their inimitable displays of rhetoric.