It was a word salad. Ms. Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s candidacy last week did something few could imagine. It outdid even her past performances in presenting a rambling exhortation as bereft of grammar and sentence structure as it was a cogent argument. She had valid points to make but even Mr. Trump appeared embarrassed at her inability to make them.
Plenty of people laughed. Tina Fey revved up her spot-on impersonation for Saturday Night Live. Others were outraged at the depths to which political discourse has sunk and by the fact that her speech garnered applause at the time and, from the predictable quarters, praise afterwards. I, however, was sad.
I was sad for all those young people with good teachers who are learning the power and beauty of the spoken word. In classrooms across North America, good teachers are encouraging an appreciation for poetry, Shakespeare, and stirring speeches. Students are learning that the more they read, the better they can write, and the better they write, the deeper they are encouraged to think. They are learning that to be articulate is a good thing. And yet, there was Ms. Palin addressing a serious matter, the presidency, with profane and made up words more akin to a drunken karaoke rap than reasoned prose.
I was also sad for students learning the precision of a well-defined argument. They are being taught to dismiss false dichotomies that present either/or options that don’t really exist. Students are learning to begin the evaluation of an argument by exploring its premise and to be unfooled by straw men foisted as false foils. If nothing else, they are learning that arguments must at least be arguments, that is, they must state a point of view and defend it with demonstrably valid evidence. They learn that truth matters and that one can have one’s own opinion but not one’s own facts. And yet, there was Ms. Palin presenting not an argument as to why Mr. Trump should be president with but, rather, nonsensical assertions, jumbled phrases, insults, non-sequiturs, and even goofy rhymes.
If you missed it, all twenty minutes, here is part of what Ms. Palin had to say:
Let’s pause for a moment to consider two examples that demonstrate the way things used to be and can and should still be today. First, in about two minutes Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address stated the reason for the gathering, the value of the sacrifice of those lost in the recent battle, established the Civil War’s global and moral purpose, and affirmed the legitimacy of the fight. And he did it all in words he wrote himself and with the grace of a poet.
Take a moment to read what Lincoln said that afternoon in Pennsylvania with consideration for the value of marrying diction and argument.
There is another example among many that could be chosen. On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was running for President. A crowd in the predominately Black section of Indianapolis had been waiting for a long while and was growing restless. It was dark. Just as he was ascending the stairs to speak, Kennedy was told that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. His handlers ordered him back to the car. He refused.
Instead, Kennedy looked into the sea of Black faces and asked them to lower their campaign signs. This would not be about his campaign. He said that their hero and inspirational leader had been killed and that a White man had done it. There were gasps. But Kennedy went on. He gently interpreted the murder in a personal context and then as a national, existential challenge. He quoted several lines from the Greek poet Aeschylus. That’s right, a man running for president extemporaneously quoted a Greek poet.
In cities across America that night there were riots in Black neighbourhoods with grief expressed as rage. That is, in every major city except one: Indianapolis.
Allow yourself the gift to be moved by Robert Kennedy and the power of elegant, graceful words and a genuine, cogent argument:
I refuse to believe that Ms. Palin’s ramblings and Mr. Trump’s rants are cause for despair. It is just as I refused to be disheartened when in the recent Canadian election the prime minister embarrassed himself and disgraced the office by abandoning reasoned arguments to instead, day after day, present a sophomoric, faux game show complete with buzzers and bells.
Palin, Trump, Harper, and for that matter Mr. Cruz and Mr. Sanders, have their audiences and I think I understand them. They are angry. They are angry that the rules they have followed and thought they understood are changing. The bad guys have been winning on Baghdad’s Main Street and New York’s Wall Street. They are angry that the elite, donor class sold them on voting against their interests to support people, policies, and programs that have widened gulfs and strangled mobility. Their anger is palpable. Their anger is justified.
Unjustified, however, is meeting anger with bombast. Insults are not arguments. Beliefs are not policies. Prejudices are not facts. Biases are not opinions. We deserve better. All of us deserve better, even, or perhaps especially those angry folks attracted to Mr. Trump on one side and Mr. Sanders on the other.
Leaders and those who seek to lead should elevate and not stoop. They should inspire and not conspire. They should speak not to our inner demons but, as Lincoln called them, our better angels. And they should present themselves in ways that encourage calm reason over empty passion and articulate debate rather than spewed slogans. Like Kennedy, they should cool the embers of justifiable anger rather than stoke infernos. Picture Palin or Trump in Indianapolis that night.
For the sake of the children learning to speak, write, and present persuasive arguments as part of their becoming engaged citizens and whose world will be shaped by our decisions, let us demand more. Let us refuse to support those who’s jumbled words and absent arguments suggest we settle for less.
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