Thursday, March 19, 2009


“Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery of party, faction, and division of society”
-John Adams

Recently John Hawkins posted an excerpt on Right Wing News from Thomas Sowell's book The Vision of the Annointed. The quote was this:
"Many of these "thinking people" could more accurately be characterized as articulate people, as people whose verbal nimbleness can elude both evidence and logic. This can be a fatal talent, when it supplies the crucial insulation from reality behind may historic catastrophes."
and it struck me as remarkably true and appropriate for today's political climate. Being articulate and well spoken is confused with being intelligent and insightful. Using language cleverly and being able to make a great speech is considered a sign of genius and great learning.

By contrast, being a poor public speaker or stumbling over language is considered proof of stupidity. In essence, the better public image and the more excellent you are at swaying crowds and appearing on television, the smarter you are considered, and the poorer you are at it, the stupider you must be.

The problem is being articulate might not be any indication of intelligence or learning, it is the content that determines such a judgment. If you are very glib and well-spoken, but are articulating nonsense and foolishness, that's just a sign you can speak well. You can be an idiot but well spoken, or a super genius with vast learning and insight and be a stumbling mushmouth. Merely projecting a smooth public image does not indicate genius.

As I noted a while back about Sophistry:
The Sophist had a simple, if challenging job: each area he went to, he'd ask for topics to speak on, and take one of the suggestions and argue it. He didn't argue based on the merits of the case, but on what he could craft that might sway and manipulate his audience.

The arguments would go over great on daytime talk shows, they made powerful political speeches and would convince the less than discerning members of the audience. If you weren't particularly up on the topic or a person well-trained in rhetoric and reason, you could find yourself nodding, they were good at this. The Sophist didn't care about the topic, he wasn't didn't necessarily believe a word he said; his job had nothing to do with that. It was to entertain by presenting a compelling argument.
This is where the continuous insistence that President Bush was an imbecile controlled by others came from, and where the constant drumbeat over what a genius President Obama finds its origin. President Obama is - with practice, a speech writer, and a teleprompter to help him out - smooth and glib, he is well spoken and gives good speeches. Yet what he says is often nonsense, contradictory, or vapid and without substance. He's not a great or deep thinker, he's a great sophist, which means he's not really all that great a speaker either: he's just skilled at manipulating an audience.

President Bush was terrible at manipulating an audience, but what he said was not meant to, it was meant to inform and communicate - something he was poor at. I don't expect that President Bush is a super genius, nor do I believe that President Obama is a dolt; it takes real intelligence to reach that level of power and do the job. Granted, Obama is demonstrating he barely comprehends how to do the job, but you can mark a lot, if not all of that down to being incredibly unqualified and unready for executive work. Experience does matter.

Sowell's point about the attraction of being glib and an excellent sophist is a powerful and important one: don't fall for the idea that just because someone sounds persuasive and emotionally compelling he's somehow right. Some of the biggest monsters in history were incredibly compelling speakers, able to manipulate a crowd powerfully and shape history with their words.


Eric said...

Great post, I also took note of that quote over at RWN.

Be it sophistry, articulateness, charisma, or just old school politickin'... conservatives could use a lot more people on their side who have this skill. The Dems seem to have them stacked up neck deep.

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