The Art of Degradation, Part I

It is a good thing that rhetoric is a lost art, because anyone with the most elementary knowledge of rhetoric would be sticking blunt objects into his ears to keep from hearing not just the politicians’ speeches but, even more, the pundit’s comments and questions.

I am not referring to the bad grammar and mispronunciation of NPR newsreaders who cannot pronounce words like “tour” but invariably say “tore” or even to the effeminate and uncontrolled sing-song chanting of the announcers.  Delivery is a part of oratory but only a part.  From the rhetor’s perspective of 2500 years or so, political discourse today could only be the product of vicious retarded children fighting in the playyard.

My teacher George Kennedy, an expert on the history of rhetoric, titled his first book “The Art of Persuasion in Greece.”  Today, I am tempted to write something on the art of degradation in America,

Just consider the repulsive appeals to sentimentality that ooze through even Trump’s speeches.  Trump is beginning to sound as maudlin as Jack Kemp or Newt Gingrich, blaming the welfare state for the poverty and crime of “the community,” and Rush and Sean are foaming at the mouth, denouncing Bobby Byrd and describing the KKK as the militant wing of the Democratic Party.  I guarantee you that if the Limbaughs started looking into attacks in Cape Girardeau they’d be turning up some interesting examples of bed-sheet costuming.

Anyone who knows anything about anything American is aware that the original Klan organizations were a typically American response to disorder.  Postwar Reconstruction was a systematic looting and persecution of Southern civilians, and anything like armed resistance would have justified genocidal measures.  Like the vigilantees of San Francisco and Montana, Southern men—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—did what they could to defend the moral order.  (Bernard Baruch’s father was a klansman.)  The 20th century Klan, by contrast, was a largely Midwestern phenomenon—nativist, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant.  There were plenty of Republicans in the Klan, especially during the Civil Rights era, when the Democratic Party abandoned Southerners.

Of course the real problem with either side tarring the other with the KKK brush is the refusal to understand any other generation and any other culture.  There was a time when simple people loved their families and kinsmen more than they loved other people’s families and nations.  Just a few years ago, leftists were declaring that they would never support same-sex marriage, while today, they denounce anyone who shares that opinion as a homophobic bigot.

Of course, Bill Clinton’s mentor, Senator William Fulbright, defended segregation.  In the first place, he—like virtually every other member of Congress wanted to stay in office—and would do what it took to keep his seat.   And, second,he did not positively hate his constituents.  Arkies may be a little less educated and less enterprising than people from, say, Iowa, but only a bigot could condemn them out of hand as virtually everyone in public life does today.  Of course, that is not bigotry.

Leo Strauss, in describing a particularly odious form of tarbrushing, coined the phrase “reductio ad Hitlerum.”  Do you love your country?  So did Hitler!  Want to defend your borders?  So did Hitler!  Think women make better mothers than men?  So did Hitler!  As Hitler—despite the best efforts of conmen like Elie Wiesel—has faded from the American memory, he has been joined by Klansmen, Stalinists, and Confederates.  Like country music but not rap?  So does the Klan!  Don’t think welfare ennobles the government-dependent urban mob?  Neither does the Klan.

This kind of stereotyping is a pretty contemptible rhetorical strategy when it is directed agains foreign enemies,as it was in WW II, but it is morally suicidal, when it is turned against our own people, our own country, our own historical experience.  It is childishly cruel to make fun of Indians as drunken savages, but to teach children to hate their ancestors, their traditions and their religion,  is an evil of so deep a dye that the perpetrators—teachers, journalists, textbook writers—deserve to be publicly scourged and sent out to work in the fields.  (Where is Pol Pot when you need him).  To the entire class of American intellectuals of both parties, I can only say:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina