Jewish World Review August 16, 2005 / 11 Av,
Talking to tomorrow
CONWAY, Ark. Hendrix College here is the site of the annual, six-week school/camp/kumsitz called the Arkansas Governor's School. It's for the state's best and brightest young people between their junior and senior years in high school. Or maybe just the state's most interesting. Either way, it's a pleasure to be here.
It's a strange experience to look out at the friendly faces, listen to the glowing introduction, and then settle back to hear what so distinguished a personage has to say when it hits you You're on! That's you they were talking about.
It is the great indulgence of the old to lecture the young; it is the great kindness of the young to pretend to listen.
When the question period comes, there are always a few students who want to parry words. This year they didn't seem very confrontational. I attribute it to this not being an election year, when political passions run high.
I don't mind the more abrasive questions/comments. The kids who want to play Gotcha bring back my own obnoxious adolescence, a phase I fear I never grew out of.
What could I tell this remarkably tolerant audience? I chose to defend the craft of rhetoric not what it has come to mean on the shout shows or when the Howard Deans and Tom DeLays go at each other, but what it used to be: an art with its own high standards.
The test of rhetoric should be whether it raises the level of public discourse. Too much of today's only lowers it. It may have been Adlai Stevenson who said an editor's job was to separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff. And he never even saw what weblogs, infotainment and docudramas could do to civil discourse.
Somebody seems to have removed the lint catcher from the great, grinding 24/7 machine called the news. Some days, thanks to the 'Net, we're swamped by so much data and so little judgment, you have to wonder if there's any wheat out there at all.
Contrary to Gresham's Law, the bad no longer drives out the good, the new just drives out the old, and the loud the reasoned.
If there is going to be a second, deeper level of thought beyond the headlines in the paper and the crawl on the screen, there will need to be a rebirth of what all praise and so few practice: civilized discourse.
Manners not only maketh the man but the society. Today civility is too often equated with weakness when it can be far more powerful than the usual demagoguery.
Consider the quiet rejoinder offered by Joseph Welch, the mild-mannered Boston lawyer, at a pivotal point in the Army-McCarthy hearings during my own high school years. It's a moment still vivid to those of us who were political junkies even then, and rushed home from school every day to watch history unfold in living black-and-white on that still new phenomenon, television.
A single question from Counselor Welch marked the beginning of the end for McCarthyism. It came when he turned to the junior senator from Wisconsin, who was being even more offensive than usual that day, and asked:
"Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
Mr. Welch was no naif; he knew just what he was doing in his seemingly innocent, almost elfin way. Civility has its theatrical aspect, too, and while Joseph Welch, Esq., was no orator, he was a rhetorician of the first order.
The power of his rhetorical question was that it appealed to a universally understood code that did not have to be spelled out. Call it a sense of decency. Counselor Welch might not be so effective today, unfortunately, when the idea of a gentleman's code has grown antiquated. (It's no coincidence that Walker Percy titled one of his later novels "The Last Gentleman.")
After a day at Governor's School, talking with these well-mannered kids who actually seem interested in ideas, and whose tolerance for geezerhood was written on their bright shining faces, it's hard not to be hopeful.
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