Rhetoric Is the Art of Persuasion – Aristotle
Soon after our article on Anthony Scaramucci’s BBC interview, the new White House Communications Director hit the headlines after a telephone rant full of expletives with Ryan Lizza, a journalist at The New Yorker.
As usual, the commentariat put the rant down to the vulgarity of Trump, his administration and followers and the battle for power and influence among Trump’s staff.
This is partially true, but as so often with Trump, Brexit and populism, there is a wilful refusal to understand a phenomenon whose roots go back decades.
The process is particularly clear in the United Kingdom, which as a West European country is more secular than the United States.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, novelists, playwrights, poets, musicians and comedians began to push back against Britain’s conservative and class-ridden society. Aided and abetted by radio and television, they introduced more “colourful” language and more liberal mores into both elite and popular culture.
The seminal comedic examples in Britain were The Goon Show and Beyond The Fringe, who took their sketches to an appreciative Broadway. Both exerted a huge influence on Monty Python. All four members of Beyond the Fringe and five of the six Pythons were British and highly educated graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.
At the time, this humour was iconoclastic, surreal, satirical and bitingly funny and ranged from toilet jokes and highly effective swearing – because it was new and fresh – to the absurd and skits on philosophy.
And nowadays? The philosophy, surrealism and absurd have gone, leaving little more than swearing and flaccid sex jokes.
This approach gets cheap laughs on talk shows and appeals to the current generation of comedians and audience who lack the education and urbanity of their predecessors between the 1950s and 1970s, but who nevertheless believe that they are frightfully sophisticated – especially compared to Donald Trump.
As huge fans of the verbal gymnastics in The West Wing, for instance, it was depressing to see its creator and lead scriptwriter of the first four seasons Aaron Sorkin stoop to this response to Trump’s election in an open letter to his ex-wife and 15-year-old daughter Roxy which was published in Vanity Fair:
Here’s what we’ll do…
…we’ll fucking fight. (Roxy, there’s a time for this kind of language and it’s now.)
This, sadly, is now par for the course. During her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton welcomed the support of various rappers, including Jay Z.
The liberal media elite who complain about the vulgarity of Trump and his supporters need to take a very, very close look at themselves over the last 50 years and ask themselves why both elite and popular culture have degenerated so catastrophically.
Quite how they believe that swearing can persuade anyone of their own educational, intellectual and moral superiority, let alone convert them to their own views, remains a mystery.
Breaking down the barriers was absolutely necessary – but lowering the bar has now come back to haunt us as ethos and pathos have increasingly supplanted logos and educational standards even at elite levels have crashed.
Nowadays, only vestiges of good education remain, such as Stockholm’s highly selective Södra Latin, which in addition to English and Latin offers a choice between French, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Spanish and German, as well as a basic course in linguistics – but, significantly, no Greek, a language which large parts of Europe’s educated elite knew from Homer to the early twentieth century and which is central to Europe’s history, culture, science, technology and religion – and indeed to Islamic history, culture, science and religion.
But if parents want their kids to get that kind of education, they have to be well-informed and, often, well-off enough, to get them into the right kind of school.
The Internet and social media have shattered the near monopoly of the established – and “establishment” – outlets and now ensure that the antithesis of the mid-1960s liberal/leftist thesis has a voice which reaches tens of millions of people across the West.
It is anyone’s guess what shape the new synthesis will take.