Beware Inspiration

From a review of William Gavin’s book Speechwright:

Gavin became [Nixon’s] speechwriter … [and] came to share [his] suspicion of stirring, soaring speechifying and his preference, instead, for what Gavin calls “working rhetoric” — plain, forceful, purposeful prose. Words that bear down instead of lift up. “The desire to be inspired,” Gavin writes in “Speechwright,” “to be uplifted, to be made to feel deeply, to be swept away, and thrilled is the mark of jaded citizens who have forgotten that the major goal of political rhetoric should be to make good arguments, clearly and honestly.” For Gavin, the original sin had been committed by John Kennedy, whose inaugural address begat “the modern cult of thrill-talk.” That speech was “magnificent,” Gavin allows, “but it wasn’t true, because it wasn’t achievable.” (more)

The reviewer disagrees:

He is mostly right that politicians should “stop trying to get us to stand up and cheer” and “start persuading us to sit down and think.” But … the basic purpose of political rhetoric is to “move men to action or alliance.” … Yes, “thrill-talk,” as Gavin insists, often gives wings to “impossible dream[s]” and “inevitable disappointment.” But the words that excite us are also the words that can change us — words that stretch our national sense of self, that make us believe we really can end Jim Crow and win a war and put a man on the moon. Not every dream is an impossible one.

Yes, inspiring idealistic far-mode talk can motivate cooperative and idealistic acts in ways that realistic near-mode desire, fear, practicality, etc. talk cannot. But know that you will let yourself believe more lies and impossibilities in that mode. You may coordinate to take more actions, but actions that are more likely than you think to be useless or even harmful.

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