The death of discourse

December 10, 1990|By Stephen Vicchio

Testimony is like an arrow shot from a long bow; its force depends on the strength of the hand that draws it. But argument is like an arrow from a cross bow, which has equal force no matter who draws it. - Robert Boyle

Lately I have had a number of rather heated political conversations with myself in the privacy of my own head. Sometimes I talk outloud to find out what it is I am thinking. It's like a small boy turning his pockets inside out to see exactly what is in them. One begins to find all sorts of musings - personal property that somehow remained unaccounted for in the general neural inventory.

I happened on one of the pieces this morning while rummaging through a collection of half-thoughts. It's an odd conviction - one that I have not yet uttered, and so it remains something that can be put back where it came from if necessary. The conviction is this: Political debate in America is no longer like a hard-fought tennis match, where one returns the opponent's best serve and then hopes for the best.

In this country, political discussion has come more to resemble a round of golf, where one goes on hitting the ball until all the holes are played. Political debate has been replaced by a series of well-orchestrated anecdotes accompanied by saber-rattling where it is deemed appropriate by media manipulators.

There is a genuine dearth of political discourse in American public life. I have noticed this lately while listening to George Bush explain exactly why we are in Saudi Arabia. Daniel Schorr, James Reston and others recently have pointed out that Bush seems to be attempting to be all things to all people - and so he's not really enough of anything to be a something.

Bush reminds me of the description in Rilke's "Notebooks" of those people who change faces with such rapidity that they very quickly run out of personae and thus have to walk around with what he calls the "no-face" showing through.

Why is it that we can't have reasoned political debate - not just about the Middle East, but about abortion, capital punishment or a tax increase? Why is it that so few people seem to notice?

Bush's political rhetoric doesn't make him very presidential. He looks more like a man trying on a variety of ties in his dressing room to see how the rest of us will think he looks. If Rilke's protean characters disappoint us, we can always put down the book. But how do we do that with the president, particularly if he has been skillfully created to reflect all of our disparate images of him?

This lack of real substance is not something peculiar to our commander-in-chief. A few weeks ago Richard B. Cheney, the secretary of defense, told the assembled troops in Saudi Arabia that we are there "to defend American values." Somewhat later, while Bush was attending the first anniversary of Czechoslovakia's velvet revolution, he declared: "Fundamental freedoms are threatened by the crisis in the Persian Gulf."

Between these two events, the Saudi government announced passage of a law prohibiting women, native or foreign, from driving automobiles in the desert kingdom.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His new collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," will be published in the spring.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.