Obama’s magical tongue

May 27, 2008

When he first appeared as a potential candidate, my impression of Obama was positive. He seemed intelligent, competent, decisive and ready to work hard. But soon enough my opinion started to change and I wasn’t really sure why. Eventually I noticed that I couldn’t accuse him of pandering (which is about all Mrs. Clinton does) because he hadn’t said anything substantive at all. Yet he was making Democratic partisans weak at the knees in stage performances in which he managed to avoid saying anything. He has the magical tongue. Listen to him and you risk falling in love.

And I was reminded of a passage from Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun”, one of the most interesting books I read. This is from the first chapter in which Huxley is introducing the book’s central figure, Urbain Grandier.

The Good Fairy, who visits the cradles of the privileged, is often the Bad Fairy in a luminous disguise. She comes loaded with presents; but her bounty all too often, is fatal. To Urbain Grandier, for example, the Good Fairy had brought, along with solid talents, the most dazzling of all gifts, and the most dangerous – eloquence. Spoken by a good actor – and every great preacher, every successful advocate and politician is, among other things, a consummate actor – words can exercise an almost magical power over their hearers. Because of the essential irrationality of this power, even the best-intentioned of public speakers probably do more harm than good. When an orator, by the mere magic of words and a golden voice, persuades his audience of the rightness of a bad cause we are very properly shocked. We ought to feel the same dismay whenever we find the same irrelevant tricks being used to persuade people of the rightness of a good cause. The belief engendered may be desirable, but the grounds for it are intrinsically wrong, and those who use the devices of oratory for instilling even right beliefs are guilty of pandering to the least creditable elements in human nature. By exercising their disastrous gift of the gab, they deepen the quasi-hypnotic trance in which human beings live and from which it is the aim and purpose of all true philosophy, all genuinely spiritual religion to deliver them. Moreover, there cannot be effective oratory without over-simplification. But you cannot over-simplify without distorting the facts. Even when he is doing his best to tell the truth, the successful orator is ipso facto a liar. And most successful orators, it is hardly necessary to add, are not even trying to tell the truth; they are trying to evoke sympathy for their friends and antipathy for their opponents.

 

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One Response to “Obama’s magical tongue”

  1. Ben K said

    He does have a “magical tounge” but that is about it.

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