Obama’s rhetoric

My partner Paul Mirengoff has effectively defended Barack Obama against the charge of having falsely equated the Holocaust with the tribulations of Palestinian Arabs in his Cairo speech. Paul also defends Obama against the charge of having equated the cause of the old movement against American slavery (among other causes) with the cause of Palestinian Arab statehood.

In making his argument, Paul reads the relevant passages with the analytical rigor of a logician and lawyer. Reading them in this manner Paul explicates the passages fairly.

Obama’s speech, however, was first and foremost a speech rather than a text. It is a speech in which Obama practices the art of rhetoric. In rhetoric, the speaker’s effect on the audience is the primary consideration.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle teaches that a good speech necessarily draws on ethos (the speaker’s power of evincing a personal character which will make his speech credible), pathos (the speaker’s power of stirring the emotions of his audience) and logos (argument). Paul’s analysis focuses on logos to the exclusion of ethos and pathos.

Obama’s flattery of his Muslim audience with historical howlers cannot be understood apart from ethos and pathos. In part the flattery supports Obama’s declaration of the uncomfortable historical truth of the Holocaust. As rhetoric, Obama’s falsehoods give him the standing with his audience necessary to advance a painful truth.

One cannot understand a given passage without considering its effect upon the hearers. The topic sentences of the two paragraphs of the initial passage in issue read as follows:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.

While Obama does not himself explicitly equate the sufferings of the Jewish people with those of “the Palestinian people,” the structure of the passage does so for him. And this is of course how his intended audience would hear the words. Note as well how Obama includes Christians and excludes Jews from his definition of “the Palestinian people.” It is an exclusion that conflicts with history but that serves his rhetorical purposes.

The second passage, in which Obama urges nonviolent means on Palestinian Arabs while referring to American slavery is similarly fraught. A close reader (as opposed to hearer) might deduce that the explicit argument of the passage not only likens the historical causes of black freedom and Palestinian statehood, but that the implicit facts belie the explicit argument. A close reader might think of the American Civil War and draw the opposite lesson from the one Obama expressly urges. Here Obama’s ethos and pathos support a problematic logos.

PAUL adds: I lack the expertise to know how an Arab audience would hear Obama’s words. I suspect that, like an American audience, an Arab audience would hear in his words what it wants to hear and/or what serves its purposes to hear.


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