Gellman: Resisting the Seduction of Eloquence

Last week I began my discussion about what the election ought to teach us about us. I raised the issue of how this election is a teachable moment for all of us to reflect on the ways we disguise our bigotry against minorities, women and people of a certain age.
This week I want to point out a second challenge raised by this election. I want you to think about the moral and spiritual significance of eloquence. What I worry about is our natural but troubling inclination to be swayed by words alone. We are in a word-drunk season again, and yet we have a chance to do something spiritually and morally and silently wise. We have a chance to stop and think not about how the words made us feel but what the words really mean.

The seductions of eloquence cut us in several ways. Eloquence seduces us to forget what we already know to be true. When I was in college and I left a particularly eloquent professor's classroom, I was his acolyte immediately. I felt somehow obligated by his eloquence to agree with everything he said. Only later did I realize that his arguments were fatally weakened and skewed by his ideology, but when I first heard him speak, I could hardly breathe from excitement. In this election, on both sides, you may be convinced to agree with a speech just because it is well crafted. Please take a beat and think about whether what you are being told so well about the world and our problems is actually true.

Another seduction of eloquence is that it moves us to buy what we do not need. I remember as a kid in Milwaukee listening mouth agape to the hawkers selling vegetable slicers at the Wisconsin State Fair. Their slick and seductive verbal and physical dexterity left both a pile of veggies and my capacity to reason in perfectly shredded piles. I bought one of their vegetable slicers and almost sliced off my finger. In this election, we will also be sold a bill of goods from both sides. However, in the shredded verbal piles will also be buried things we need to make us safe secure and prosperous. Our job is to sift through the shredded piles of words and find something we really need to eat.

Our moral challenge is to vote for trust and not just eloquence; to vote for good program ideas not just good words; to consider the answers the candidates give to the questions asked of them and not just the slick way they reframe and dodge the answers. Please understand this is a universal political caution against all the candidates in this race. I believe that all of them possess in different but equal measure great and seductive eloquence. Particularly after Sarah Palin's universally praised speech it is laughably false to say that Barak Obama is the only great speechifier in this race. With each and every candidate, the spiritual and moral and political challenge facing all of us in the months ahead is to look beyond our heavy breathing and applause and quietly ask ourselves whether their message we just heard actually seems to be true. Otherwise the loser in this election will again be the truth.

In all this I am thinking about Moses. Moses' first response to God's call to him to go down to Egypt and lead the people to freedom is to beg off because he was not sufficiently eloquent,

Later, after his first of many failures to convince the people that the insecurity of freedom was superior to the security of slavery, he again appeals to God to let him off the hook because of his disability.

In Hebrew, the phrase translated as "uncircumcised lips" is aral sfataim. It is not clear what this means; he may have had a cleft palate or perhaps he was a stutterer. Whatever the nature of his disability, two things stand out: 1.) Moses was not an eloquent speaker, and 2.) God chose him anyway.

Because eloquence is seductive does not mean eloquence is always misleading. Sometimes, as with Lincoln and Churchill, FDR and the Kennedys and King, we see leadership and eloquence perfectly and powerfully conjoined. However, there were also great leaders like Truman and Eisenhower who led brilliantly without the asset of a golden tongue. And there was Moses, who probably would not have polled well. He had imperfect lips attached to a perfect heart. Unfortunately Moses is not on the ballot this year.

Just remember that in making your choice about the presidency or about who to date or what car to buy or which infomercial will convince you to surrender your credit-card number, that you might want to first reflect on just how easy it is for a slick talker to convince you to do something just because he or she speaks really well.

Thus fortified against the seductions of eloquence, you can enjoy their patter, smile and say to yourself, "No thanks. I already have a knife to slice my tomatoes."

And then you can get on with the sober and quiet thinking that alone will keep democracy alive.