“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” — Matthew 7:10 -11
I watched a bit of the first national debate of the campaign season online between the four party leaders and candidates for the Prime Minister’s job a couple of nights ago — Justin Trudeau for the Liberals, Elizabeth May for the Greens, Tom Mulcair for the New Democrats, and Stephan Harper for the Conservative Party. For a student of communications, these debates are usually less interesting for what they say than what they don’t say, and more interesting for the public responses they generate than the actual content of the debates themselves.
Naturally, these debating formats are quite limiting. Candidates are far more interested in avoiding “stepping on mines” than in taking the risk of saying something actually meaningful and substantial. Consequently, a lot of cleverness and ingenuity is expended in making sure that as little as meaningful is stated but with a maximum number of words. Almost invariably, the prize in the pundits’ eyes goes to the candidate who uttered the greatest volume of words, but avoided “stepping on any mines”.
From the dialogical perspective, this is quite hilarious, almost Swiftian in its absurdity. And yet it is also a tragedy of great significance; quite fateful. A winner is declared by the public or the judges according to whether the candidates merely survived the debate by saying nothing whatsoever, but thereby avoided stepping on any mines. There seems to be no other objective criteria for assessing performance in the debates than that.
I watched the debates online at The Guardian website. Afterwards, The Guardian declared the Green Party candidate, Elizabeth May, the “winner”, followed closely by the Tom Mulcair of the NDP. Of course, other news outlets thought differently according to their own bias, and each crowned their preferred candidate with the laurels of victory for no other reason, it seems, than because they appeared to step on the least number of mines.
All in all, it reminded me of that Biblical verse I cited above — people ask for bread, but are given a stone; ask for fish, but are given a snake.
After the debate, and after The Guardian declared Elizabeth May the “winner”, I commented that the reason May seems so often to impress the public and the judges is not owing so much to what she says but the fact that she comes across as the most sincere. Surprisingly, a lot of people agreed with me. May always performs well in these debates, and is recognised as performing well, because of her sincerity. For that reason, too, she is generally recognised as being the most effective Parliamentarian as well.
The responses to these debates by the public and the pundits are usually more illuminating and educational than anything that is said in the debates. Stephen Harper retained his composure and “looked prime ministerial”, says one pundit. Another says “he looked rattled”. What matters are the appearances and semblances, whereas the real question is, is not whether he “looks prime ministerial” in the debates, but whether he is a statesman. The answer to that is “no”. I think the only man who thinks Stephen Harper is a true “statesman” is Benjamin Netanyahu, and that obviously for quite self-interested reasons.
The word “sincerity”, if you recall, is most likely derived from the Latin sin + caries — against or without decay. That gives a clue to its real significance. Insincerity is decadence. Cynicism is a form of insincerity. And if insincerity is a disease of speech, lip-service, which is cynical speech, is a form of decadence. Decadence, in turn, is an aspect of nihilism.
Our ears these days are hungry for sincerity, and they aren’t finding the nourishment they need in the contemporary political discourse. Politics instead has become something of a bloodsport. “Risk-takers” are praised, and no more so than by those who assiduously avoid risking themselves by truly investing themselves in the words they speak. The obverse of the coin of the “Age of Pretense” and of “faking it” is the crisis of credibility.
As Rosenstock-Huessy put it, the corrective for the disease of decadence is new inspiration. Inspiration is revitalisation, rejuvenation, revivification, regeneration, resurrection from the dead. Inspiration is what creates a future. It has survival value. Where are the hungry ears today finding new inspiration?
I find it pretty significant that the classical Trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic was dismissed as being the “trivial” by the the agents of the mental-rational consciousness. The real function of the Trivium was to frame the art and science of inspiration. In other words, it was really a science of sincerity. That was even the original use of the word “technology”. The “logos” of the “techne“, or reasoning about means or media or “the Art” as the word techne signifies, was originally used to describe grammatical speech — how to put together words and grammatical forms to represent “eternal truth” with high fidelity. The ecclesiastical and theological interest in “the resurrection” went hand in hand with the need for continuous re-inspiration of society, and especially of a society that was struggling to emerge from a Dark Age.
I think it is pretty meaningful that the first real inspired and inspiring voice to emerge from the Dark Age was that of the Troubadors of Provence. The historian W.P. Ker, in his book The Dark Ages, even named the first Troubador — William of Pitou, who came to notice in 1100 a.d. “Singing the world awake”, as it were. The Troubadors were, indeed, food for hungry ears. The cover of Ker’s Mentor book edition itself is kind of interesting in that respect, for it shows a monk seated at his lectern transcribing the Bible, apparently, into an illustrated manuscript, but right next to him is a lyre.
If so many today are concerned about the danger of a new Dark Age, it has a lot to do with this lack of new inspiration and of the search for new inspiration that they aren’t finding in the decayed discourses of politics and religion, or State and Church. That probably accounts for the popularity of these “self-help” books, which are often a poor substitute. The grafitti on the walls that reads “No Future. No Hope” really means “No inspiration”, and has very little to do with economics or with the promise of “jobs, jobs, jobs”. Where are the hungry ears to find this new inspiration that alone makes “future” possible at all?