Rhetoric reduced to ridicule as reality is rendered in a riddle

All editing is over. Speech, projected on new platforms, has become the newly authoritative medium, writes Gerard Howlin.

Rhetoric reduced to ridicule as reality is rendered in a riddle

Fact is the new fiction. There was nothing new, certainly nothing phenomenal, about Brexit. There is nothing in our ‘debate’ about not charging for water, as an absurd example, or Mick Wallace’s bill to allow for the termination of pregnancies in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities as a tragic one, that isn’t the equal of it.

They are all words unmoored from their meaning. It is meaning not as objective reality, but as a managerial truth. Facts are managed to fit conjectured realities. Where once words, in rhetoric, led to understanding, now rhetoric is the end, not the means. Words are intended to muster feelings. The sway of emotion has become the highest level of understanding.

The surfeit of words, seemingly the currency of democracy, in reality, is the exaggerated agency of the narcissistic. The ego of the orator, working its way through and building up the emotions of the audience, hasn’t replaced the rule of law, it has become it.

So with Brexit, so too with the seemingly likely passage of a bill that many of its supporters accept is unconstitutional. Some things, like the fate of continents and the proper care of women with pregnancies almost certain to end in loss, are beyond the care of due consideration. No, only words will do.

There is nothing essentially British about this phenomenon. Sadly, we are steeped in it. Rhetoric from antiquity was the art of inclining yourself and others towards higher values by discussion. It led to truth, not away from it. Rhetoric once, with grammar and logic, formed the three fundamental braches of learning.

The charge of ‘empty’ rhetoric of which the campaign for Brexit is only the latest example is centuries old. In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke, arguably the greatest Irish MP ever to sit in the House of Commons and certainly the equal of O’Connell and Parnell fatally punctured the connection. In the trial of Warren Hastings, whose East India Company, ran almost an entire subcontinent as a private fiefdom, whose trading company had in effect become a crime syndicate, was reputationally undone by Burke. Like our own tribunals, Hastings was not convicted.

On the eve of the French Revolution, however, Burke’s marshalling of the facts, left Hastings moral authority, looking like the masquerade it was.

This unmooring of rhetoric from belief, and the undoing of belief in authority, was long in the making as authority itself lost all conviction. The cataclysm of the French Revolution, amongst other acts of destruction, set upon ‘rhetoric’ especially as the tool of a corrupt ruling class. Plain speaking was the new fashion. Now, the speaker no longer faced upward to authority, but outwards.

The great mass of the people were the new audience. Daniel O’Connell’s monster meetings were stereotypes. But every genre has its moment of mutation. It was the arrival of cinema that allowed Hitler bring rhetoric into a new medium. There could have been no Third Reich, without the movies. In a sense, it was a movie. Its heroes were all invented. Their onscreen lives bore no relationship to their real personas. It was a world of invention that was disconcertingly real, but only while you were in front of the big screen, in the darkened cinema that was the Reich itself. Rhetoric made new realities. Facts became victims. Words became facts.

Things ebb and flow. One of the traditional criticisms of modern Irish political life I that it lacked great orators. James Dillon was supposedly an exception, but he predated television. Michael D Higgins could rise to the occasion, provided he was unencumbered by a script. His speeches are at their weakest, but maybe their most authentic, written down as lectures. But, pedestrianism, was the norm and remains so. What has changed, is the arrival of social media.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube are cinema and studio for everyone. Their power of projection is phenomenal, equalled only to their capacity and requirement to cannibalise context. The point, if it is to be made, must be instant. It travels distended, to vast audiences, or none. Regardless of its transient reach, it almost always ends in the oblivion of cyberspace. All editing is over. Speech, projected on new platforms, has become the newly authoritative medium. The waning influence of traditional forms of print, is both a symptom of and a tributary into the vast shallows, of our ever extending public discourse, which reaches beyond the horizon of responsibility.

Today the Chilcot Report is published in Britain. At its core will be consideration, of what truth was used by who for what. Tony Blair was masterful in his navigation, in the flat-bottomed boat of New Labour, which needed no ballast of ideas, and where all policy was a smorgasbord of metadata supplied by polling companies. Convicting him now at the bar of public opinion, will be a cruel irony. No modern leader, gave the people more of what they wanted, for longer, than he. On Iraq he made the fatal mistake of abandoning a lifetime as a chimera, to adopt Edmund Burke’s view that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

It is that Burkean combination of industry and judgement, which inevitable mistakes aside, make a reputation over time. After today Tony Blair may permanently lose his reputation, not for what he did wrong over Iraq but because having based an entire career on endlessly trimming, few are prepared to believe he finally stuck to any firm principle at all. The alleged realignment of facts, to suit words, in the end created reality in the Middle East which is a Frankenstein of the ideal, war was fought for. And now, that ideal, the export of democracy as a commodity, is no longer believed in by anyone. As we take up our ideas from an exponentially increasing supply, ever fewer, are found to be credible.

Next Wednesday Angela Keirns, formerly CEO of Rehab, begins her case in the High Court against the Public Accounts Committee and the Oireachtas. It will potentially be an immensely important judgement on the power of parliament, the rights of the citizen and requirement of TDs to employ both industry and judgement, simultaneously. Unquestionably there were issues of public concern relating to Rehab. What is at question before the court, is whether a powerful parliamentary committee used, or abused, its power in relation to a citizen.

A leading light on that committee then, was Shane Ross TD. Now he is a government minister who plans to support the Wallace bill on fatal foetal abnormalities the Attorney General has advised is unconstitutional. He made his name demanding, unsparing of those called before him, accountability for public money. If Ms Keirns wins her case, the capacity of the Dáil to investigate is potentially further fettered. If she is awarded damages, what currency will the political price be paid in? Words or deeds?

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