Monty Python and cultural commentary on American politics

Seesmic, the video microblogging site, has decided to move into political commentary — sort of. Well, really we should call it cultural commentary.

Seesmic did an interview with John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, during which they asked him his opinion of Sarah Palin. You don’t have to be a member of Seesmic to watch — they’ve posted it on Youtube. Cleese is not an acute political observer, and it’s clear that because he doesn’t agree with her politics he gives her no credit whatsoever. But this interview isn’t political commentary, it’s cultural commentary. By listening to Cleese in this interview you get a sense of what a skilled professional actor sees when he looks at an American politician. Here’s a transcript of the relevant portion of the interview:

“People watching her [Sarah Palin] on television, can they not see that she’s basically learned certain speeches? And she does them very well, she’s got a very good memory. But it’s like a nice-looking parrot. The parrot speaks beautifully, and kinda says ‘Aw, shucks,’ every now and again, but doesn’t really have any understanding of the meaning of the words it is producing, even though it’s producing them very accurately. And she’s been in these training sessions with Cheney’s pals, and she’s learned these speeches, and the extraordinary thing is that so many people are taken in by it.”

Once you remove the ad hominem bits and his obvious political bias, Cleese’s cultural critique of Palin is quite interesting. He’s basically saying that she’s very good at making her hearers feel that she knows what she’s talking about. But Cleese forgets that this is exactly what every politician does, and has been doing for thousands of years; this is simply the nature of political rhetoric, and has been at least since the time of Aristotle. Here’s some of what Aristotle has to say about political rhetoric:

“Since rhetoric exists to affect the giving of decisions — the hearers decide between one political speaker and another… — the orator must not only try to make the argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief; he must also make his own character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, into the right frame of mind. Particularly in political oratory, but also in lawsuits, it adds much to an orator’s influence that his own character should look right and that he should be thought to entertain the right feelings toward his hearers; and also that his hearers should be in the right frame of mind. That the orator’s own character should look right is particularly important in political speaking…. When people are feeling friendly and placable, they think one sort of thing; when they are feeling angry or hostile, they think either something totally different or the same thing with a different intensity….” [The Rhetoric, Bk. 2, ch. 1, 1377b21-1378a1, trans. Richard McKeon]

So a deepeer cultural commentary on contemporary American political discourse has to take into account that all the tricks used by today’s politicians are really thousands of years old. Political rhetoric is used to sway the emotions, in order to cause people to make decisions. Today politicians use mass meida to reach more people, but the basic principles remain the same. Reading through Aristotle’s Rhetoric has been making me calmer in this very stressful presidential election season — I can see that politics is not much different now than it was in ancient Greece.