Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Soaring Rhetoric

“Let me be blunt-Pakistan’s pants are on fire.” Congressman Gary Ackerman (D) New York.


I heard the above quote on the way to work today. My first thought was that Congressman Ackerman had caught the entire population (or government) of Pakistan in a big lie, “liar, liar….” and this was his cute way of reporting it. But no, turns out he was just sounding an alarm against the Taliban. While not as eloquent, or as understandable as Paul Revere’s concise, “The British are coming”, I suppose that most people will eventually figure out what the congressman means.


Is this what rhetoric is coming to in the land of the free ? Silly allusions to childish playground taunts. No wonder we are no longer respected around the globe. Can you imagine what the  Pakistanis thought about this statement after it was translated ? “Our pants are on fire ?” That is helpful support to a troubled ally. Remember when Churchill rushed over to Washington after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to show solidarity by speaking to Congress ? “What kind of a people do they think we are ? “ he thundered. He did not look that joint session of the House and Senate in their collective eyes and announce in that great Churchillian rumble, “Gentlemen….your pants are on fire.” Remember the great letter from the Alamo, authored by the sainted Colonel William B. Travis in which he wrote to “The people of Texas and all Americans in the world” ? “I am besieged” he began “by a thousand or more Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual bombardment and cannonade for twenty four hours and have not lost a man.”Would 20% of all public schools in Texas be named “Travis” today if he had beseeched, “Ladies and Gentlemen, our pants are on fire.”? What if Lincoln had said that at Gettysburg ? King, at the Selma Bridge ? Words make a difference.


When e-mail was introduced, there was some thought that the elegant art of letter writing would come back, in an electronic form. But in stepped text messaging with its BFF and LOL and all of the other abbreviations I do not understand. Then along came this Twitter thing which resembles nothing so much as people sending Morse code out into space hoping someone will pick it up, although nothing said is worth being picked up. I hope Ackerman tweeted his statement yesterday. The world puts a premium on brevity, primarily because most of us are much more interested in what we have to say than in hearing from others.  Then when we do say something, we are too lazy to say it in any other than the shortest possible way. For all I know, Ackerman’s statement is even now being broadcast around the world as,” Pakistan  P.O.F.” Well, I say Ackerman, P.O.S.


Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps I am out of step. Perhaps the next time I see Ackerman’s statement it will be In Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations under Ackeman,Gary, along with all of his other pithy statements. I hope  not, brevity for its own sake is as great a sin as loquaciousness ever is. Of course Ackerman’s statement is not just brief, it is stupid. The only possible conclusion you can draw from such a statement is that Ackerman is a stupid, stupid man. In this political system of ours, he will probably go far.



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