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By Vel Nirtist July 06, 2009

“Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will…”

– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book Tree, Chapter X, “The Voice of Saruman”

It has always been assumed that we humans are rational creatures, and can therefore be swayed only by a rational argument — that is, an argument firmly rooted in facts, utilizing solid logic to link those facts to the conclusion. And I think this is still the case. Rhetoric, oratory, and demagoguery — these dramatic tricks of presentation — will carry you only so far, but will cost you and your enthusiasts dearly if the facts you are relying on in your well-crafted speeches are not really facts, or if logic is lost in the gorgeous flow of words. Hitler — an orator second to none, but given too much to seeing differences amongst human “races” where there were none — caused Germany plenty of grief.

Today, the best political orations come out of the change-bent America. Our president keeps the world, and a huge number of Americans, enthralled by his superb oratorical skills. His address to the Moslems sent more than one writer of newspaper editorials to swoon in sweet ecstasy; his pronouncements explaining America’s strategic inaction vis-à-vis Iranians battling their clerical overlords, or regarding the threat from the North Korea, are being lauded by the press as precious examples of thoughtful statesmanship, of wise self-restraint.

But are Obama’s pronouncements indeed solid pieces of political wisdom, or just tricks of a glib tongue? Does he see better and farther the rest of us, or is his leadership but a case of the blind leading the blind? Is he a first-rate statesman, or a mere top-class demagogue?

The link between words “Obama” and “demagoguery” popped in my mind in a rather round-about way, while reading the recent news item called “Report: U.S. to block Iran sanctions at G8 summit”. The title sounded more than a little counter-intuitive, not to say bizarre, given our previous experience of the US being in the vanguard of attempts to slow down Iran’s drive toward the bomb, and appealing to other nations to implement sanctions. America found but little support from the likes of Austria and Germany who were too eager to grow their economy by trading with Iran to notice that that very same trade supports Iran’s nuclear effort — which in the long run will turn against them.

So why the sudden role reversal? Why this change of heart on the part of the US administration? Why the decision to oppose the gradually emerging “general leaning [among G8 leaders] …toward sanctions”? Why putting a brake on the outburst of sanity from the previously reluctant allies? What is going on here? The article explained it thus:

“American officials expressed concern that a decision to enact harsh steps against Iran during the G8 meeting could badly hurt the prospect of Tehran agreeing to renew negotiations with the permanent Security Council members.”

Well, isn’t that the continuation of the policy of playing it safe in not vocally (or materially) supporting Iranian’s “election” protests? Remember Obama’s “strongest” reaction?

“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days… I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost…The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society.”

Being appalled by unjust actions and bearing witness to them are of course all fine and good and laudable — but are passive activities with rather limited practical outcome for those actually subjected to the actions being witnessed. Notorious Nuremberg Laws which deprived Jews of German citizenship and severely curtailed their rights were enacted in 1935, years before the enactment of the “final solution.” One suspects that at the time the world at large was dutifully “appalled and outraged” by them and that many leaders “condemned these unjust actions,” and “bore witness” to them. Yet those condemning and bearing witness did not help one bit in preventing sellout of Czechoslovakia and the start of World War II with its attending horrors of mass murder and the Holocaust. Iran’s mullahs are clearly as little deterred from proceeding as they wish by Obama’s words as were the Nazis back in 1935, and it is highly unlikely that Obama and his advisors are so lacking in common sense that they think otherwise. So, President’s reaction at its strongest was, deliberately, but a token one. Why?

The President himself provided an answer:

“The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for — those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States.”

In other words, Obama is so afraid that ayatollahs will present the protestors as American agents and thus whip up the hate of America, that he is perfectly willing to leave them to the gentle mercies of the regime. While fearing Iranian demagoguery, Obama employs the same tactic by demagoguing the Iran issue himself.

This piece of outright demagoguery is not the first foray by our President into the fine art of, as H. L. Mencken put it when describing a generic demagogue, “preach[ing] doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”

His celebrated address to the Moslem world (which was so much advertised in advance and so deeply infused with America’s desperate desire to get into good graces of Moslems that it may well have given the ayatollahs an idea that there was nothing to fear from America no matter what) was itself a grand piece of demagoguery, with all its hallmarks in place: inconvenient facts omitted, supporting facts blown out of proportion, friends disparaged, adversaries patted on the back, and the whole package couched in smoothly flowing words delivered in a steady, powerful, confident voice.

Or another, though related, sample of Obama’s skill in demagoguery: loudly lauding as “unbreakable” America’s ties to Israel while at the same time dismantling them by denying validity to understandings made with previous US administrations, both oral and written.

Of course, there might be plenty of perfectly rational and, from Obama’s perspective, sensible reasons why Iranian protestors are deserving of being deserted, or given not more than token support, grudgingly at that.

The most common theory is that he may have concluded that ayatollahs need the bomb only to protect their regime, so America’s promise that she is not seeking regime change would cause them to abandon that goal; that millions of human beings would be forever enslaved, is to him a sensible trade-off.

Or perhaps he sees no real difference between one candidate and the other, and therefore sees no reason to get involved in a quarrel between the thugs.

Or he does not believe that the “reformers” have enough power to succeed, and would be suppressed anyways.

Or, as a true multi-culturalist, he simply does not see individual freedom as something absolute, lacking which people aren’t really human, but sees it rather as a cultural phenomenon — while ok for America, it does not fit into Iranian “culture,” and so there is simply nothing wrong with ayatollahs’ suppressing it.

Likewise, the President may see solid realpolitik reasons for moving away from Israel and realigning America with Moslem regimes.

But whether it be Israel or Iran, he chooses not to state his actual reasons for his stated policy, sensing that doing so might well be politically disastrous to him. Unable to use rational argument, he has no choice but to “justify” his policies through demagoguery. Like Tolkien’s Saruman, Obama cannot be open about his views and goals. Like Saruman, to achieve his goals he has to rely only on the sweet persuasiveness of his voice.

Will Obama’s demagoguery succeed? For a time, perhaps, it will; but there are several reasons why demagoguery tends to fail in the long run. For one, demagoguery is a sign of weakness, betraying as it does the fact that the speaker lacks the real argument, and is forced to resort to less-than-respectable means of underhanded trickery. Secondly, it ultimately winds up either unmasking the speaker, or bringing the disaster to his followers. And thirdly, there are many whom it fails to convince in the first place. Anyone who read Lord of the Rings knows that Saruman’s seductive voice failed in convincing others to surrender to him — besides the smooth delivery, his words conveyed nothing that a rational being would accept as a solidly convincing argument; after a while, they were recognized for pure demagoguery that they were. And it can backfire in yet another way, by eroding trust. When Obama makes a speech on a subject in which I have no expertise whatsoever, be it the economy or the environment, how am I to know that he is not being a demagogue this time, too?

Many a regime had been fostered by demagoguery, be it Soviet Union or the Nazi Germany of the past, or today’s Iran or North Korea. If we are to deflate the deadly ambitions of such regimes, we should first unmask the falsehood of their ideologies by peeling off the smoothness of the words in which they are expressed. And looking beyond smooth words of our own leaders is a wholesome exercise, too. There will be no stopping the ayatollahs, the North Koreans, and their ilk if our own President is to keep coming up with mellifluously expressed, demagogic excuses for why America should passively stand by while they continue to carry on.

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