Let’s hear it for plain speakers

I think you’ll know what I mean by the “higher guff” – the kind of sonorous and empty talk which often issues from the mouths of heads of state and princes. I heard a classic example recently at a British media awards ceremony from the admirable Prince Felipe of Spain. He was being courteous and diplomatic, praising the links and similarities “between our two great countries”, once imperial powers and once sworn enemies. “We have so much in common,” he enthused; an ironic commentary came from my neighbour, a photographer with a wicked wit: “Yes,” said Michael, “we’re both in deep shit.” The prince can’t have heard this, because he went on: “Indeed, so many of your citizens decide to move to Spain.”

“Yep,” was the uncharitable response from Michael: “All the criminals.”

The rule is that the higher the language soars, unless you’re careful, the more it leaves itself open to attack from below. Shakespeare was the dramatist who knew this best, especially in the excruciating scene from Troilus and Cressida where Thersites provides a scabrous commentary on the seduction of Cressida by Diomedes. “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery” is his conclusion: the pretensions of the Trojan war reduced to an itch and a scratch.

President Barack Obama is, or has been, a fine orator; he seemed to have the knack of using language and imagery that were elevated and precise. But I fear that more and more he is showing a penchant for the higher guff.

The speech he gave last month to the members of both the Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall was widely praised. Obama’s delivery was masterly. But this is a man who could move an audience by reciting a train timetable.

The trouble was the content of the speech; not so much the unexceptionable and often eloquent thoughts on freedom and democracy as the worrying lack of connection with the reality on the ground – the reality that, as the FT’s own august economic commentator Martin Wolf pointed out last November, “western politics are moving towards plutocracy, or ... pluto-populism”.

The speech at Westminster was, admittedly, ceremonial: a diplomatic exercise in assuaging British sensitivities about the special, or essential, relationship with the US while showing that the world has moved on. Perhaps the higher guff is all you could expect in those circumstances. But Obama has shown signs of taking refuge in the higher guff when something more honest and less windy was required. (You may be interested to know that our English word guff is related to the Norwegian dialect word gufs, meaning puffs of wind).

In a courageous piece in the New Republic (May 5), the philosopher Jonathan Lear raised the question of honest speaking in the case of the detention of Private Bradley Manning, and the resigning of state department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who said, in response to a researcher during a talk at MIT in March, that the conditions of Manning’s detention were “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid”.

Lear’s philosophic antennae, not to mention his feelings as an American citizen, were alerted. It seemed that Crowley had been punished for parrhesia, as the ancient Greeks termed “the ability to speak one’s mind when doing so involves social risk”. This was striking because, as Lear put it, parrhesia “is rarely practised in American politics, and almost never practiced, at least on the record, by government spokesmen”. Of course, there was a chance that Crowley had just blurted his comments out, without thought for the consequences.

Lear went to Washington to interview Crowley and found that he had been well aware of what he was doing. His fateful act of parrhesia was rooted in his experience of the Vietnam war and the “loss of credibility” America had suffered in allowing too big a gap to grow between “what we were saying and what we were doing”.

When the researcher at MIT asked “why are we torturing Bradley Manning?”, although Crowley did not believe the treatment of Manning amounted to torture, he felt the question “merited an honest answer.”

By contrast, Lear reports that when Obama was asked about Manning’s detention, he replied in bureaucratese, as follows: “with respect to the detention of Private Manning, I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or nor the procedures that have been taken in terms of confinement are appropriate ... ”

We in Britain have just been celebrating the 90th birthday of a man once infamous for his rude remarks, who now seems treasured for them: the Queen’s consort Prince Philip. And last month at the Hay festival, I heard a man who has made a habit of parrhesia, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden-tracking unit, Michael Scheuer. Not everything Scheuer said, in a wide-ranging excoriation of US Middle-East policy, was convincing; al-Qaeda may be in a stronger position now than before 9/11, but I wanted to ask Scheuer what evidence he had that extreme Bin Laden-ite ideology was winning the battle of hearts and minds in Arabia and beyond.

All the same, it was refreshing to hear someone speaking his mind and eschewing the higher guff, and alarming to note that the reward for honest speaking, in our great democracies, appears to be immediate defenestration.


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