Cornel West: Grand Opera

While I can still get a word in edgeways, allow me to introduce a word that has not previously cropped up in this blog. Ethos has elsewhere varied its meaning, but in classic rhetorical doctrine ethos refers to any attempt by a speaker to establish credentials to maximise his appeal with his audience. In Britain we saw a lot of it when Blair was Prime Minister, affecting blokey estuary vowels, dabbing an eye during one of his emetic grief-bites, that sort of thing.  It doesn’t have to consist of devious artifice: merely murmuring that you hold a doctorate in the subject under discussion classifies as ethos.

In November 2012 The Oxford Union held a debate with the motion, “This house would occupy Wall Street”. Speaking for the motion were Errol Damelin and Cornel West; against the motion were Anthony Fry and Daniel Hannan. I’m planning to cover all their speeches, beginning today with Cornel West, which may be slightly tough on the others because he takes a bit of following.

Now you know why I was at pains to explain ethos. This is ethos on legs. From the start he overwhelms the hall with gospel-preacher histrionics. We warm ourselves with the persuasion that this is the noble essence of the Occupy Wall Street movement, conveniently overlooking the implied patronising racism. Our camera cuts to his audience who are all smiles, including the opposing speakers.

Much of the time it is near impossible to discern actual sentences, but who cares! Magnificent sounding, ringing phrases ricochet from the anthem. No doubt you’ve heard of ‘dog-whistles’, those subtle, seemingly innocent words and phrases that subliminally resonate with the ‘right people’. Transmit the dog-whistles through a loud-hailer and you begin to get the idea here. A catalogue of lefty hate-bites, regardless of relevance, rings out to the whooping delight of the helpful innocents in the audience: Israeli occupation, drones, ‘our precious Palestinian brothers and sisters’, anti-Semitism (yes, honestly, who needs consistency when you are mainlining ethos!), homophobia (whaaat?), white supremacy, male supremacy, ecological catastrophe. It’s all there, in a magnificent masterpiece tapestry of non-sequitur. It sounds great, but children: don’t try this at home.

At 2:40 he invents a word – pigmentocratic. I think we’ve probably cracked the code.

To digress slightly in passing, at one point he has a side-swipe at Obama. “I love the Brother – I’m a Christian – but to engage in that kind of activity makes him a war-criminal with a Nobel Peace Prize.” The camera cuts to Anthony Fry who is shaking his head. That’s a mistake on Fry’s part. Attempting, when others are speaking, to make a tacit point in that way somehow weakens you. You see it on programmes like BBC Question Time  While novices on the panel are busy gurning, the pros sit impassively giving nothing away till it’s their turn to speak.

The speech is ten and a half minutes of Grand Opera; and it is exactly what the audience wants to hear.  Following and countering is a submission from Hannan (Christian name: Daniel – I shall rise above the tempting reference to the lions’ den). This blog has already identified him as a brilliant speaker, but how will he cope here? I previously described him as ‘smooth as a kitten’s wrist’: is that the quality he needs on this occasion? Tune in soon to learn the answers to these and other questions that you never thought to ask.

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