The Politician’s Speech (1)

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the US Congress. His performance, while not worthy of an Academy Award, does seem to deserve whatever is the topmost prize in the world of political chicanery.

Watching the speech on C-SPAN, I experienced a wide range of feelings, including (in no particular order) surprise, amusement, pity, distress, rage, disappointment, hopelessness, and exasperation. Most importantly, I felt a sense of clarity and understanding that bordered on enlightenment. I felt inspired, almost compelled, to say something meaningful in response to that speech.

Not being a political analyst, I will attempt to approach Netanyahu’s speech as I would any other piece of literature. Most people understand that poetic and religious texts do not disclose their full significance if they are taken superficially or literally; I would like to suggest that this insight is applicable to political texts as well, but for different reasons. As George Orwell taught us, political language is intended to conceal rather than reveal. When it comes to interpreting persuasive texts, such as political speeches or advertisements, a little hermeneutic of suspicion can go a long way in exposing what the text is seeking to hide. My hope in this venture is that such deconstructive activity will at least be a cathartic experience, even if it doesn’t accomplish anything else.

One more point. In his lengthy treatise titled “Rhetoric,” Aristotle had said that the art of persuasion relies on three main elements: ethos, pathos, and logos. Even a basic understanding of these elements can make us perceptive interpreters of political messages as well as commercial advertisements. Ethos deals with presenting one’s character to the audience for the purpose of establishing one’s credibility. Pathos deals with influencing the audience by appealing to their emotions. Finally, logos has to do with constructing arguments through cogent reasoning. All three elements are present in Netanyahu’s speech, though we are likely to find a greater emphasis on pathos than logos.

Let’s turn to our text.

Netanyahu began his speech by establishing himself as an old and trusted acquaintance. He spoke with the confident assurance of a man who knows that everyone in his audience is already, and whole-heartedly, on his side. The persona he adopted was meant to convey warmth and friendliness. Notice how quickly he took care of the ethos part of his speech.

Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time that we were the new kids in town? (Laughter, applause.) And I do see a lot of old friends here, and I see a lot of new friends of Israel here as well — Democrats and Republicans alike. (Applause.)

Later in his speech Netanyahu will use the word “nostalgia” and say that he “came to Washington 30 years ago as a young diplomat.” References like these are typically intended to establish one’s credentials, to show one’s inside connections, or to convey the sense that one is not really a stranger. Notice how Netanyahu places himself and the Vice President in the same category by using a typical American expression “the new kids in town.” More broadly, this use of the pronoun “we” should be appreciated as a rhetorical device to reinforce the tacit understanding between the speaker and his audience that both of them are on the same side of the fence. As Netanyahu will later elaborate, “our side” has certain unique characteristics that distinguish it sharply from “their side.”

Netanyahu’s reference to “Democrats and Republicans alike” is quite significant. As he will suggest once again in his speech, Democrats and Republicans hardly ever agree on anything; yet, these bitter ideological and political rivals are completely united in being “friends of Israel.” Throughout the speech, he will assume and emphasize a connection between certain values (democracy, freedom, and peace) and a specific policy (support for Israel) that transcends petty divisions. It is this connection that will eventually emerge as the defining feature of “our side.”

Moving on.

Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel. (Applause.)

In the first four sentences, Netanyahu has already used the word “friend” four times. This is obviously one of the keywords in our text, since the speaker uses it so often. The word “friend” appears a total of nine times in Tuesday’s speech; it is meant to evoke feelings of mutual goodwill between the speaker and the audience, but without giving any impression of blatant manipulation.

Notice that Netanyahu prefers the word “friend” (which has a warm glow of affection, informality, and congeniality) over words that may reveal the economic and political motives behind the US-Israel relationship: words like patron and client, business partners, or strategic allies. Of course, Netanyahu will be somewhat reluctant to use language that actually corresponds with reality: words like abettor, accessory, accomplice, co-conspirator, partner in crime, etc.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the following four denotations for the word “friend”: (a) one attached to another by affection or esteem: acquaintance; (b) one that is not hostile: one that is of the same nation, party, or group; (c) one that favors or support something; and (d) a favored champion. The first definition (a) is the most widely understood meaning of the word, but it applies to the relationship between two individuals, rather than two nations. Regarding the second meaning (b), while the United States is not hostile to Israel, most other nations of the world can also legitimately claim that status. This leaves us with the last two meanings, (c) and (d). We may conclude, then, that Netanyahu is employing “friend” in the sense of a supporter and a champion.

Consider now the connotations of the word “friend,” with particular reference to its third and fourth meanings. When we hear or see the word “friends” — as in “Friends of the Chicago Public Library” or “Friends of the Dolphins” — we assume that the persons being referred to are sincerely championing a policy or supporting a cause, on the basis of nothing but their own values. We make this assumption mainly because of the subconscious influence coming from the positive connotations surrounding the word “friend.”  In a rhetorical situation where the word “friend” is repeatedly mentioned, these positive feelings may be expected to keep at bay any doubts or suspicions that we may otherwise entertain.  In effect, our attention is diverted away from any consideration of ulterior or mundane motives, vested interests, or less-than-noble aims. We do not think that the support in question may have been given in exchange for money, privileges, and other advantages, nor do we think that deception, coercion, and threats, either explicit or implicit, may have encouraged certain persons to act in a “friendly” manner.

Referring back to Aristotle, it is easy to notice that Netanyahu’s repeated use of the word “friend” falls in the category of pathos. This can be seen rather clearly in the sentence quoted above: “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no above better friend than Israel.” Notice that this sentence is completely free of any rational argument; no evidence is needed, and none is given. What purpose does this sentence fulfill? It doesn’t convey any information; it doesn’t offer any promises; it doesn’t ask the audience to do anything. It is uttered, rather, for its sentimental value. The sentence is poetic because of its symmetrical construction, and this is precisely what makes its emotional appeal so effective.  It sets the mood and defines the context in the speaker’s favor. It’s classic pathos.

If we remain conscious of how the connotations of certain words and the internal rhythms of certain sentences influence our feelings, then we may be able to see much more in a political message than merely its shiny surface. As a typical politician, Netanyahu uses the word “friend” in order to obscure, rather than reveal, the true nature of the relationship in question. He uses this word to portray the self-serving relationship between a few key players in the Israeli and American centers of power as if it were a sincere and affectionate relationship between the ordinary people of these countries. Perhaps most importantly, this rhetorical strategy serves to mask the tremendous diversity of American and Israeli opinions by projecting an illusion of consensus and unanimity.

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