american society, ruminations

Length and Strength

If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to try something. I’ll present the same argument three different ways. I hope that by the end, you’ll understand why.


The length of an argument is directly proportional to its strength.


Generally, the length of an argument is proportional to it’s strength. Barring excessively and pointlessly wordy arguments, five words are much less likely to convince than even fifty. Surely five words on taxation can energize those who already agree with you on the topic, but it’s much less likely to convince those that oppose you than is a thoroughly reasoned 500 words. There’s no denying that some may never be fully convinced, but they’re more likely to understand if they hear a thorough explanation than if they hear a sound bite.


I have this idea that the length of an argument is, generally speaking, directly proportional to it’s strength. That is: a long argument is far more likely to succeed in actually convincing someone to change their opinion than a short one. Now, having said that, I should add that not all arguments that are long will be strong. A long and rambling argument is a long and rambling argument. But given a roughly constant rhetorical strength and skill, a short quip is likely to leave the opposition in opposition.

Consider: “A woman has a right to privacy.” If you’re for a woman’s “right to choose” you’re probably convinced that that’s a good argument. But you won’t convince anyone standing outside an abortion clinic with a sign by such an argument. You may succeed, however, if you gave them a longer explanation about how you feel that a woman should be guaranteed a safe medical procedure when she feels it is necessary. And that you also hope that it’s rarely necessary. Surely a sudden conversion is unlikely, but I find it hard to believe that it wouldn’t be more likely.

So too with the argument for “higher taxes,” which the political left in most countries desires. Couched in those terms, it turns off everyone but the most ardent supporters. But expanded to explain all the good that those taxes would empower the government to do on behalf of its citizen, people would become more likely to accept the argument. Soon, they too might take to the streets shouting “higher taxes.” Again, they’re not likely to convince many that way, but they’ll learn.

Much of people dissatisfaction with the “sound biting” or all cultural and political arguments is because they understand the implicit logic of the relationship between length and strength. They understand that you’re much less likely to convince a person in a 30-second television commercial than in a 30-minute discussion. I think that implicit understanding should not only be illuminated, but expanded so that everyone will finally come to understand the argument.

politics, review

Review: Obama’s SC Victory Speech

In my younger years, I was given some advice that I’ve always taken quite seriously: Never have any heroes who remain above ground. And though that may sound like a claim that a person should only make heroes of sewer rats, subway conductors, and water sanitation engineers; it’s not. Depending on who you ask, it is either a realistic or pessimistic statement that all people still alive have the power to show themselves to have been untruthful. To fail. To disappoint.

And so I’m full of reservations about the positive feelings engendered by Mr. Obama’s soaring and hopeful speech. He’s shown himself to be vulnerable to the same cynical campaigning that his statements so often derides. He’s shown himself to be willing, sometimes, to take the easy potshots and low blows that he argues against so often.

I’m also worried about attempting to review one of his speeches. Whenever I write an unconventional review I feel like I’m (especially) out of my depth. My review of raking leaves, for example, feels novel but not particularly interesting. And then my review of Joshua James’s excellent album–album reviews aren’t unconventional, but I’ve made no habit of writing them–made it sound average at best.

And I also don’t want to support any politician explicitly. All politicians play a game that I find both fascinating and disgusting. They change things, but they often sacrifice principle to do so. And that’s got well defined positives and negatives.

Senator Obama’s oratory is truly breathtaking, and this speech is just one that I was able to watch and easily find a transcript. In my–admittedly short–political history no politician has spoken with such clarity. Such a hopeful vision. Whether or not he lives up to this vision in day-to-day life is an open question, but that his speeches can inspire those who agree with him is hard to doubt.

And Mr. Obama begins well. He skillfully weaves together his optimism and the political message he needs to make: that South Carolina was indicative of his power as a presidential candidate, not of his power as a black presidential candidate.

Well, tonight, the cynics who believed that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina.

After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates, and the most diverse coalition of Americans we’ve seen in a long, long time.

He goes on to list the elements of his coalition. And all of this is important for two reason. First, he’s making the point that not only does he have more delegates than Mrs. Clinton–he does, but they’re also “better”–whatever that is.

Secondly, this beginning is important because unlike Mrs. Clinton, he’s making the clear statement that this isn’t about him. Senator Clinton’s best known speech so far has been after her New Hampshire victory in which she said, “Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process found my own voice. … Let’s give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me.”

The jarring distinction, unveiled within the first few minutes is this: rhetorically Mr. Obama speaks of ideals, unity, and hope. Mrs. Clinton speaks of herself and her candidacy. And though both of the candidates clearly needed the victories at the time, you wouldn’t know it from a comparison. Senator Obama argues that his victory represents a comeback for his platform while Senator Clinton speaks as if it’s a comeback for herself.

This is not exactly a novel observation, but it’s an important one. People seem stunned by Mr. Obama’s skill, but the simple rhetorical device of saying “us” instead of “I” and “we” rather than “me” is a crucial part of his oratorical ability. By doing so he’s got a room of compatriots rather than supporters, a room of helpers rather than those that need to be helped.

Even in referring to himself, Mr. Obama doesn’t speak explicitly of himself or his campaign.

But here’s what I know. I know that when people say we can’t overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of the elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day – an envelope that had a money order for $3.01 along with a verse of scripture tucked inside. So don’t tell us change isn’t possible.

Certainly he knows things. He’s seen things. But what he’s seeing is the power of the people to whom he speaks.

But I also have to say that Mr. Obama–or his speech-writing team–has a way with words. And that’s what I’ll leave you with. The closing paragraphs of his speech last Saturday night were truly beautiful:

And as we leave this state with a new wind at our backs, and take this journey across the country we love with the message we’ve carried from the plains of Iowa to the hills of New Hampshire; from the Nevada desert to the South Carolina coast; the same message we had when we were up and when we were down – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope; and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people in three simple words:

Yes. We. Can.