The D.R.I.V.E.L. Awards: In praise of ordinary Americans, and their common sentience

You know how we wind up publishing Vital Speeches? By reading and rejecting lots of D.R.I.V.E.L.: Disingenuous Rhetoric, Imbecilic Vagaries and Enraging Language.

Sometimes that D.R.I.V.E.L. shouldn’t see the light of day. Occasionally, though, it’s mirth-making or instructive or both.

Take this bit from a speech whose speaker I will conceal, because we don’t want to publicly humiliate people who are good enough to submit their speeches for our consideration.

The speaker is a former politician, and he told a story about a debate from early in his career, in which the moderator had asked him why he wanted to run for office.

I was ready. I said that in ancient Greek times Aristotle had said that “if a man would move the world, he must first move himself.” I said that I wanted to be an instrument for change and that I would appreciate the votes of those present to allow me that privilege.

In turn, each candidate addressed the question in his own way. Throughout, I noticed an interesting expression on the incumbent’s face. When it came time for him to respond—and he was the last to respond—he looked straight at me and took dead aim and said: “I don’t know very much about Aristotle. But I do know Miss Susie Smith. I saw her on the street corner last week in Loris. She told me: “the price of gas is too high. Unemployment is too high. Inflation is too high. The price of food is getting higher.’” Miss Susie had made it plain that she was upset with the direction the country was going. The incumbent continued, “I want to do what I can to help Miss Susie and to get the price of gas under control and bring unemployment and inflation down. That’s why I am running.”

Well, I never again quoted Aristotle in a campaign speech. And what is so sad, I found out later that it was not even Aristotle who said “if a man would move the world, he must first move himself.” It was Socrates.

That experience some 30 years ago had an profound effect on how I view politics. I vowed that day that I was not ever going … ever … let a political opponent get away with alleging that I was not listening to good common sense, street corner solutions in politics. That no matter what Aristotle or Socrates said, I was committed to the view that good political solutions more often than not come from the wisdom and experience of ordinary people on the street corner, and the common sense they bring to the forefront in public debate.

Even aside from the bone-tiredness of this elderly saw, there’s trouble with this characterization of “the wisdom and experience of ordinary people.” What’s so wise about Miss Susie? How much common sense do you need to have to notice that stuff costs more and people are out of work. “Common sentience” is really all Miss Susie can claim.

From politicians of every stripe, I’m offended, and I think most people are, by the very term “ordinary Americans,” and the characterization of us as helpless people who know only, when it comes right down to it, whether or not we are “hurting.”

In any case, when a politician praises the common sense (or the courage or the work ethic or the generosity) of Americans, wait for evidence that the pol actually believes it. Or does he or she see us all as a bunch of Miss Susies, standing on the street corner, noticing the gas prices are going up, and wondering why. —DM

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