"Every form is accompanied by an inclination," St. Thomas Aquinas wrote. We hear a good deal today about how complex our lives have become, about the multifaceted possibilities of the emerging high-tech society. But the form of our public discourse tells a different story. Sequential arrangements of 60-second TV spots that pass for discussions of vital issues hardly bespeak a society that is learning to deal with complexity. Consider a few historical comparisons.
Probably the most splendid product of the art or oratory in the classical world was Demosthenes' speech "On the Crown." Much of what was actually spoken in the course of its presentation has been lost to us, but the incomplete text we have runs to 64 pages. The text of Edmund Burke's speech, "On Conciliation With the American Colonies," fills 50 pages, Webster's "Reply to Hayne," 46. Henry Clay introduced the compromise of 1850 by speaking for nearly six hours over two days. In the most famous American political debates, those between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, each man spoke for an hour and then each had a 30-minute rebuttal. One of their debates went on for more than seven hours.
What we call political "debates" these days tend to consist of 90 minutes fragmented into one- or two-minute ejaculations by anywhere from two to eight candidates. Thus the discourse of our leaders follows the form set by commercial television and is reduced to bite-sized pieces; brevity vanquishes wit. Do we believe, do even the journalists who stage these charades believe, that anyone could give a good argument for a complex public policy in 60 seconds? Of course, candidates do not even attempt to do so. Rather than giving us good reasons and sound evidence, they shamelessly engage in combat by cliche. And it is easy for them because even the most complex of public issues have been conveniently pre-packaged into facile simplifications by the evening news and its partner in crime, the public opinion poll.