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The Rhetoric Garage

At the Rhetoric Garage, we put current political and cultural texts up on the lift and check them out with a variety of rhetorical tools and discourse diagnostics. And don't forget to have your ethos changed and your tropes rotated every 30,000 words!

Last Build Date: Wed, 04 Oct 2017 10:54:52 +0000


Friedman parody

Thu, 15 Nov 2012 15:55:00 +0000

 Friedman parody:For better and for worse, the United States in Iraq performed the geopolitical equivalent of fathering a child – that we are also the mother of.  That is, we inserted ourselves into Iraq thinking we were screwing Saddam, shooting our troops into him like so many camo-clad spermatozoa.  Rather than using our own iron fist on ourselves, we initiated coitus with a multisectarian regime, and we didn’t pull out. So, when the inevitable explosion followed, we assumed this would give birth to a new order that would shoot a flamethrower of freedom that would enflame our new child into a beacon of hope for the region.  But Saddam was not who we were having relations with.  He was more like our deadbeat cousin who gives us a brittle, expired condom from his wallet and tells us “good luck” when we head out on a date. So we hoped against hope that it would contain the explosion.   Except the condom was made of barbed wire.  So it didn’t contain anything.  Plus, it hurt when we put it on.  And the straining relations among Shiite-Sunni communities made it hurt more.  And when we fully penetrated what we thought was Saddam’s Iraq, it hurt still more.  And that’s when we realized that, with the Arab world filming the proceedings to show to the rest of the globe on the internet, we had sr screwed ourselves. [...]

Sat, 22 Aug 2009 17:21:00 +0000

And Now, for Something Not So Completely Different

Mon, 27 Aug 2007 03:12:00 +0000

Hi all,

Sorry for my unpardonable silence of late. For a number of reasons, I've been lax in keeping up with the blog over the summer. Here are some of them:

  • I started the blog a bit too shortly after the fall of He Who Shall Not Be Named--I needed more of a rest!
  • I had filled my plate over the summer with a number of other writing projects that had higher priority (rightly or wrongly).
  • This current blog reminded me a bit too much of your typical, run-on-the-mill political bitch and moan blog, of which there are already way too many.
  • A related point: my desire to link my academic interests in rhetoric with popular political commentary wasn't quite working in the context of this blog--at least not to the extent I hoped.
  • I was growing weary of Blogger. It's a great program, but I was wanting to get a bit more sophisticated in my knowledge of website/blog stuff, and needed some time to get up to speed on what else was out there and how to use it.
The good news (at least from my point of view) is that I've resolved these issues to my satisfaction, and am launching the blog that this blog had aspired to be, but didn't quite make.

So, for your future reading pleasure (I hope), I direct you to the newly created (and still slightly under construction) Unfrozen Caveman Rhetorician.

You can read more about it in the "About" section on the website. My hope is that it will be a nicer blog in a number of ways, particularly as I get up to speed on some of the additional features and options I have on a blog hosted on my own domain and using Wordpress.

Don't look for daily postings--probably a couple a week. But I hope to attract enough folks willing to chip in with comments, arguments, retorts, etc., to keep it a place of ongoing conversation.

Oh, and as for He Who Shall Not Be Named, he might be inching his way out from under the rock he's been hiding beneath. As a visitor here noted, he has published columns in the conservative mag Human Events on the budgeting process (basically a recycled rehash of a some stale "Point" commentaries) and (wait for it!) the Fairness Doctrine ! BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

While you're enjoying a chuckle over that, you'll also be amused to hear that he also popped up recently as an interview subject in a story posted on the right-wing news site

The topic of the story? Editorial political bias in the news media! BARHARHARHARHAR!!

Needless to say, if my scar starts burning, HWSNBN will be dealt with over at my new digs at UCR, and if, God forbid, the campaign season lures him out into the light of day, we'll take The Counterpoint out of mothballs and break him over our rhetorical knee.

Until that dark, and hopefully never-to-be-seen, day, I hope you visit UCR. Bring fire!


O'Reilly Upended by Rhetorical Judo

Mon, 04 Jun 2007 20:39:00 +0000


Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly used formidable one-two combination of name-calling and straw man argumentation when he suggested that the man who traveled to Europe after being diagnosed with TB was acting in line with “secular progressive” values. According to O’Reilly, secular progressives "put themselves above all others. That philosophy says, 'Me first, then I'll worry about you,'" while "traditional-values people put others on a par with themselves."

Who “secular progressives” are isn’t clear. It’s simply a term O’Reilly means to be pejorative (name-calling). The way to make it pejorative is to associate it with yucky things, such as selfishness. So O’Reilly constructs a fictional entity called “secular progressives” who hold the beliefs he attributes to them (the classic "straw man" fallacy).

Not only does this allow him to turn a specific incident in to a commentary on a huge group of people whose politics he disagrees with (something we’ve seen plenty of recently, most notably with the Virginia Tech shootings), but it helps solidify the bogeyman of the “secular progressive,” making it a more potent name to call perceived enemies in the future.

There are two possible lines of critique/response one could offer to this attack. The simplest is to argue directly against O’Reilly’s assertions and say that people who identify themselves as secular and/or progressive don’t hold the positions O’Reilly attributes to them.

A more effective way might be to flow with O’Reilly’s attack and ask him (and those who buy his argument) to identify the “secular progressives” he’s talking about. Certainly any thinking person is against people recklessly endangering others—let’s identify those who aren’t so that we can appropriately respond to them.

My suspicion is that this would result in lots of hemming and hawing without a lot of specifics. Should O’Reilly or his ideological playmates name the groups who are most often associated with “secular progressive” politics (feminists, environmentalists, people in favor of multi-culturalism, people against institutionalized prayer in schools, etc.), it’s easy enough to say, “But wait, these are groups that conservatives usually criticize for paying undo attention to social ‘rights’ at the expense of individual freedom. Doesn’t this contradict the premise of your comments about the guy with TB?”

In fact, one can easily turn O’Reilly’s attack back on him by granting his premise: it’s bad to put individual desires ahead of the collective good. Fine. After chastising Mr. TB, perhaps we should continue by going after heads of corporations who pollute the environment to make a bigger profit. Maybe we need to go after people who insist they have a sacred right to own semi-automatic weapons despite the fact that guns kill thousands of Americans every year. Let’s attack those who want tax cuts for themselves at the cost of astronomical debt for future generations. Let’s go after those who oppose universal health care. And the list can go on an on and on.

Rhetorically, it’s often best to simply grant the premise of an argument and ask the one making the argument to follow it through. When the argument is as dopey as what we see from O’Reilly, the attack trips over its own feet without getting into a battle of accusations.

War. What Is It Good For?

Mon, 21 May 2007 19:50:00 +0000

War. What is it good for?Well, it makes a good metaphor to deploy if you want to maintain even slight support for your foreign policy.Plenty of people have noted that the “war on terror” is a metaphor that the Bush administration wants to take literally. What’s even more interesting to me, though, is the way the conflict in Iraq is framed (to use George Lakoff’s term) using the metaphor of “war.”I’ve mentioned previously that what’s going on in Iraq is not so much a war as a disastrous occupation. But “war” is the word that is used to describe it, not only by the administration, but by people across the board, including those adamantly opposed to Bush’s Iraq policy.From a rhetorical point of view, the important thing is to think about what using that term means. It’s not an arbitrary word choice—it affects how we think about what’s going on.Tabling for the moment whether what’s happening in Iraq meets the dictionary definition of “war,” and if so, whether the U.S. forces are actually fighting this war or are caught in the middle of it, let’s think about what the term “war” connotes.First, obviously, is the notion of winners and losers. The administration, and a surprising number of its critics, talk about withdrawal from Iraq as “losing the war.” We will be “defeated” by the “enemy.”As long as withdrawal is understood within this frame, it will be a hard policy to sell to the American people, despite the overwhelming disapproval of Bush’s policies and the desire to bring the troops home. Given our national mythos as “winners,” Americans will have a hard time stomaching something that is labeled as defeat in a war. There are even those who refuse to admit that the Vietnam War was “lost” (I’m flashing on Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda getting apoplectic when John Cleese brings up the subject).In our collective national mythology, my sense is that “war” as a concept is intertwined with World War II—the war that made the U.S. a superpower; that was fought by the “greatest generation,” that defeated the unabashed evils of fascism and genocidal racism. It was the “good” war.It is the war that, more than any other, defines us as global “winners.”When our attitudes about war are so shaped by triumphalism, total victory of total evil, and ticker tape parades, it’s understandable that once a situation is couched in terms of war, anything less than that disturbs us. It runs counter to our collective narrative of ourselves—our self image as a nation.The Bush administration has won a rhetorical victory by getting everyone—politicians, the press, the activists—to use “war” as the frame through which we see Iraq. It makes any efforts to question or end the administration’s policies doubly difficult.The administration’s ability to win such a victory (and the willingness of so many to acquiesce to it) is surprising if only because the situation on the ground doesn’t have much in common with what “war” means. The “insurgency” (another term that’s rhetorically effective given the way it creates a falsely monolithic “enemy”) is a collection of groups that spend at least as much time killing one another as they do Americans. In fact, most of the losses in the Iraq war are Iraqis. It’s a low grade civil war in which U.S. troops are ineffectual peacemakers.Unlike Vietnam or Korea, in which the U.S. had a firm alliance with one side in a civil war against another, we truly don’t have a dog in the Iraq fight. We have occupied the country, and that occupation—for any number of reasons—has allowed conflict to erupt among groups within Iraq. That conflict might be a war, but it’s not a war in which we are on one side or the other.It’s probably too late to pull this off, but what those who want change in our Iraq policy should do is point out the obvious: that to the extent the U.S. was in a “war[...]

Talking Heads Tilted Right

Wed, 16 May 2007 16:26:00 +0000

Sorry for my absence—the end of the semester, as it usually does, has swallowed most of my free time of late.

Just a brief observation about the public sphere as it’s now enacted through the media: have you noticed that between dinner and bedtime, you can actually find it difficult to find anything like “news” on the 24 hour cable networks? Moreover, what you get instead (commentary) is heavily weighted to the conservative side of things.

On any given weeknight, channel surfing CNN, Headline News, MSNBC, and FOX, you’ll come across former GOP Representative Joe Scarborough holding forth for an hour. Flip the channel, and you get the risible Glenn Beck. Bow ties your thing? You’ve got an hour of Tucker Carlson you can watch. Want the semblance of balance without actually wanting to deal with the real McCoy? You’ve got Hannity and Colmes (or, as Al Franken more accurately terms it, Hannity and Colmes). Fiscal conservatism and anti-immigrant rhetoric float your boat? Lou Dobbs trades in little else on his nightly show. For that matter, so does Brit Hume. And, of course, you’ve got “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly inhabiting the center of the conservative babbleverse.

On the liberal side you’ve got . . . Keith Olbermann? I like K.O., but his show is hardly equal time.

All this would be bad enough if it wasn’t for the continual opining by conservatives of their alleged marginalization in the media. Recently, Glenn Beck complained that as a white Christian male, he’s overlooked and ignored in society. The fact that he complained about this on his very own national television show didn’t seem to trip is irony alarm. Nor did the fact that every other talking head on the news networks is also a white Christian male. Apparently in Beck’s universe, African American Buddhist lesbians in wheelchairs are setting the public agenda rather than people like him.

The usual reply I hear in response to this point is that O’Reilly, Beck, etc., are 1) commentators, not news reporters, and 2) are only a drop in the bucket compared to the huge number of liberals that man the news desks of the mainstream media.

To the first point, I simply say, “Yes, exactly so!” The problem is precisely that time that could be spent doing journalism (involving things like, you know, investigating and reporting) is squandered with the airing of half-assed bloviating by folks whose only area of expertise is their own opinions. And on top of that, it largely reflects only one half of the political spectrum (making it, I suppose, quarter-assed bloviating).

As to the second, I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how Katie Couric is somehow Trotsky in drag or how Dan Rather’s reporting, as flawed as it might have been, on the truth of Bush’s National Guard service (or lack thereof) somehow proves a systematic liberal bias, yet the fact that the mainstream media passed on unsubstantiated (an often demonstrably false) claims by the Bush administration about Iraq’s WMD programs (or lack thereof) to the public, paving the way for the invasion, doesn’t mean anything.

Are We Becoming "Little Horowitzes?"

Wed, 02 May 2007 20:22:00 +0000

Apologies if this seems like shameless double-dipping, but the following entry is cross posted from a posting on a communications studies discussion board to which I belong. After I wrote it, I realized it would also be appropriate for this blog as well. The discussion is about Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who wrote, just after 9/11, that those who were killed could be considered "little Eichmanns." A committee at Colorado found some problems with plagiarism and uncited sources in some of Churchill's earlier work. The debate is essentially on whether academics should support Churchill under the aegis of defending academic freedom or shun him as a violator of academic principles and therefore someone we should wash our hands of. That should be enough context to follow the post below. Just one more thing: I make reference to a previous post mentioning that the committee at UC used an analogy of a police officer stopping a car for speeding because it had a bumper sticker he/she found offensive. The analogy is meant to explain the committee's view that even though Churchill's case has received attention primarily because of right wing talking heads who dislike his politics, this has no bearing on the fact that his academic misconduct, while unrelated, is real.I’m basically agnostic on the Ward Churchill issue (or, if you prefer, wishy-washy). I don’t know his scholarship first hand, nor have I read the Colorado committee’s report on him in anything other than tiny excerpted chunks. I have a decidedly negative gut-level reaction to both Churchill (whose “little Eichmans” comment was insipid and cruel and who is charged with academic violations that, if true, are reprehensible) and many of his detractors, such as David Horowitz (who evidently doesn’t bother to write much of the contents of the books he slaps his name on, and who strikes me as the embodiment of the sort of anti-intellectualism that does a disservice to all of higher education).However, I think the issue (as well as the discussion here) raises some interesting communication-related issues.Specifically, to what extent does context matter in evaluating a rhetorical act (in this case, the “speech act” of dismissing Mr. Churchill from his academic post)?Mr. Bytwerk cites the analogy given by the Colorado committee of the police officer who pulls over a motorist for speeding because he/she is offended by a bumper sticker on the car. As Mr. Bytwerk notes himself, this is not a great analogy, but it suggests a parallel analogy that gets at my point.Imagine a racist Anglo police officer sees a car with an African American driver and pulls the car over simply to intimidate and harass the driver. In doing so, the officer discovers some violation (expired license, open container, or whatever). Is it legal and/or ethical to prosecute the driver on a violation discovered through an unlawful search?The truth is that this happens all the time, but the Constitution provides protection (at least in theory) to citizens from being targeted by authorities for reasons unconnected to a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.The analogy is, as Mr. Bytwerk notes of the original version crafted by the Colorado committee, not great. For one, it’s using law enforcement as an analogy for academic “policing.” But the racist cop analogy is better than the original in at least one respect. My understanding (and I certainly admit I could be mistaken) is that Mr. Churchill’s scholarship has been taken to task as the result of his controversial (and, in my opinion, idiotic) political comments. Only after becoming a lightning rod did people start going through his scholarship from the past to find cases of academic/intellectual misconduct. In the speeding motorist/bumper sticker example, the violation and the political speech are perceived at the same time. In the racist police officer examp[...]

Rush Limbaugh, Part Duh

Fri, 27 Apr 2007 18:40:00 +0000

As a follow up on yesterday's post, it's worth noting that Rush Limbaugh continues to spin his wheels concerning his assertion that Seung-Hui Cho "had to have been a liberal."

Yesterday, we saw that he tried to write it off as a joke and/or an experiment on how liberals (e.g., Media Matters for America) take things "out of context."

The problem with that explanation is A) MMFA quoted him in context, providing a transcript an audio version of his remarks, and B) Limbaugh said that he really believed what he said.

Yesterday, he repeated the idea that he was simply "baiting" MMFA. As we noted yesterday, however, the motivation behind his comments are immaterial insofar as they are offensive no matter what the context is.

Limbaugh went further by saying that MMFA (and others) should learn to "stop being baited when I am baiting you."

He also claimed that "everyone who listens to me agrees with what I said, so where's the controvesy?"

Such shabby argument barely warrants a response, but just for giggles, let's point out that this argument is akin to saying to an African American "You should learn to stop being baited when I call you a n****r" or saying that as long as David Duke is speaking to a rally of fellow clansmen (even if it's in the public sphere, as is the case with anything broadcast on the citizen-owned airwaves), no one should object to his racist rantings.


Your Momma!

Thu, 26 Apr 2007 17:32:00 +0000

Your momma is so dumb, it takes her two hours to watch “60 minutes!”Laughing? Probably not. It might be because the joke isn’t all that clever. But it also might be that even though I don’t know your momma, saying something demeaning about her, even when it’s intended as “humor,” is insulting and hurtful.That’s the whole point behind “The Dozens”—particularly “You momma is so . . .” jokes. It makes no difference if you know the joke teller has never met your mother; just commenting on her appearance, intelligence, or sexual proclivities is enough make you burn.Why is that, and what does it have to do with Rush Limbaugh? (And no, I won’t go into a litany of “Your right-wing demagogue radio host is so fat . . . “ jokes.)I suggest it’s because words do things. Words are actions, not passive containers of “truth.” If they were, “Your momma” jokes would be meaningless. If you told me, “Ted, your momma is so fat, when she jumped up in the air, the bitch got stuck,” I’d simply reply, “Actually, that isn’t the case, even on a metaphorical level. My mother was always of approximately average weight for a female of her height and age.”But since words do things, I’d probably take a swing at you. Not because what you said was or wasn’t true, but because you had violated a basic standard of decency.In our post-Imus phase of public discourse, that’s important to keep in mind. How many times have you heard public figures (or people you know, for that matter) write off an inappropriate comment by saying “it was just a joke?”There are cases when this defense is appropriate, particularly if the hearers didn’t understand that it was meant as a joke. If correctly understanding the statement hinges on recognizing the humor (such as in irony or satire), explaining the humorous intent can clear things up.But in the case of Imus and “your momma” jokes, this isn’t the case. Everyone knows the intent is to say something amusing (at least from the point of view of the speaker). The animosity doesn’t come from misunderstanding the intent, but from the words themselves.This takes us to Rush Limbaugh, one of the practicing masters of the unfunny joke. On a recent broadcast, Limbaugh said that Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, “must’ve been a liberal,” citing Cho’s paranoid ramblings about the evils of a hedonistic culture and wealthy fellow students.After saying “a liberal committed this act,” Limbaugh attempts to defuse any counterattack by anticipating it:Now, the drive-bys will read on a website that I'm attacking liberalism bycomparing this guy to them. That's exactly what they do every day, ladies andgentlemen. I'm just pointing out a fact. I am making no extrapolation; I'm justpointing it out.Of course, extrapolation is precisely what he’s doing, but let’s let that slide. The more important rhetorical move Limbaugh makes here is to deny he’s doing precisely what he’s doing by preemptively predicting he’ll be called out for it. By anticipating the predictable criticism he’s in for, Limbaugh wants his audience to write it off because, after all, the media is simply doing exactly what Rush said they would (as if the predictability of the response somehow invalidates it).But Limbaugh goes even further with an unintentionally hilarious defense of his comment after Media Matters for America posted a transcript of his initial comments linking the Virginia Tech massacre to liberalism.Claiming he had intended to reveal how willing liberals in general, and MMFA in particular, to take conservatives out of context, Limbaugh said that MMFA had fallen for his ploy “hook, line, and sinker.” He doesn’t say in what way MMFA took him “out of context,” although the clear implication is that he wasn’t being se[...]

Rhetoric on the Radio

Mon, 23 Apr 2007 15:47:00 +0000


On NPR this weekend, the show "American Weekend" had a story on the tactics of political rhetoric, complete with specific examples of rhetorical figures from American political speeches and discussing the origins of rhetoric in ancient Athens. You can listen to the show online. The webpage also has links to some rhetoric-related websites, including one that illustrates a large number of rhetorical figures through audio examples from American political speeches.

It's worth a listen.

Some questions:

What do you think about the characterization of ancient Athens in the piece, particularly in its alleged difference from contemporary America vis-a-vis rhetoric?

Republican pollster and spinmeister Frank Luntz is interviewed in the piece. Is what he does "rhetoric?" If so, is it good rhetoric? Bad rhetoric? Good rhetoric used for bad purposes?

At times, it seemed to me the piece suggested that "rhetoric" as it was defined in this context is a practice of putting style before substance and persuading people in at least as semi-underhanded way. How do you think rhetoric came across in this piece?

Dissemination of a Failure

Fri, 20 Apr 2007 18:02:00 +0000

This post is a failure.Perhaps more accurately, it’s a description of a failure.At first, I didn’t think there would be much to say about the horror at Virginia Tech from a communication/rhetorical perspective. Perhaps down the line, some sort of analysis of the media coverate might be interesting and important. Already, some have discussed how new forms of media like Facebook and Myspace played a role in disseminating information during and after the murders. But nothing substantive came to my mind.As the week has worn on, though, certain bits and pieces suggest that ideas of communication, and its limitations play a role.I’ve tried to formulate coherent thoughts on this, but I’ve failed. I’ve started this post in a number of ways, and deleted them all. All I have are fragments of ideas, loose threads that I can’t tie up, at least not yet.If I was able to, I’d want to say something about how the killer’s, Cho Seung-hui’s, unwillingness or inability to communicate played a role in the tragedy. If one believes the scraps of reporting that people have put together on him, he didn’t speak much even as a child.Classmates, roommates, and teachers all describe attempting to enter into dialog with him, only to be met by silence.When asked to write his name, he wrote a question mark.He majored in English, wrote plays, and used instant messaging, but rarely spoke directly to anyone.A roommate described getting called on his cellphone by him, who insisted on referring to himself as “Question Mark.” While on the phone, the roommate tracked him down in a dorm lounge. When faced with a physical presence, Cho denied that he had been talking to his roommate on the phone at all.If I had the ability, I’d say something about all of this, suggesting something about Cho’s relationship to communication and what it might say about what he did.I’d say something about how the plays he wrote for class (made available on the internet—itself an ironic communication-related event), as execrable as they are in all sorts of ways, both turn on the malignant use of the spoken word—the ways language can be used to misrepresent the truth to attack or punish someone.I’d note that the description of Cho turns him into an odd, malignant version of Bartleby from Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Bartleby, a copyist for a financial company, refuses to take direction from his employer, simply saying “I prefer not to” to any request. His apparent lack of life (he actually sleeps at the office) and unwillingness to express himself in any meaningful way makes him an object of both frustration and pity to his employer, who remains helpless to get Bartleby to engage with him, or anyone else, in even the most rudimentary ways.Cho seems to have caused similar feelings in those around him. They attempted to engage with him, help him, understand him, but were ignored. Unwilling or unable to participate in dialog, he became a cipher, an absence of meaning. Yet, unlike Bartleby, his refusal to engage in dialog turned into an act of unspeakable violence, turning Bartleby’s “I prefer not” with the ultimate “You will not.” Rather than simply keeping his silence, he silenced others.I’d try to use this comparison to make some sort of sense of things, but I can’t.Bartleby brings to mind a work by one of my mentors, John Durham Peters, who notes in his wonderfully humane work on communication theory, Speaking Into the Air, that Bartleby represents the way in which imagining communication in terms of dialog is limited. To engage someone in dialog, you implicitly make a demand of them that they return the favor. It is an exchange. Bartley is unwilling or unable to participate in this exchange.Peters suggests “dissemination” is a better mod[...]

Britain Ditches "War" Talk

Thu, 19 Apr 2007 17:10:00 +0000

In a story related to my last post, international development secretary Hilary Benn of Britain made a speech a couple of days ago criticizing the use of the phrase "war on terror."

Why Even Pacifists Love "War"

Thu, 19 Apr 2007 16:54:00 +0000

I remember when I was a kid, I had hundreds and hundreds of toy soldiers. A whole ice chest full of them. Not to mention all the tanks, trucks, halftracks, artillery pieces, etc. I loved setting up elaborate battles in which these plastic figures would die again and again and again.Why did I do this? I suppose I could say that I had always been interested in history, and this was one way of “playing” at history.But on the other hand, I didn’t use plastic figures to recreate the Constitutional Convention or the completion of the transcontinental railroad. It was war I played at.Always war.Why?There’s an answer to this question, but, in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’d like to approach it from a rhetorical point of view.Much like my 8-year-old self, George W. Bush likes to play at war, too. He certainly likes talking about it. In Monday's statement about the Iraq “War” Supplemental spending bill, he surrounded himself with veterans and their families. He also used the word “war” 14 times in a statement about 1900 words long. If you’re scoring at home, that means that between one-half and a full one percent of the words he uttered were “war.”Bush uses this word to refer to the situation in Iraq. Apparently, he means it literally. Or at least he wants us to take it literally.The truth is that what’s going on in Iraq is not war, at least not one that we’re fighting. The president also loves to talk about “victory” and “defeat” (he used the latter word seven times in his statement). But any war, any military victory or defeat, happened long ago. The Iraqi army was defeated. The enemy capital was occupied.If we waived the technicality that, legally, only Congress can declare war, we might have reason to call the invasion of Iraq a “war.” Nevertheless, the we must grant that this war ended years ago.What we have now is an occupation. An ugly one at that. What’s loosely termed “the insurgency” (as if it is some monolithic enemy, like “The Empire”) is actually a hodgepodge of factions, tribes, and paramilitary groups fighting one another more than the U.S.Since one of the few things these folks agree on is that America shouldn’t be occupying their country, they kill our men and women in uniform when they have a chance, but their true animosity is for one another.But leave it to our president to condense an incredibly complex situation and the U.S. role in it into a single simple concept, no matter how distorting it might be: "war." You don’t need to admit that the situation in Iraq is a disaster to see that “war” has become a metaphor. It’s literal applicability is long gone.And just as I ask why I spent hours and hours setting up my little plastic soldiers only to knock them down with a marble, I ask why does the president fixate on this term?There are lots of possible answers. But the storyline I’d like to follow begins with psychoanalytic textual criticism.Yeah, I know what you’re probably thinking: going all Freudian is just going to be talking about how cruise missiles look like phalluses and that Bush wanted to topple Hussein because it would be a symbolic way of killing Poppy, since he secretly longs to sexually possess Babs.But that’s just a caricature of how psychoanalytic criticism works (not to say there aren’t plenty of serious-minded folks who actually use this cartoonish version of it). Psychoanalytic criticism provides us with much more nuance than this.The particular concept I’d like to use to have a better understanding of how and why the president insists on the “war” metaphor is “condensation.”Condensation refers to the tendency to symbolically reduce a complex series of concepts and relationships into som[...]

The Duke Lacrosse Case: An Idelogical Critique

Thu, 12 Apr 2007 20:33:00 +0000

The decision yesterday to drop all charges against the three Duke lacrosse players accused (at least initially) of raping a woman who was performing as an exotic dancer at a team party has brought up one of the ongoing questions in my mind about this case: why did this issue become politicized in the way it did?In this post, I offer one take on this question through the use of ideological criticism.Ideological rhetorical criticism focuses on the ways power is created, maintained, used, and abused in society, and the ways in which language is used in these processes. Such critical approaches would include feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial criticism, although ideological criticism need not fall into any of these categories.Part of the role of the ideological critic is to use criticism to advance a social or political cause through questioning and investigating how language is used by power structures to conceal and maintain themselves. In other words, ideological critics tend to wear their policial hearts on their sleeve.Sounds good to me.One of the odd things about the discourse surrounding the Duke Lacrosse case that struck me early on was the extent to which conservative public voices came to the defense of the accused. Over a year ago, Rush Limbaugh referred to the alleged victim as (wait for it) a “ho,” adding:I just, I'm looking at this case down there at Duke, [caller], and it's --there's some things about it, some inconsistencies. You've got some timelinedifferentiations and matriculations and, and so forth.Several months ago, Glenn Beck referred to what was happening to the accused as a “lynching without the rope.” With the announcement that all charges were dropped, many conservative voices in the blogosphere spoke almost jubilantly about this as if it were a political victory, and added to this personal attacks on the alleged victim.Posting a photo of the accuser, the blog “Insignificant Thoughts” opined:Make sure you make note of the woman in the picture. You’ll never see her again.She’ll never be questioned. She’ll never be criticized. We’ll never hear fromher again. She wasted more than a year with her lies and almost destroyed threeinnocent lives. I seriously doubt anyone will press charges, and we’ll now besubjected to numerous lectures on how this lying piece of garbage being calledout for what she is will stop women who really are victims of sexual assaultsfrom coming forward, the assumption being that if these three guys wereconvicted, innocent or not, we’d be better off.The sentiment was similar over at “SisterToldjah”:I’m hoping that the three accused players will sue the state and/or Mike Nifongfor the hardships they’ve suffered since being falsely accused and made out tobe guilty by Nifong himself in the early days of the ‘investigation.’ Becauseit’s my feeling that in this case, justice has not been served - for the realvictims here: the three lacrosse players, whose names were dragged through themud thanks to a lying stripper and a deceptive attorney who wanted to getre-elected even if it meant ruining three young lives in the process.And at “Betsy’s Page,” the accused were lauded for their character:We often mouth aphorisms about learning from adversity, but these three youngmen have really demonstrated that they have indeed done so. Sadly, I expect thatwe won't see any such demonstration of character from all those in the media andamong those in academia, particularly at Duke University itself, for their rush to judgment. A distressingly large number of professors at the university acted as if the players were guilty simply because an accusation had been made and the accuserwas a poor black woman and th[...]

Semiotic Clouds

Tue, 10 Apr 2007 17:28:00 +0000

A guy by the name of Juri Lotman, an early film theorist, came up with the idea of the “semiotic aura.” Like many academic terms, it’s a fancy word for something we all have a sense of already from our own experience, but gives it a specific name.“Semiotic aura” refers to the way in which actors who appear in movies bring their “persona” from previous roles to each new movie they appear in. That is, even if Sylvester Stallone appears in a film adaptation of Krapp’s Last Tape, he still brings with him associations the audience has of him as Rocky (and Rambo, etc.) and these will color the meaning of his performance in the new movie, no matter what he does.The “semiotic aura” is something basically of the actor’s own creation, given choices of roles and performances. I think there’s something here that applies to Don Imus that helps explain both why he’s popular and why his most recent excursion into racist rhetoric has drawn the attention and ire it has.But in the case of Imus, his public persona isn’t entirely a creation of himself. Rather, it owes a lot to other people’s willingness to be publicly associated with him and to lend their own cache to him.I suggest the term “semiotic cloud” as a reference to those persons and organizations that, in their association with a particular speaker, color our perception of what she or he says. While a speaker can still play a role in creating this cloud, the power ultimately rests with the people who choose to remain in it. If they don’t, it’s a cloud that can dissipate quickly.And, for reasons unclear to me, Imus has a bonafide cumulonimbus of a semiotic cloud, regularly schmoozing with high profile politicos and journalists, whose willingness to appear on his show bestows on him a degree of gravitas he wouldn’t enjoy otherwise. Lord knows his scintillating wit and insight doesn’t merit much attention on its own.I haven’t made it through more than five minutes of listening/watching Imus. The coquettish relationship he, and his collaborators on his show, have with out-and-out racism (and misogyny, and homophobia, etc.) aside, I just find his program incredibly dull. It’s a downer. He’s a curmudgeon without any real wit or insight to leaven his negativity. Even the humor is largely aimed at coming up with the most demeaning and vitriolic things to say about whoever comes up in conversation.Imus’s show is thanatos to Howard Stern’s jouissance.But, unlike Stern, who’s guest couch is usually chockablock with one-legged strippers and D-list celebs, the “I-man” still lands big-name guests.To outrageously mix metaphors, though, this semiotic cloud is a two-edged sword. While it gives Imus a certain gravitas (isn’t he actually in the Broadcasting Hall of Fame?), it also holds him up to a higher standard. Would anyone blink if Stern had talked about “nappy headed ho’s?”I don’t know if what Imus said about the Rutgers women’s basketball team was qualitatively worse than many of the other things that have been said by him and his cohosts. Perhaps the outcry over this most recent bit of hatefulness is sort of like Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award for The Departed—it’s more of a recognition of his lifetime achievement in the field than a response to the particular episode.And like Scorsese’s Oscar, it’s long overdue.Which is part of why I find it so disturbing that otherwise thoughtful, decent people continue to appear on his program and, worse yet, defend him even after this latest ugliness. I mean, for crying out loud, even Tom Oliphant claimed “solidarity” (yes, he used that word) with Imus just yesterday! Say it ain’t so!And he’[...]


Thu, 05 Apr 2007 19:55:00 +0000

There must be a word for it.There must be a technical term for a figure of speech that violates the very precept on which it’s based. Irony is sort of close, but that’s when the speaker knowingly says something at odds with the intended meaning. I’m looking for something that’s done without knowing it.Hypocrisy is closer, but it’s a bit too broad. It refers to saying something that’s at odds with what the speaker does, thinks, or says in other circumstances. What I’m talking about is when the very statement is at odds with itself.Paradox sort of captures it, but not quite. It suggests more of a puzzling quandary than a straightforward violation of a statement’s own content.With the litany of Greek-based terms for rhetorical figures, you’d think that there’d be one that would label this phenomenon clearly. Perhaps there is, but I’m not aware of it.Maybe one could be invented. To dust off my knowledge of Greek, maybe it would be called something like “autoparabaistis”— which would translate to something like “self violation” or “self transgression.”Or maybe we could simply call such phrases examples of “Limbaughtomy.” It has a Greek ring to it, and the similarities with “lobotomy” add a nice touch.This question came up after seeing reports of a recent example of such self-violation by Rush Limbaugh.Commenting on the recent announcement by John and Elizabeth Edwards that her cancer has returned and that they still plan to go ahead with the presidential campaign, Limbaugh vomited forth the following:Political people are different than you and I. And, you know, most people whentold a family member's been diagnosed with the kind of cancer ElizabethEdwards has, they turn to God. The Edwards turned to the campaign. Theirreligion is politics and the quest for the White House. Normally, taking Limbaugh's banal rhetoric apart would be beneath the dignity of this website, but the ugliness of this particular remark deserves a riposte. So, let the flensing begin. It’s bad enough that Limbaugh accuses the Edwards, people I assume he doesn’t know personally, of unspeakable crassness, but in doing so, Limbaugh commits the very crassness he accuses them of: using a personal tragedy for political purposes. To paraphrase Limbaugh, most people, when told that someone has incurable cancer, show compassion; Rush showed malignance (play on words intended). Putting political point-scoring (and relatively meaningless point-scoring at that) ahead of basic decency, Limbaugh attacked people he doesn’t know as Godless power-grubbers, and he does so for no other reason than the pleasure of doing it. This kind of vituperative rhetoric is, dare I say it, an addiction for El Rushbo.It would be nice to simply write him off, as Keith Olbermann does, as a “comedian.” But to many millions of Americans, he’s not a comedian—he’s their primary connection to the public sphere.Yet how do even Limbaugh’s fans not recognize the inherent idiocy of politicizing a woman’s cancer by attacking her and her husband of politicizing it?The answer, I suppose, lies in the question itself: they’re Rush Limbaugh fans.Some issues to discuss:Do you think Limbaugh actually believes what he’s saying, or is this truly empty political rhetoric for its own sake?To any Limbaugh listeners, do *you* really believe what Limbaugh said?Disregarding the morally bankrupt and logically self-destructing comments of Limbaugh, to what extent does Elizabeth Edwards’s diagnosis affect what can and can’t be said of John Edwards?[...]

The Past Is Gone . . . But Is It Forgotten?

Wed, 04 Apr 2007 02:58:00 +0000

In the space of just a few hundred words during his latest remarks to the press, Bush used the word “sober” twice. Such fondness for this adjective calls to mind certain peccadilloes of the president’s past that might help explain his problems with remembering time.If there’s anything the president didn’t want to call to his audience’s attention during his remarks about the Congressional Iraq spending legislation, it’s the past—with the obvious exception of September 11, 2001, which was mentioned twice. The president’s remarks revolve around the present and future alone (a future in which, according to him, the stingy “Democrat [sic] party” will undermine the troops by cutting money from the troops—never mind that the bill gives plenty of money to the military, with the caveat that there be some plan for getting them the hell out of Iraq in the foreseeable future).Why should this be the case? I think the answer lies with one of the favored rhetorical techniques of this administration—one that only works if the pesky past is ignored: projecting one’s own faults onto others and attacking them (a process rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called “scapegoating”).Burke suggested people often do this in a way of dealing with their inner tensions and conflicts. With the president, I doubt any deep psychodrama is getting plaid out. It’s politics, plain and simple.Notice that Bush accuses Democrats in Congress of putting their own judgment ahead of that of military commanders, of not providing for the troops, and wasting money.Now, let’s remember that the administration ignored the pleas of the Pentagon to focus on Afghanistan rather than ramp up for an unnecessary invasion of Iraq, ignored (for utterly political reasons) the estimates of high ranking military officials saying hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to properly secure the country, sent tens of thousands of combat troops into the maelstrom of Iraq without proper body armor or fully armored humvees, gave cushy corporate no-bid contracts to companies chummy with the administration, staffed the reconstruction effort in Iraq with neophyte GOP operatives rather than qualified staff, etc., etc., etc. (See the fantastic book Fiasco by Tom Ricks for all the appalling details.)The shamelessness with which Bush levels these attacks at others without any attempt to cover his flanks rhetorically speaks volumes for his contempt of the American people’s collective memory and the willingness of the press to do their homework (and their job). On the latter point, he certainly has reason for his overconfidence. On the former, he’d best be more careful.And as for “winning this war” (as the president puts it), let’s remind ourselves of a couple of things.First, what “war” is he talking about? Whatever war might have been fought has long since been won, for whatever it might be worth. If “war” describes our current situation in Iraq, the president is duty bound to move for not a “surge” of 20,000 troops, but a massive mobilization to occupy the country. What possible excuse could there be not to?Well, that it’s not truly a war. And he’d be right. What we’ve got is an occupation (of sorts). The war, to the extent it exists, is a civil war among various factions in Iraq, with the U.S. in the middle. And with most Iraqis wanting us out of their country, and around half saying it’s just fine to kill American troops, what possible purpose can it truly serve to have soldiers sitting in the middle of it all?“War” is a term the president invokes when it suits his purposes politically. [...]

Bush Under the Klieg Lights

Wed, 21 Mar 2007 04:28:00 +0000

Metaphors say a lot about a text, particularly when the they aren’t meant to be obviously “metaphorical.” That is, the underlying metaphorical structure of a text structures the understanding of the message in important ways.One of the basic ways this comes out in texts is the appeal to sensory metaphors. Bill Clinton “felt” our pain. I might “see” your point. Or I could “hear” where you’re coming from. Something might “smell fishy” about what you say, or it could carry a “whiff” of desperation. I could even leave a bad taste in my mouth.We use these metaphors so often that they often don’t seem much like metaphors at all.I’d suggest that in President Bush’s most recent bit of damage-control rhetoric in his statement and answers about the firing of several U.S. attorneys, we see two fundamental sensory metaphors at work: sight and sound. The way Bush develops them says a lot about his attitude toward his audience and the issue at hand.A specific phrase Bush used twice In his statement and answers during his press conference called attention to this. In talking about how it would be a horrible thing to call administration officials to testify under oath, Bush alluded to putting “the klieg lights” on these poor, hardworking folk.When Bush uses such a specific bit of phraseology more than once in a short space, you can bet it’s something he’s been told to invoke. And in this case, I think it fits in with a wider way of couching the sacked-attorney issue.Specifically, if you look at Bush’s comments, you’ll notice a lot of “visual” language. Administration officials shouldn’t have to suffer under the “klieg lights.” The Democratic call for sworn testimony “shows some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts.” In fact, Bush says they seem to be asking for “show” trials. The resignations of the attorneys have become a “public spectacle.” The attorneys are “being held up to scrutiny.” Democrats “view” this episode as an opportunity to score political points rather than “finding out” the truth. If they continue in pressing for subpoenas, the opportunism of the Democrats will be “evident for the American people to see.” Rather than being taken in by the “appearance” of something, Americans should “listen to the facts.”That last phrase is interesting. Along with loads of visual language, Bush also uses metaphors of hearing, talking, and listening. White House officials and Attorney General Gonzales are going to “explain” the truth to members of Congress. Bush has “heard” the allegations, but the American people need to “hear the truth” (a phrase he uses three separate times, in addition to “explain the truth”). Twice, he begins a statement by commanding his audience to “Listen.”A lot of public talk includes metaphors of sight and sound. As we’ve established, we use these phrases all the time without thinking about them. What’s interesting to me is how differently the sight and sound metaphors are used.Even just looking at the examples above, the visual metaphors tend to be negative. It’s wrong to haul administration officials out under the “klieg lights.” But if the Democrats continue refuse the president’s offer and demand subpoenas, the American people will “see” what they’re really after. Viewing is seen as an act of aggression—something that subjects the object (rightly or wrongly) to the scrutiny of the viewer.On the other hand, speech and sound metaphors are used in positive ways. “Hearing” is the wa[...]

Recommended Reading at

Tue, 13 Mar 2007 16:33:00 +0000


There's a provocative piece in Salon today on the intellectual sterility of contemporary conservatism. Using the latest bit of hate mongering from Ann Coulter as a jumping off spot, the essay suggests that Coulter is simply one of the more high-profile examples of what the right wing in general has to offer: hatred and resentment (hence the fact that she can say anything, no matter how hateful, and not be abandoned by conservatives).

While the essay doesn't use terms like "rhetoric" or "discourse," that's essentially exactly what it's about. It's a short but good read. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

A few questions I've started to mull over and would like to hear thoughts on:

Is the piece overly simplistic? Does it engage in the kind of characterization that it accuses conservative rhetoric of using?

What is the appropriate liberal/progressive rhetorical response to conservatives? Is it enough to let it eventually crumble on its own (as the author suggests it will), or are there positive, rhetorical moves Democrats can make to dismantle it? Is any progressive on the political scene doing that?

To the extent that Americans have fallen for this, why is that?

To any conservatives who might stop by, how do you feel about folks like Coulter, Limbaugh, Savage, et. al. being the most visible faces of your movement? Do you tend to agree with them? Are the necessary embarassments? Or are they simply embarassments that are beneath the dignity of a party that lays claim to a distinctive intellectual history? In short, do you think conservatism *has* made a "deal with the devil?"

Callin’ Out Cousin Pookie: Clinton and Obama’s Rhetoric at Selma

Mon, 12 Mar 2007 02:57:00 +0000

For a while, some of the right-wing folks had me intrigued.The talk of Hillary Clinton suddenly taking on a Southern accent during her speech last week at Selma was on the lips of conservative talking heads across the country—just one more example, they suggested, of her cold and calculated political maneuvering.And if Clinton had done that, it would be fascinating (although the fact that she lived for years and years in Arkansas would make it a bit less dramatic than it seems at first glance).But then I saw excerpts of her speech, and from what I could tell, the only part when she dipped into anything like a Southern dialect was when she was quoting from an African American spiritual that contained some idiomatic Black English. The only thing that would make Hillary sound even dopier than suddenly taking on a Southern twang would be to recite Black dialect in her typical upper Midwest accent. That she tried to give the lines a more appropriate reading speaks to her rhetorical common sense, not her calculating manner.But while conservative commentators predictably let their anxieties and antipathy get in the way of thoughtful critique, there is something interesting to be said about the Clinton/Obama dueling speeches in Selma.I suspect that no matter what happens in 2008, these speeches will be the subject of many a rhetorical critique exercise in political science and communication courses. What makes them fascinating is that the situations were so parallel that you have almost a pure comparison of rhetorical styles. Clinton and Obama spoke on the same day, in African American churches only blocks apart, on the same general topic (the anniversary of the 1965 civil rights march at Selma). Their audiences were largely similar, and their purposes also paralleled each other: both were speaking in the context of running for their party’s presidential nomination, and both wanted make the case that they had connections to the soul of the African American community. To do this, both had to overcome a sense that they were separated from that community by a wide gulf of social class, geography, and (even in Obama’s case) race.Clinton had to overcome the perception that, unlike her husband, she was a typical limousine liberal without a genuine attachment to the concerns of Southern African Americans. Obama had to overcome the notion that he was somehow not “Black enough,” and perhaps not African American at all, in the usual sense, since he is not the descendent of slaves.There’s a lot that can and will be said about how each candidate handled their parallel challenges. To get the ball rolling, I’d like to invoke the name of Kenneth Burke, perhaps the most famous American rhetorical scholar.You might have run into Burke’s ideas if you’ve taken a college-level composition class in the last 20-30 years or so. Many freshman writing texts mention Burke’s “Pentad” in terms of finding ideas or angles on a subject you want to write about.Burke’s pentad is a grouping of five (obviously) terms: act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. They basically boil down to asking questions about an event: What is happening? Who is doing the action? How are they doing the action? Where/when is the action taking place? What is the action intended to accomplish?In some ways, these parallel the typical “reporters questions:” who, what, when, where, why, and how. The main difference is that reporters ask their questions about the events themselves. Burke’s Pentad primarily targets what people say about the events.On[...]

Porn Free: The Rhetorical Role of Matt Sanchez

Fri, 09 Mar 2007 01:26:00 +0000

Conservative blogger Matt Sanchez offers us a fine example of rhetorical “role creation” in an essay he just penned for may have heard that Sanchez got his picture taken with Ann Coulter at the event at which she referred to John Edwards as a “faggot.” When the photo surfaced, some noted the irony in a gay man literally embracing Coulter given her comments (which was hardly the first time she’s made offensive remarks about homosexuality). When the fact that Sanchez once starred in gay pornographic movies emerged, the scrutiny intensified.Two main purposes drive Sanchez’s Salon piece. The first is to address his past in the porn industry—a past that he had apparently tried to keep secret. The other is to address why he would apparently condone the use of hateful language directed at a community he’s part of. The implicit question he responds to is, “How can a gay man support someone who attacks your humanity in such a vulgar way?”Sanchez does this by casting himself in the role of the Victim—not of Coulter, but of “liberals” who “outed my gay porn past.”To do that, he has to do two seemingly contradictory things: argue that his pornographic past is no big deal (to admit there’s anything “wrong” with it would implicate himself in an act of immorality), but also argue that porn is immoral (to say otherwise would cancel his conservative credentials, if simply being gay didn’t already do that).He wouldn’t have to negotiate that tricky tension if he made another rhetorical choice—say, that of casting himself in the role of the Repentant Sinner (a la Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, or even George W. Bush himself). But that approach doesn’t lend itself to placing responsibility on anyone else, and that’s what Sanchez wants to do.So, we find Sanchez, in the space of a few paragraphs, both dismissing his porn career and condemning porn’s moral evils. On one hand, his stint in adult films happened “once upon a time” in the “ancient” past. It was a “long-ago summer job.” Porn itself is “self-explanatory and without depth.” It’s not something that he feels the need to disavow:“It's just a part of my past, and as anyone who reflects on the past realizes,it contributes to who I am today. No apologies, just recognition. No runningaway, just moving forward.”So Sanchez exonerates himself from any wrong-doing in the past. Yet, as a conservative, it’s not a rhetorical option to leave it at that. Sanchez cleanses himself rhetorically by scapegoating the porn industry itself for its moral lapses, or, as he calls it, “porn’s liberalism,” in which “everything taboo is trivialized and everything trivial is magnified.” It’s a “cult” in which he lost his belief (note again the lack of personal agency the metaphor implies). It’s this liberal mentality that ensnared him and kept him “anesthetized.”But Sanchez accuses liberalism of more than simply sharing the same moral outlook as the porn industry. It’s guilty of hypocrisy. After all, he reasons:Those on the left who now attack me would be defending me if I had espousedliberal causes and spoken out against the Iraq war before I was outed as apseudo celebrity. They'd be talking about publishing my memoir and putting me ona diversity ticket with Barack Obama. Instead, those who complain aboutwire-tapping reserve the right to pry into my private life and my past forpolitical brownie points.Of course, if he had espoused liberal causes, he likely wouldn’t have[...]

The Humorless Logic of Ann Coulter

Tue, 06 Mar 2007 14:30:00 +0000

As many have pointed out, there's nothing much new to say about Ann Coulter's latest bit of vile rhetoric in and of itself. She's made it painfully clear how unpleasant a human being she is, at least in her public persona (I've come to think she doesn't really believe much of anything, but, like a pidgeon in a Skinner box, simply behaves in ways that have proven rewarding in the past.)There are two larger points to make. One is about the use of the word "faggot" as part of the larger right wing mode of using gender stereotypes as a means of attack. It's telling that, on Fox News, Young America's Foundation spokesman Jason Mattera defended Coulter by saying she wasn't smearing gay people. Rather, "she was basically calling John Edwards a wuss, that he was a girlie-man, and that if he were elected president he would probably embolden Al Qaeda to attack us." Ah, well that's just so much better, isn't it? The smear wasn't at gay men, but simply an equation of the feminine with weakness and ineptitude! If that's an actual defense of Coulter, then she doesn't need any attackers. I'd say more about this, but there are already a couple of good posts on this wider issue, one from Glenn Greenwald at Salon and by blogger Digby.The other brief point to note is how Coulter, as she and so many others have done in such circumstances, falls back on the defense of "it was a joke."But, the thing is, it wasn't. And I don't mean that it's not a joke because "faggot" is such an ugly term that no use of it could possibly be construed as a joke. I mean as a matter of logic, what Coulter said wasn't a joke.As comedy writer, ex-radio host, and current senatorial candidate Al Franken often noted on his Air America show, jokes have an interior logic. They have a premise of some sort that makes the humor work. Even if a joke isn't funny, one can still see how it theoretically *could* be funny.Here's what she said:I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidentialcandidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go intorehab if you use the word "faggot."Now, there *is* a bit of humor logic here, specifically the use of hyperbole in the suggestion that saying the word automatically in "rehab." It's not funny, but it's at least operating in a way that follows (just barely) the logic of a joke.But that has nothing to do with the central component of the comment, which is using "faggot" as a term of contempt for someone you don't like. There is nothing humorous about this, not simply because of the ugliness of the comment, but because there is literally no joke there on a logical level. Saying something outrageously ugly does not constitute a joke by itself. One could *make* it funny by putting it into a humorous context, but to defend Coulter's remarks by saying that they constituted a joke is about as offensive to professional comedy writers as Coulter's original comments were to . . . well . . . just about anyone with a social conscience.[...]

George Will's "Facts and Faith" Framing

Tue, 06 Mar 2007 04:05:00 +0000

In a recent column from Newsweek, George Will takes on the topic of global warming, arguing that we don’t really know that human activity is causing global warming, and even if it was, we don’t know that this would be a bad thing.Will’s piece provides a good example of how someone can frame an argument with only a few choice words. In this case, Will carefully chooses his terminology in the early part of the column to insinuate that he’s the rational, sober voice of reason, while those who warn of global warming’s dangers base their beliefs on unsubstantiated beliefs.We see this even in the title of the column itself, “Inconvenient Kyoto Truths.” These are the “truths” Will sets out to present to us, as opposed to the unthinking dogma of those on the other side.Will’s first swipe at the idea of global warming as established fact is his line, “Many senators and other experts in climate science say we must ‘do something’ about global warming.” By ironically equating senators and climate scientists, Will gets a twofer: he sarcastically suggests senators who suggests senators who comment on global warming are hardly experts at all, and at the same time, he diminishes the idea of expertise in the area of climate science.Will then links belief in global warming to dogmatic religious belief. Global warming, he suggests, is a matter of faith not based on reason and facts. Note the word choice in the following sentence from the piece: “The consensus catechism about global warming has six tenets.”“Catechism,” of course, is a term that refers specifically to a body of accepted religious doctrine (particularly the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Coupled with this is the word “tenets,” which also carries connotations of a belief that is simply accepted as a given without criticism or reflection.Will claims one of these “tenets” is that global warming will continue “unless we mend our ways.” Note the use of the moralistic, nearly Biblical, phrase, “mend our ways.”Later in the essay, Will says that, “The president is now on the side of the angels, having promised to ‘confront’ the challenge of climate change.” Again, we have sarcasm used to suggest accepting the idea of global warming is tantamount to religious fundamentalism.These word choices aren’t an accident. The concentration of such specific vocabulary is intended to frame those who warn of the dangers of global warming as unthinking, dogmatic, “true believers” who accept faith-based policy rather than looking objectively at the facts and logical relationships (as Will and his ideological allies presumably do).In fact, Will’s entire piece is based on his assertion that we don’t actually know anything for certain about global warming. For example, take this excerpt from later in the column:And we do not know whether warming is necessarily dangerous. Over the millennia,the planet has warmed and cooled for reasons that are unclear but clearly wereunrelated to SUVs. Was life better when ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was itworse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there?For the moment, let’s table the fact that the recent warming trend is far outside the parameters any similar previous temperature fluctuation recorded in the geological record, along with the fact that the ability to farm in Greenland as those lucky Vikings could would come at the price of significant portions of densely inhabited costal ar[...]

The Buck Stops in Baghdad

Wed, 21 Feb 2007 01:52:00 +0000

Let’s start our rhetorical tinkering by putting President Bush’s address to the nation last month up on the rack and take a look at what makes it tick (or not).I thought one approach that might be interesting is to do an analysis based on the actual word used in the speech. Word counting by itself is only marginally helpful when evaluating a text, but we’ve got some help in the form of a computer program called “Diction” created by rhetorical scholar Roderick Hart.I won’t go into a long explanation of how the program works, but in essence, it counts up and categorizes words in a text, then compares the number of words in each category with averages based on typical texts of the genre.For example, one of the categories the program uses is “self-reference.” Any words that would refer to the speaker/writer of the text fall into this category (e.g., “I,” “me,” “myself,” etc.).After counting up these words, Diction tells you whether the text you’re analyzing uses a typical number of “self-reference” words when compared to similar texts, or if it uses a statistically significant larger or smaller number.By itself, this might seem like a bit of linguistic trivia, but what Diction does is point to fruitful places to do more in-depth qualitative analysis. In this case, if the text uses a lot more I’s and me’s than is typical, you might want to take a closer look at how the speaker is positioning himself/herself (rhetorically speaking) in the text and think about what the significance of this might be.Okay, so on with our analysis. I ran the text of Bush’s speech of January 2007 announcing the troop “surge” in Iraq through Diction. To add some perspective, I also had the program analyze a parallel address to the nation Bush gave just over a year earlier (December 12, 2005), soon after elections were held in Iraq. The speeches were given on parallel occasions (i.e., an apparent turning point in the U.S. occupation of Iraq) to the same audience (the American people) in the same venue (a televised primetime speech from the White House) and for the same basic purpose (to shore up support for the president’s policy). On top of that, Bush specifically refers to the 2005 speech in the first lines of his 2007 address.The idea here was that by comparing Bush’s 2007 speech against a similar speech he had given, we’d get a bit more insight than we would if we just compared the speech against generic “norms.” I wasn’t disappointed.Diction offers us dozens of variables, but I’d like to focus on just a few that stood out, and then offer a brief analysis of why these numbers are meaningful.You don’t need a computer program to notice one word that’s used far less frequently in 2007 than it was in 2005: war. In his 2005 address, Bush used “war” 15 times. In 2007, he used it three times (this despite the fact that the violence in Iraq, by his own admission, had grown since his first speech).Tuck that factoid away for a moment. Diction also points out that, compared to the 2005 speech, Bush’s 2007 address scored far lower in “self-reference.” As I noted above, that means Bush referred specifically to himself less often in his most recent speech than he did in 2005. How dramatic was this falloff? In 2005, Bush referred to himself nearly five times more often than he did in 2007.Another variable that stands out for the breathtaking nosedive it took is the group of[...]

The Rhetoric Garage

Tue, 20 Feb 2007 23:30:00 +0000

Hi everyone, and welcome to my second rhetoric-themed blog. A special welcome to those of you following me here from my previous blog, The Counterpoint. I hope to see some familiar faces (metaphorically speaking) here.

This is just a brief post to introduce the idea behind this blog. What I do here is look at examples of public discourse and analyze them from a variety of rhetorical perspectives, with the goal of both shedding some light on the texts I look at and also making "rhetorical criticism" something that's interesting, fun, and purposeful for a wide audience. I'm not interested in creating miniature versions of graduate seminar papers here. Rhetoric is a practical art, and so should rhetorical criticism. Ideally, this blog will play a small role in bridging the gap between the ivory tower of academia and the world in which we all live.

The title is meant to capture this idea. As a mechanic will put up a car on a lift, examine it, take it apart, diagnose any problems, and monkey around with it using whatever tools are needed, this blog examines specific examples of rhetoric, examines them using a variety of tools and approaches, and diagnoses what's going on with them. It's a hands-on, dirt-under-the-fingernails sort of thing. I want this blog to be pragmatic.

A related point is that this blog makes no pretensions to objective, disinterested critique (if such a thing were even possible). As readers of The Counterpoint know, I'm proudly progressive in my politics, and my writing here will reflect that. Most of the texts we'll look at on this blog will be political, and I'll more often than not be critiquing and criticizing rhetoric that's conservative, reactionary, and/or simply backwards. In other words, this academic has an activist streak that will be on display.

I'd also like the blog to be as much a dialog as possible. If you have suggestions for particular texts you'd like to "bring into the garage" for an inspection, please leave a comment saying so. And, of course, any good mechanic welcomes second (and third, and fourth) opinions. What you're getting are my initial takes on things--rhetorical criticism on the fly. Getting your creative, insightful, and even combative responses to whatever I happen to be blathering about is an integral part of this blog's work. If I just want to pontificate to myself, I can do that just fine in seminar rooms and academic conferences. Let's try to get a populist vibe going here.

As for when to expect posts . . . well, it'll probably be whenever I have a chance. I don't guarantee daily updates (at least not with full analyses), but what I might lack in quantity I'll attempt to make up for in quality. If nothing else, I'll at least try to point you toward interesting takes by other people on days when I'm lacking the time to do my own tinkering in the garage.

I think that'll do it for now. I'll be gradually getting this site set up over the next few weeks, adding stuff in sidebars, links, etc. as I'm able. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

As always, thanks for stopping by!