Thursday, November 15, 2012
Sunday, August 26, 2007
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.
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 CNSNews.com.
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!
Monday, June 4, 2007
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.
Monday, May 21, 2007
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” in Iraq, it ended in the spring of 2003, just weeks after it started. We won. The multitude of failures have been post-war. They’re failures of occupation, not of war. Rather than talk about the war “already being lost,” critics of the administration should deny the validity of the president’s framing and replace it with a vocabulary of bureaucratic failure rather than military failure.
This might seem like splitting hairs, but I’d argue that not only would such a change in terminology be objectively more accurate, but it would open up more possibilities for creating a consensus for getting the hell out of there. Better to have screwed up an occupation than to have “lost” a “war.”
But as long as the language of war is in vogue among even those who oppose the administration’s Iraq policies, I fear we’ve rhetorically locked ourselves into a failure we won’t allow ourselves to walk away from.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
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.
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
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 example, the violation is only discovered as a result of politically motivated search based on preexisting antipathy toward the target. The latter example seems closer to the situation with Mr. Churchill.
In fact, the essay which drew so much attention to Mr. Churchill was published in September of 2001, and little if anything was said until a college newspaper turned up the essay in 2005, after which it became a national issue largely due to Bill O’Reilly and Colorado governor Bill Owens.
Had it not been for the political enmity toward Mr. Churchill’s views, his scholarship would not have gotten the fine-tooth-comb treatment it did. (If his intellectual sins had been so glaring, why hadn’t they come up before?)
As I say, I’m not certain I think it’s out of the question to hold Mr. Churchill accountable for academic dishonesty, even if it was only discovered via political outrage at comments he was certainly legally and academically entitled to make. On the other hand, I have some sympathy for someone whose academic integrity is questioned as means of giving an air of legitimacy to an essentially political animosity.
Why? Well, I have the dubious distinction of having been targeted by a national political commentator as being, along with Ward Churchill, an example of a “failure in higher education.”
Ex-vice president and editorial voice for Sinclair Broadcasting, Mark Hyman, delivered a commentary aired on dozens of its local news affiliates across the country in which he attacked several academics, including Churchill and me, for having radical views. According to him, folks like Churchill and I are "unemployable individuals [who] are paid to proselytize intellectually bankrupt viewpoints."
What was my “intellectually bankrupt viewpoint?" According to Hyman, I thought that plagiarism was fine and dandy (something that probably shocked the numerous students I’ve flunked for committing even a single instance of plagiarism in my classes).
Hyman used a quotation from an online syllabus for a correspondence course I was teaching at the time to make his claim. To do it, he had to twist and creatively edit the course statement on plagiarism. More importantly, he attributed this statement to me despite the fact that the syllabus clearly stated that I was the instructor of the class, but not the author of the course materials (our department chair had done most of the writing).
Why was Hyman grubbing around online to find something he could use to charge me with academic malpractice? Because I had committed the sin of creating a blog that did a daily critique of his rhetoric. Getting interviewed by Air America radio about Sinclair, media consolidation, and my blog was apparently the final straw, since it was only days later that he included me in his attack on Churchill and other academics.
After I informed the legal counsel of Sinclair of Hyman’s factual errors (and hinted that a retraction would be in their financial best interest), Hyman retracted his comments (although he never fessed up to his true motivations in going after me).
[If you’re interested, Media Matters for America covered both the initial attack and Hyman’s retraction in stories found at the following websites:
My situation differs from Mr. Churchill’s in that the charges laid at my feet were demonstrably untrue. While I don’t know the specifics of Mr. Churchill’s case, my suspicion is that there’s at least some legitimacy to the charges (although, as one previous post noted, the claim that because “a committee” said so, it must be true is dubious at best).
Having said that, I can imagine someone arguing that even if the charges are all true, and even if these charges are serious enough to warrant Mr. Churchill’s dismissal, and even if Mr. Churchill deserves to be dismissed, the fact that the issue has been, from the beginning, enmeshed in partisan politics makes the decision qualitatively different than it would be if O’Reilly, Horowitz, et. al. had never uttered the name “Ward Churchill.”
I can imagine an argument that states, contra Mr. Bytwerk, that at this point, one cannot hermetically seal off the issue from the political atmosphere around it and make it purely an exercise in academic self-discipline. Such an argument might suggest that once conservative talking heads made this a personal crusade due to Mr. Churchill’s political statements, any decision to fire him would necessarily have a chilling effect on academic freedom and free speech in general. Better to let ten sloppy and reckless academics keep their jobs than have one academic cowed into silence for fear that, if he/she makes controversial statements that offend enough people, he/she will be targeted for dismissal.
I say again: I’m not making this argument. I don’t know that I buy it. It *does* seem, however, to be a reasonable argument that deserves consideration.
I haven’t signed the petition supporting Mr. Churchill. The little I know of his scholarship, almost solely through second-hand sources and fragments, suggests to me that in and of itself, his dismissal wouldn’t be a huge loss to the intellectual community.
But what prevents me from agreeing wholeheartedly with those who say, “He’s committed academic sins, so he should get the axe,” is the sense that, as a rhetorical act, his dismissal has a different meaning because of the context in which it’s made. As much as we might like to pretend that we can judge the matter solely in academic terms, I think that such a stance ignores the complex communicative context and the role it plays in giving meaning to the speech act of dismissing Mr. Churchill.
At the very least, I can understand why some who might A) find Mr. Churchill’s politics repugnant, and B) find his academic sins unforgivable, could still balk at the idea of firing him given the highly politicized movement to oust him. This is particularly true when many of the voices most loudly calling for his dismissal are also voices that regularly traffic in the anti-intellectualism that pops up at various points along the political spectrum, mocking the foundational values of the life of the mind to an even greater extent than the sins of any particular academic could ever do.