January 28, 2003

Peggy Noonan, writer (part II)…

Check out this bit misunderstanding (or misdirection?) from the author of the single dumbest line written for a president in the past 50 years (“Read my lips, no new taxes.”):

Nothing is more beautiful, more elevating, more important in a speech than fact and logic. People think passionate and moving oratory is the big thing, but it isn’t. The hard true presentation of facts followed by a declaration of how we must deal with those facts is the key. Without a recitation of hard data, high rhetoric seems insubstantial, vaguely disingenuous, merely dramatic. Without a logical case to support rhetoric has nothing to do. It’s like icing without cake.

Once the facts and the declaration are put forward it’s fine to use eloquence if you can muster it, and ringing oratory too if it will help people to see things as you do, and help them lean toward taking the course of action you recommend.

So to sum up: Moving oratory is what you use to underscore a point. It is not in itself the point.

George W. Bush is being told by some pundits and others that ringing oratory is what he most needs in his State of the Union address tomorrow night. That is exactly wrong.

This column by Peggy Noonan has been widely blogged. I do not care to discuss her comments about Bush and Iraq (outside the interests of this blog). Instead, I want to focus your attention on rhetorical theory. It must be important because Noonan leads with it–four whole paragraphs!

Peggy Noonan should know better–especially after her error in the 1988 convention speech. That read-my-lips line was all style and no substance. And that was exactly the (policy) point: hide the true nature of the economic reality in bluster (I realize I’m equating bluster and eloquence here). It “worked.” Many political scientists credit the line with helping to elect George H. W. Bush. And many of those same scholars will tell you that it helped get him unelected four years later.

Rhetoric is about far more than style and eloquence, and if Noonan understood this she might not have made that error in 1988. It is also about matching style and content to the situation by, among other things, an appropriate balance of appeals–logic (logos), emotion (pathos), and character (ethos). For a better understanding of what rhetoric is, please read my definition.

To persuade, hearts and minds must be moved. Eloquence is not something pasted on to discourse; it is always present in varying degrees. If President Bush wants to persuade us that war with Iraq is the right policy (I have no idea if it is or not), he’d be well advised to take a lesson from Shakespeare’s Henry in act IV, scene iii of Henry V. No one marches off to war with just a “hard true presentation of facts.” We need facts that develop reasons (logos) included in an argument based on character and emotion

Seeing as how Noonan is herself an excellent stylist, and often displays flights of enviable eloquence, I’m having a difficult time believing that she believes what she wrote. “Nothing is more beautiful, more elevating, more important in a speech than fact and logic.” (???) Not even Aristotle, the great promoter of logos over ethos and pathos, believed this.

What’s she really up to?

Noonan believes rhetoric is substituting for the facts in regard to the Bush administration’s tight-lip policy. This tight-lip policy is itself rhetoric. A question I would ask my students: Is it good rhetoric, and will it “work”?

UPDATE (10:55 a.m.): The Ombudsgod disagrees with my characterization of Noonan’s read-my-lips line…and he knows his Shakespeare!

January 28, 2003

Sticky position…

Howard Kurtz does a good job outlining the trouble some Democrat presidential candidates may have with their votes in support of Bush’s position on Iraq. This situation is similar to one I discussed recently–a truism of presidential campaigning–that you win primaries on the wings and the general election in the middle. This might present one of the Democrats with a good opportunity to forego prognosticating and maneuvering based on an imperfect understanding of a war’s potential effects and stick to principle (whatever that may be).

January 27, 2003

I love metaphors…

I’m watching News Night with Aaron Brown. He’s interviewing David Albright, president of something called the Institute for Science and International Security. Albright says that the Hans Blix report to the UN is “the tip of the iceberg of a smoking gun.” I love it.

January 27, 2003

Astroturfing examined…

The New York Times examines the phenomenon of “astroturfing”–creating the illusion of grassroots support through canned letters to the editor sent by e-mail. It’s a popular technique:

Jim Dyke, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said the committee is proud of its outreach efforts. “You want to make it easy for them to participate,” he said. “That is a good thing.”

Lisa Boyce, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said, “If an editor receives 10 letters that may be the same, they at least know there are 10 people that are concerned about the issue and would take the time to send a letter.”

Editors, on the other hand, are not amused.

Just how effective are such letters in moving public opinion? There’s no way to tell without conducting some rather difficult research. I think the best that can be said is this: Letters to the editor provide individuals a public venue for addressing their communities. Wow…big revelation there, huh? But that’s it. I know of no data that speaks to the political effectiveness of letters to the editor. So astroturfing is a matter of pure speculation.

Today in class we discussed a letter that appeared in this morning’s Kansas City Star (Affirmative Action by Matt Houser). We have begun the unit on the first canon of rhetoric–invention. I was using the letter to demonstrate the difference between the syllogism and the entheymeme. The letter contained a glaring lapse of logic–a problem for a syllogism but not necessarily so for an enthymeme.

Further, I was trying to illustrate that short letters to the editor are a poor genre to present an appeal to logic; they are just too short to adequately cover the necessary premises and definitions. Rather, ethical and pathetic appeals “work” best. If I am correct, then that means the best letters rely on appeals to emotion and authority–not well-ordered propositions. To me, this is evidence that, perhaps, letters to the editor may be politically effective because, as I contend, hearts and minds are moved far more effectively by appeals to emotion and character (if this weren’t so, television commercials, political and otherwise, would be useless).

I think we should keep a close eye on astroturfing because these canned letters will clue us in to the appeals that partisans and interest groups believe will work with the general public. The more we know, the more we may understand and/or resist.

January 27, 2003

(Not so) super ads…

Now we see the ugly truth of the damage a poor economy does to America. This year’s Super Bowl ads were…well…bland. If you need a second dose of this sorry lot check out iFilm.com.

Yes, there were a few chuckles (Visa’s Yo-Yao), a few gross-outs (the Bud Light clown, the Dodge choking redneck), and even one or two clever ads (Budweiser zebra). But, for the most part, the ads were shorter this year and that meant less time to set up really entertaining situations. There was less time to show off, to revel in the beauty of American capitalist chutzpah.

Super Bowl advertisers have set certain expectations over the years. By scaling back their efforts, and offering a second-class product, they add to the current malaise of our consumer-driven economy. Tell me this: Who really wants to buy Sony products after watching some rich goober take his camcorder into space on a Russian (!!!) rocket while listening to the inappropriate use of “Carry On” by Crosby Stills Nash and Young? Can you say “cognitive dissonance”? (Although the most offensive use of a rock tune in a commercial still belongs to the use “Fortunate Son” as a patriotic hymn in a jeans ad.)

You know what this means, don’t you? America capitalism is Pro-Saddam. The logic is inescapable. A weak economy equals a weak America. Advertising drives consumer spending, which strengthens the economy. Failure to promote spending equals promoting a weak economy and, therefore, a weak America. A weak America is good for Saddam Hussein.

Can someone explain the stampeding buffalo (Levi’s) commercial to me?

UPDATE (1:50 p.m.): Slate takes a look at a few of the ads.

January 27, 2003

Celebrities as citizens…

I am torn by the idea of celebrities using their fame to be pundits (as opposed to activists). They are citizens with every right to assert themselves into the issues of the day. On the other hand, the only reason anyone might take them seriously, in the absence of recognized credentials, is that they are famous. We have evolved into a culture that puts a lot of trust in fame (re: People often asked actor Robert Young–Marcus Welby, M.D.–for medical advice).

This is, by the way, the same concept that drives the commercial use of celebrities in advertisements. What exactly, besides being one himself, does Lou Rawls know about insurance for old people (re: Colonial Penn Insurance)?

Howard Kurtz considers comic Janeane Garofalo’s quest to be taken seriously in her opposition to war with Iraq.

January 24, 2003

Meet the new bloggers…

My EN105 students have all posted their short bios to Pirate Blog. Check it out. While the class is small–nine students–the diversity is large. Starting Monday they are “on the clock” and expected to post regularly. To get an idea of what’s expected of them, you’ll find a link to the syllabus on Pirate Blog. This should be fun!

January 24, 2003

The IQ of spin…

Bob Somerby suggests an interesting theory of political discourse: “To survive, spin has to get stupider.”

I take this to mean that spin points must evolve with the situation in order to remain persuasive. A spin point that does not evolve may be successfully challenged with another spin point or an honest account of the facts. The evolution of a spin point must continue to bolster the original argument while continuing to obscure the facts. This “works” by keeping the spin fresh and requiring the opposition to constantly refute an ever-changing, ever-shifting set of selective facts and/or outright lies. Any political faction may practice this theory.

January 24, 2003

A matter of geography…

I’ve written about the differences between American and British newspapers before (this drew several comments). Nick Denton has published an interesting essay on the “lazy” news media in America. He posits, among other things, an argument based on geography: British newspapers cover one national market; American newspapers cover numerous local markets. And this situation leads to lazy, bland news coverage in the mostly non-competitive American markets. (via Cut on the Bias)

UPDATE (12:15 p.m.): First Draft by Tim Porter comments on Denton’s essay.

UPDATE (3:53 p.m.): MediaMinded also picks up the geography angle.

January 24, 2003

Mother of invention…

Al Gore never said he invented the Internet, although many journalists and pundits misinterpreted him (sometimes dishonestly) as having said so. Gary Hart, on the other hand, says he invented the Iowa caucuses. I suppose what he might mean is that he helped put the Iowa caucuses on the political map. John Tierney lets the claim stand but notes that Iowa did hold caucuses prior to 1972.

Next Posts →← Previous Posts

Powered by: Wordpress