Rhetorical Miscellany #2: Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, and “political prosecution”

This is a post in a series examining how ancient rhetorical techniques shape contemporary public life.

Under the George W. Bush administration, embassy personnel died and privately hosted White House emails were lost, all without investigation by either party in Congress. So why are Republican members of the House of Representatives investigating the same activity under Obama, focusing entirely on Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State? Last week saw Hillary testifying before a Congressional committee about the Benghazi incident, and the investigation into her use of private email servers has dragged on for months.

Neither investigation is motivated by the pursuit of truth and justice, but instead by Republicans’ desire to discredit a potential Democratic presidential candidate. Fox News and two Republican congressmen involved in the Benghazi hearings have admitted that their investigation is a mere political maneuver. Republicans have been using these tactics at least since Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. But Democrats are not above it either. During George W. Bush’s term, Democrats in the Senate held hearings sounding the alarm about the sale of US port facilities to a company from Dubai. It was easy to make selling US infrastructure to a Middle Eastern company look like a threat to national security. The deal turned out to be a routine, legitimate business practice, something that the Senators who publicly opposed the deal, among them Hillary Clinton, must surely have known. Just because there is legitimate legal authority behind an investigation doesn’t mean we can be sure it is worthy of our attention and outrage.

It is easy to see this as a symptom of our degraded public trust. Corruption has corrupted even the processes by which corruption is found out. How can our democracy recover from such a sorry condition?

But there is grim comfort in the knowledge that it has ever been so. The use of legal processes as weapons in the power struggles of the ruling class is a practice as old as democracy itself.

In ancient Athens, members of the political class regularly deployed two legal methods to discredit, imprison, impoverish, or exile their enemies. One was called ostracism, and it has no parallel in the American system (though perhaps it should). The other is called political prosecution and we see it all the time in American politics.


Rhetorical Miscellany #1: Let’s declare a war on “Let’s declare a war on …”

The ability to make ideas convincing, not on their merits but through their manner of presentation, is both magical and infuriating.

I find it magical because this skill (which was called rhetoric in the classical and medieval world, and is now called, alternately, advertising, public relations, and “communications”) can lodge the most preposterous beliefs in our heads, or lead us to spend money on things for reasons we do not fully understand.

It is magical to me when I consider how Apple in the 1980s and ’90s convinced people they were iconoclasts because they bought a certain brand of mass-produced machine. It is infuriating to me when I see people buying the idea, peddled by gun industry lobbyists, that those of us who don’t own guns are to blame for mass shootings.

When you slow down such arguments, and remove the undercurrent of self-importance or fear that usher them into the mind, their unreason is quickly revealed. A mass-produced object does not make me unique. A plague of weapons does not make us safer. But rhetoric, operating at full power, can make such arguments feel like the truth. This has consequences at the cash register and the ballot box, where we shape our future.

Rhetoric was conceived in the hothouse of ancient greek public oratory, where it was an essential skill for the political class. But in our own time, where the speed and emotional charge of debate are amplified by instantaneous electronic media, and generations of mass audience advertising have influenced how we think, rhetoric has become ubiquitous and taken on godlike powers.

Partly because I like collecting shiny things, and partly in an effort to defend my own sanity and intellectual integrity, I collect rhetorical tactics. I dissect them and try to figure out where their power comes from. Up until now, my collection has lived in notebooks and in my thoughts. I thought I’d share some of my collection here.

First up: “War On …”

The phrase “declare war on” is a sure sign that rhetoric is being deployed. Framing any public issue as a war splits it into a binary conflict with the aim of recruiting you to one of the two sides. (more…)

Pope Francis and Kim Davis, PR disaster

The Vatican has said explicitly that Pope Francis’s meeting with Kim Davis does not mean that the Pope shares her views or supports her cause. Considering that he met privately with a lot of people, including a married gay couple, this is good enough for me. I am relieved. But a lot of people aren’t. This Pope has a deep reserve of goodwill to draw on, and this one issue has already exhausted it for many. I can’t blame them. On a trip meant solely to cultivate goodwill in America, how could Pope Francis have gone so wrong?

The Kim Davis meeting is not about doctrine. On gay people and the Church, this Pope differs only subtly from his predecessors and I don’t expect him to change. The Kim Davis meeting is, however, about effective (or in this case disastrous) propaganda. As a propagandist, this Pope differs substantially from his predecessor. Francis is quite good at it, while Benedict XVI seemed to wander around in a self-created negative charisma zone. Being a skilled propagandist is a core competency for any modern Pope.

How you frame the teachings of the Church makes a great deal of difference in the lives of the world’s billion Catholics and those in contact with them. As a gay person, I feel safer in the world because of Francis’s tone, even though I know he doesn’t support gay marriage. But because of how he talk ands acts, I know he is not afraid of gay people, that he does not hate them, and that in this he could be a model for Christians everywhere. Tolerance in a Pope is no small thing.

Propaganda is a core part of the Papal job description, and I am using the word in its purest sense, meaning the propagation of a set of ideas. The Roman Catholic Church quite literally invented propaganda. The word first appears in the title of a Vatican department created in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, the Congregatio de propaganda fide, i.e., the Congregation for the propagation, or spreading, of the faith. The Pope doesn’t need to travel to be a chief executive or a spiritual leader. When he travels, he is being a charismatic salesman. And, up until the Kim Davis meeting, Francis was doing such a good job. I don’t mean that he has been good at converting people, though he may have been, but that he has been removing huge amounts of religious tension in the world.

By talking about greed and pride more than sexual sins, this Pope is putting the Church back on track. Sexual morality has always been a Christian concern, but it has rarely been what it has seemed like recently, a sole obsession. To be arrogant and greedy has always been far worse than to be gluttonous or sexually unorthodox. By shutting up about gay marriage and talking about the environment, social justice, and the ravages of unrestrained capitalism, the Pope is reminding people of this. Emphasis and tone can be a clue to the real subtleties of the Christian message. If this makes social conservatives in America uncomfortable, great. If this makes marginalized people more hopeful, even better. In both cases, the change of emotion is richly deserved.

So how on earth could a Pope who was doing such a good job at this subtle but important shift in messaging allow himself to meet with Kim Davis? She represents the old guard Republican- Catholic (though she herself is a Protestant) obsession with sexual sin to the point of hatred and intolerance. Kim Davis is one part of the Christian teaching isolated and turned into a hateful obsession, everything Francis has so skillfully walked away from. So, what happened?

It seems that she was on a list of people cleared by the Vatican’s embassy in Washington, D.C. Getting a rosary and a blessing, as Davis did, was not a special privilege, but a kindness the Pope extended to everybody he met with. It’s too bad Francis didn’t seem to know the political context of Kim Davis. Perhaps he didn’t expect her to crassly use a private meeting for public gain. But when you are a world leader, this is the sort of thing you have to look out for, especially when a huge part of your job is PR. And if this Pope didn’t know whom he was meeting, then somebody on his staff or on the Vatican embassy’s staff seriously fell down on the job. I agree that there are far more important issues globally than Kim Davis, but she should be on your radar when you are on a goodwill trip to America.

Personally, I am relieved that Francis has made clear that he doesn’t endorse Davis. But both personally and professionally (as a media person), I am baffled that he and his staff got themselves into a situation where they had to make such a statement in the first place. The organization that literally invented PR 393 years ago should know better.

The HBO-Sesame Street deal is not a reason to privatize public television

The Nation

Ever since its creation in the late 1960s, public broadcasting in the US has been under attack. The attacks have come mostly from conservatives, but liberals have not been above them, either, and the debate usually flares up when there is a change in the funding for NPR and PBS, either in amount or source. The new partnership between HBO and Sesame Street is the latest such flare up. Usually, Big Bird gets held up as a symbol for all of public broadcasting, but in this case, he and his pals are actually at the center of the debate.

In my latest for The Nation, my co-author and I argue that the Sesame Street deal, while good for the iconic children’s show, is a bad model for the rest of PBS programs. When it comes to providing educational resources for all Americans, privatization isn’t the way to go. Click on the bird for the full piece.

The Talking Head

Back in the autumn, CCTV America asked me to come on their business newscast and talk about the EU’s “right to be forgotten” law. Since then, I’ve been on to talk about the social effects of media. Verdict: being on TV is fun.

I try to remember everything I can about the right to be forgotten.

I try to remember everything I can about the right to be forgotten.

I talk about why Internet access is now governed by

I talk about why Internet access is now governed by “common carrier” law, and what that means.

At NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, the Future is in Play

Back in the Spring, I took up an offer to take a backstage tour of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, aka “The Center for the Recently Possible.” I think of it as a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of new media and technology graduate programs. What the kids there are doing is what we’ll all be thinking about or plugging into in the near future.

My strategy was to hang around with a notebook, bug the students standing next to crazy looking contraptions, and write down what they said that I could (mostly) comprehend. The result was this piece for PBS MediaShift. Did I stumble on any everlasting gobstoppers? You be the judge.