gun control

Don’t Get Trapped in the Dark America Depicted in Halloween 2018

Halloween 2018, which I watched through my fingers on Tuesday, is getting some praise from the right-wing media for depicting just the kind of world conservative voters feel they live in: where danger lurks everywhere, evil is absolute, the news media have an effete mindset that threatens to soften us to death, and where safety comes from a hard-as-nails attitude that makes skill with a gun or a knife more important than feelings.

All you need to know about the story: Laurie Strode, the nurturing babysitter from the original 1978 Halloween, deploys an arsenal of weaponry to defend her family from escaped serial killer Michael Meyers, back for revenge after she defeated him long ago.

The atmosphere of fear and the rootin’ tootin’ frontier attitude of the heroines make for a pleasant enough couple of hours. But Haddonfield, the little town where both Halloweens are set, is–thank God–not a place any of us actually have to live. In the real world, being a “good guy with a gun” isn’t as morally clear or as emotionally satisfying as the movies make it seem. And raising our children and governing our nation in an atmosphere of terror is corrosive to both mental health and democracy.

So let’s all enjoy a few scares in this season of horror films and ghost stories. But when we vote, let’s make sure we’re living in reality, not fantasy.

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…)