Rhetoric

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.

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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…)

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.