Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Peaceful Evolution of Ted Kennedy

I truly admire people who are nimble enough of mind to allow their opinions to grow and change based on new evidence, insight, and sensitivity. I’m embarrassed to say that I had not been aware of the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s gift in this area when it came to the issue of Northern Ireland.

Only in the wake of his death and the coverage of his career did I learn of the degree to which his views on this issue changed, from one of a die-hard Republican (i.e., anti-Unionist) to someone who played a key role in paving the way for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. And he did this despite the fact that by evolving in this way, he would be upsetting any number of supporters, perhaps even seen as a traitor to a cause.

But in fact Kennedy found a much more elevated and worthy cause for which to fight: peace. He transcended his previous position, locked in an “us vs. them” or “either/or” mentality, to achieve a “both/and” of peace and exclusiveness.

For this, he received criticism, first for those who thought he was turning his back on Irish nationalism, then by conservatives in the U.K. when he received a knighthood. They attacked him precisely because he once held the beliefs he had left behind.

Both groups failed to recognize and credit the growth of Kennedy’s views, views that did not represent a compromise between two sides, but a transcending of conflict to a position that held out promise for all involved.

If you would like to read a brief overview of Kennedy’s involvement in Irish politics and the peace process, see this article at


Saturday, August 22, 2009

R.I.P. "Prince of Darkness" (Well . .. Sort Of)

Robert Novak (a.k.a. "The Prince of Darkness") died this week. He’s best known as one of a cadre of conservative talking heads, but he was a talking head before it was cool to be a talking head (with the exception of David Byrne). Before opinionated punditry ruled the airwaves and cable channels, there were only a few outlets where you saw this sort of ideological bloodsport in its raw form. CNN’s Crossfire was one such place, and Novak was a longtime participant, often facing off against Michael Kinsley.

When I first started to become truly engaged in politics, such shows were a major turn on. People yelling at each other! What could be cooler or more fun?

While I agreed with Novak on almost nothing, I always at least though of him as intellectually honest. He actually believed what he said and didn’t lie about his reasons for believing it. For that, at least, I found him so much better than, say, the likes of Ann Coulter, who I often think of as little more than a pigeon in a Skinner Box. As the bird could be trained to peck at a lever to get a reward of a pellet of food, I think folks like Coulter have found an audience for their brand of vitriol and reap the rewards from it, but don’t actually believe what they say in any deep sense. They certainly don’t think through it in any depth. I can’t stand Coulter not so much because I disagree with most of the political positions to which she pays lip service, but because I think she is an utter and complete cynic who doesn’t truly care much about political issues, but is more than willing to churn out bombastic nonsense and sell it to people as actual cogent thought. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Novak, however, was a true believer, and for that, I could respect him even if I disagreed with him. Or at least I could for a while.

Then 2000 happened.

When I heard Novak died, the first thought that came to mind was not his assist on outing a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, the incident he was most known for in recent years, but something he said on one of those talking head shows he helped pioneer.

During the recount of 2000, I was watching one of those Capital Gang/Crossfire/McLaughlin Group shows. They were doing a story on the “Brooks Brothers Revolt,” the allegedly spontaneous outpouring of outrage by conservatives at how the recount was being handled.

Of course, it turned out that most of the protestors yelling and screaming outside courthouse offices were paid Republican operatives, many of whom found jobs in the Bush administration and/or conservative think tanks and lobbying groups.

Anyway, one of the panelists was bemoaning the fact that these demonstrations had, at least in one case, devolved into violence. A hapless county official who was taking a sample ballot to members of the media to use as a visual aid in reporting the story was set upon by a mob of pro-Bush supporters who accused him of trying to smuggle ballots out of the office where the recount was happening. They roughed him up pretty well.

So, one commentator on the show (I think Mark Shields or Al Hunt) was saying how appalling it was that in the United States of America, you’d see violent mobs attacking election officials who were just doing their job.

You’d think that this would be a statement that anyone could get behind. And almost anyone could, except Bob Novak.


The implication was that, regardless of his innocence of any wrongdoing, this guy deserved a beatdown simply by virtue of being a public employee.

That was the moment Novak went from being someone I respected despite disagreeing with to being someone I found loathsome.

Now, I don’t know if Novak truly thought that a government employee, simply by virtue of his job, deserved to be set upon by thugs, or if that was just rhetorical red meat he was throwing to far-right conservatives who relish seeing government as the enemy, and he got carried away.

Either way, it was despicable.

I often had the fantasy of being on that panel when Novak said that and responding, “So, you think government’s a bad thing so anyone who’s a part of it deserves to get beat up? Fine, I think radical conservatism is causing incredible damage to our country. It’s a bad thing. You’re part of it. So, how about I beat you to a bloody pulp right hear and now? That okay by you?”

Of course, I wouldn’t have actually said that, even if for some reason they had decided to invite some anonymous editor of educational materials from Iowa City to weigh in on the 2000 election on national television. First, I’m not that quick with a quip. Second, joking about physically harming someone because you disagree with them on politics, even in jest and even to make a point about how disgusting it is to do so, is simply wrong.

But that’s okay, since Novak himself destroyed his own ethos with that comment. He revealed himself not as a political thinker and commentator, but as a bully, someone happy to use his position to put people in danger to score cheap rhetorical points. His involvement in the Plame affair was therefore hardly shocking.

Having lost both parents to cancer, I don’t wish that dread disease on anyone, and I would rather he hadn’t died. And I would still put Novak a notch or two above empty-headed poseurs like Coulter who play-act at punditry.

But I’d be lying if I said I thought the public sphere was rhetorically impoverished by Novak’s passing.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Of Whale Watching and Navel Gazing

So I did it. I watched an episode of “Whale Wars” on the Discovery Channel.

I tried not to. I avoided it for almost a year. But on Saturday, I got sucked in.

You might ask, “Who cares, and what does this have to do with rhetoric or peace or anything like that?”

Well, for starters, I promised myself that I’d make an effort not to have this newest blog not just be pseudo-academic or faux-pundit stuff, but actually require some self-reflection on my part, and an attempt to integrate abstract stuff with personal observations.

Plus, my favorite academic-y blogs are ones that blend the academic and the personal. Ideally, these shouldn’t be two different worlds. If you want a sample, one I like a lot is “Bitch Ph.D.,” which is worth a click just for the photo in the banner.

When I was a tyke, one of the books my dad would read to me at bedtime was one called “All About Whales” by R. C. Andrews, the guy who supposedly was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.

From at least that time on, I’ve been fascinated by whales and repulsed by the notion of whaling. When I read Moby Dick, I was rooting for the whale.

So I knew if I watched “Whale Wars” (about a group that harasses Japanese whaling ships in an attempt to save whales) I knew I’d get worked up.

As the episode unfolded and I saw a grenade-tipped harpoon fired by a gun into a whale, obliterating its internal organs, but not killing it outright. For more than 20 minutes (thankfully shortened by editing to just a couple of minutes of screen time), the doomed whale thrashed and struggled, suffocating on its own blood, as whalers repeatedly shot it with a rifle.

And sure enough, I found my heart pounding.

I remembered the daydreams I had as a child. They went something along these lines: some eccentric billionaire environmentalist would purchase a WWII-era surplus submarine and scour the earth for a crew of kids who had just the right combination of passion, smarts, and moxie to crew this sub on its mission of disrupting illegal whaling across the seven seas. This rag-tag bunch of scrappy do-gooders would force whalers to strike their colors and abandon ship, allowing them just enough time to board life boats and radio for rescue before sending the blood-soaked kill ship to the bottom.

And since this was my daydream, after all, you can guess who was the kid looking through the periscope calling the order to fire a salvo of Mark IV fish into the side of the whaler.

I’ve sometimes thought of turning these childhood fantasies into a young-adult novel. And since I know there are writers among you, let me simply say it’s MY idea!. All rights reserved. Patent Pending. Copyright 2009, Remingtomes Books. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

But watching the show and doing a sort of self-inventory of the feelings it brought up reminded me of the tension between self-righteous anger and the desire to get along. Neither of these drives, in my mind, is good or bad. There are situations when almost the only rational response *is* anger—or at least the drive to take action to remedy the situation. And when being peaceful becomes nothing more than passivity, it ceases to be a virtue.

The trick is knowing where this line is. If one grants that whaling is a gruesome, immoral act, to what lengths should one go to end it? Taking violence against human beings off the table as self-evidently and categorically wrong, what about violence against property? What about causing fear?

I don’t know.

Obviously the issue of whaling is a metaphor. The larger issue is one that we each encounter on a nearly daily basis. Or at least I do.

The situations aren’t anywhere near as dramatic, but let me give you an example of what I mean. I believe passionately that in a country as wealthy as ours, it is morally inexcusable to not have guaranteed, affordable healthcare for every citizen. I’m not alone in this. As a matter of principle, polls consistently show that the majority of Americans want universal healthcare and would even be willing to personally pay more taxes if that were necessary to make it happen.

But of course not everyone agrees, and even those who agree in principle often balk when a specific plan is proposed. The minority who opposes it on ideological grounds will seize on specifics (real or imagined) that they feel will persuade those who *do* favor universal coverage to not support the given plan.

That’s why you don’t hear many against healthcare reform arguing that universal healthcare isn’t a worthy goal, or even arguing that the government shouldn’t be involved in providing healthcare. Instead, you get silliness like “death panels” and suggestions that instead of your doctor making healthcare decisions with you, some faceless “government bureaucrat” will call the shots (as if we weren’t ass-deep in bureaucrats making healthcare decisions for us; I don’t know about you, but I have pretty good insurance and I still get told what doctors I’m allowed to go to and what procedures I can have done).

So, I believe strongly in this issue—it’s one that directly affects the well-being of me and my fellow citizens. The case seems so self-evident to me as to almost need no defense—every moral and spiritual code I can think of is on the side of caring for those who are sick.

Yet I’m keenly aware that many people—including people whose intellect and morality I respect, people who are devoted followers of one or more of the moral codes that seem so self evidently on my side—aren’t in agreement with me.

Part of me thinks, “Well, not a one of us has access to objective Truth in its totality. I have my point of view; others have theirs. Can’t we all just get along?”

But another part of me, the part that is still that little kid who dreamt of confronting merchants of death on the high seas in the name of a transcendent good, feels compelled to challenge, critique, and attack what I perceive as ignorance, moral blind spots, narrow-mindedness, etc.

When it comes to public officials, there’s obviously no conflict—expressing oneself is fine and dandy, as long as one isn’t impinging on the rights of others.

But what about when you’re dealing with friends, family, colleagues? Is the drive to engage in debate—even friendly debate—with such people a good thing or a bad thing? A sign of sincere desire to search for the truth, or just a pathetic need to engage in rhetorical one-upsmanship? If I see an someone on Facebook approvingly post a screed by Ann Coulter or make a factually inaccurate argument about Obama’s “socialism,” is my nearly-reflexive desire to provide the other side, to “correct” them, to explain why their point of view is so disturbing and (to my mind) damaging to our collective world . . . is that desire coming from a good place or a bad place?

Again, I dunno.

One of the things I’m hoping to work toward in my own mind is a concept of rhetorical engagement which transcends the idea of “argument” in the narrow sense of being pro/con. There’s already been some work on that done (e.g. “Rogerian” argument), but it still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, I’ll keep dealing with my conflicting desires—the one to jump aboard my discursive Zodiac boat and aggressively harass those who would seek to harpoon the Truth as I grasp it (in my admittedly limited way), and the part of me that thinks it would be more congenial and decorous to simply lie on the beach and have another Mai Tai.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Of Black Helicopters and Grandmas

The current rhetoric about “death panels” that’s coming from not only loudmouths at town halls but from talking heads on television and established political figures reminds me a lot of the sort of “black helicopter” paranoia that is the stuff of conspiracy theories.

I did my doctoral research on conspiracy theories. Oddly enough, it was that experience that began my interest in looking at the rhetoric of conflict resolution and peace. Why? Because I learned that the usual way of looking at conspiracy theories, being for ‘em or again ‘em, wasn’t terribly useful. I came to the conclusion that a more nuanced view that looked at *why* they gained popularity in certain circles, what rhetorical purpose they served, and what light this shed on the democratic process.

The upshot was my view that conspiracy theories are often a vehicle through which subtle and complex grievances and anxieties are expressed, often by groups that perceive themselves to not have a voice in the public sphere. Stories of conspiracy simplified the issue, making it easier to communicate as well as more dramatic (hence, garnering more attention).

So, for example, I found it unhelpful to get into a debate about whether or not the CIA actually introduced crack cocaine into inner cities as a way of killing off African Americans, and more helpful to look at how and why this story developed. No, I don’t believe that government operatives parachuted into South Central L.A. with crack pipes and rocks of cocaine.

But what emerged was that there *were* real and valid concerns about the government and media’s neglect of the issue of drugs in the inner city and the way the justice system was perverted (through sentencing laws that made selling crack a far more serious crime than selling powder cocaine) to effectively inter black men in prison.

Was this an evil conspiracy hatched up in some secret room in the White House? No. But there was a reality to the grievances about the way the government was treating the issue. The result was a more dramatic narrative that reduced these often subtle and varied points through the crucible of narrative into a much more sensationalist and dramatic conspiracy theory (that did, in fact, force these concerns onto the national stage, if only briefly). Better to understand this than to simply write it all off as nonsense.

What I see going on today with the “Town Hells” going on around the country where people are shouting about “death camps” and “pulling the plug on grandma.”

Are these charges true? Of course not. Not even the most anti-Obama pundit, if she or he knows the proposed legislation at all, believes it. It’s paranoid and delusional and sensationalistic.

But does that make it all bad?

As I say above, these sorts of conspiracy theories often serve as vehicles for legitimate concern. Any major change in public policy—particularly when it involves something as intimate and visceral as one’s health—is going to be a cause of anxiety. There are reasonable concerns about how any change might affect our collective and individual well-being.

Now, putting my cards on the table, I think it’s fairly obvious that any variation of the plans now being considered would dramatically increase access to quality healthcare for just about everyone by expanding coverage and reducing costs. But one can believe that wholeheartedly and still acknowledge reasons for skepticism and even fear on the part of some who don’t see this. (For now, I’m tabling the issue of those who cynically oppose this legislation base on sheer economic self-interest and not out of sincere concern about personal health).

So, are these “Town Hells” activists who claim Obama is going to institute “Carousel” (a little Logan’s Run reference, for you sci fi fans) actually a legitimate way of giving public voice to rational-but-difficult-to-articulate concerns?

To answer that question, I return to what I found in my dissertation studies. Not all conspiracy theories are equal. Context counts. For example, the anti-government conspiracy theories of the militia movement (most infamously articulated in the racist, anti-semitic novel The Turner Diaries and acted upon by Timothy McVeigh) don’t fall into the same category as the stories about the CIA and crack cocaine.

Why not? Because these particular conspiracy narratives aimed at silencing others rather than simply voicing “outsider” points of view. They discouraged discussion because they not only made claims that marginal political beliefs should be heard, but said that other beliefs (in fact *all* other beliefs) were invalid and should be silenced (often through physical violence).

And that’s what I see increasingly in these town hall meetings. Even if we ignore the ample evidence that these protests are fomented by groups with financial, political, and ideological skin in the game who want to derail healthcare reform for reasons that have nothing to do with sincere concern about its affects on the average American, the actions and words of those at these town halls are disturbingly like the militia movement conspiracy narratives of the 1980s and 90s.

Shouting down people, hanging them in effigy, making comparisons to Nazis and Hitler—these have the effect of chilling debate. They don’t seek to simply articulate a point of view—they seek to silence others.

And let’s acknowledge that the point of view being articulated is hardly an “outsider” point of view. In fact, it’s a point of view well-established in the halls of power of political and corporate America masquerading as a grassroots uprising against the “establishment.”

That doesn’t mean I don’t have some sympathy for those who’ve been led to believe that they (or their grandma’s) health is going to be determined by a government panel. If I believed that, I would be shouting about it too. And I can get pissed off about how these folks are allowing themselves to be duped and are too lazy or ignorant to actually look at the facts, but simply writing these folks off as stupid people believing crazy shit doesn’t do much good.

But neither can I champion what’s going on with these conspiracy theories about death panels as some sort of creative way of broadening the public debate and giving voice to the disenfranchised. The “deathers” movement is far too close to the militia movement in its intolerance for other points of view, willingness to trade in fantasies of violence and murder, and barely-concealed racism to be an example of the ways conspiracy theories can productively undermine hegemonic narratives of power, even when they may be based on factually dubious claims.

On the contrary, it’s an example of how forces with power use fear to pit some people who feel marginalized and powerless (as I’m sure many “town hell-ers” feel) against other people who feel marginalized and powerless (those who are financially and physically vulnerable because of their lack of comprehensive healthcare).

My hope is that this paranoia will be revealed for what it is before we have a second coming of Timothy McVeigh who takes these fantasies of government conspiracy literally and acts on them.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Blending with Boehner's Visual Rhetoric

Perhaps you've seen this bit of visual rhetoric courtesy of Rep. John Boehner. It's his attempt to portray a government option in healthcare as some sort of Rube Goldberg-ian nightmare.

The point is obvious enough: by manufacturing a visual image that looks like the wiring schematic for a Boeing 777, Boehner hopes to scare people into opposing healthcare reform. The dread spectre of "BUREAUCRACY" is supposed to frighten the bejesus out of Americans. (Of course, Americans won't have to choose the government plan, but I digress.)

One way of countering this might be to criticize the visual image as inaccurate by pointing out its exaggerations. Another might be to create a similar diagram that would visualize the corporate bureaucracy involved in for-profit healthcare (which would likely be no less complicated and would include a bright green rectangle labeled "People Who Decide if You Are Worth More Dead than Alive").

Both approaches are a tad pugnacious. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, but what if we tried to come up with a way of countering this bit of visual rhetoric in a way that redirects the attack rather than directly opposing it?

I suggest one way of doing this is might be to offer the following visual:

It's simply a blank white space. What is it?
It's the healthcare plan that 47 million Americans currently have.
It's the healthcare plan millions more Americans would have if they left their current job in order to go back to school, start their own business, or care for an ill family member.
It's the healthcare plan many Americans with preexisting conditions would be invited to choose if they applied for coverage with one of the profit-driven corporations.
It's the healthcare plan many are left with once the company that had insured them decides they are no longer worth the cost of keeping alive.
By comparison, even Boehner's comical Rube Goldberg exaggeration looks pretty good, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Let the Healing Begin

So, it's been a while since I've done any serious blogging. I've had a few false starts after a long run on The Counterpoint, but the lack of any single controlling theme, as well as having a growing number of academic and other duties, including writing of various sorts, kept me from getting into any sort of groove.

That's changed at least a bit. An general issue that's becoming increasingly important in my intellectual and spiritual life is peace/nonviolence studies.

Hence, this current blog. It will be political, but rather than simply being an exercise in debunking highly bunkable arguments by various public figures, I will be making an attempt to use this space as a place to think through some ways in which the issues of rhetoric and nonviolence intersect. (There is, believe it or not, a surprisingly small amount of work being done on that topic.)

It might seem contradictory, but my plan is that this will also be a spot for me to do some personal reflecting on issues of nonviolence in a general sense, particularly how I might bring notions of conflict resolution (or, better yet, avoidance) in the classroom.

So while this blog has a fairly specific raison d'etre, my plan is for the subjects to vary more broadly than previous efforts, ranging from rather abstract philosophizing to a reflection on what went on in my class that day.

More than anything, this is a place for personal experimentation with thoughts and words. I welcome any thoughts or insights you can share.

Oh, and as my first move in my attempt to explore the intersection of politics, rhetoric, and my own life, I'm going to "friend" Mark Hyman on Facebook.

Yes, that Mark Hyman--the subject of The Counterpoint, and the guy who called me an example of "failures in higher education" (before being forced to retract his statements a few days later).

This might seem like a longshot, but I was encouraged to do so by my sister, who happens to be a nun. So, to quote the Blues Brothers, I'm on a mission from God.

I won't guess what Hyman's response will be, but I think the gesture will be worth it in any case, and I'll certainly keep you posted!



PS. If you want a rundown of my previous experiences with Mark Hyman, you can get it in
my "manifesto" that was published in Kairos a while back.