The Better Rhetor
In Search of the Good Person, Well Spoken
Tuesday, May 06, 2003
Hail and Farewell!
We at the Better Rhetor are embarking on a journey of sorts, which means we are suspending this page indefinitely. We regret this, as we believe that blogs are the future of democratic discourse in America and want to be part of it, and, besides, it’s fun. Still, there is no shortage of Better Blogs and no shortage of Better Rhetors, even in these parlous times.
We would leave you with some of those Better Rhetors who have most helped us on our way.
To understand LANGUAGE, we could do worse than to begin with him:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
To understand PRINCIPLED DISSENT in contemporary America, we might study the writings of this man:
The democratic state uses force when persuasion does not work. It uses it against its own citizens when they cannot be persuaded to obey the laws. It uses it against other peoples in the act of war, not always in self-defense, but often when it cannot persuade other nations to do its bidding.
And this man:
There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organization, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change -- and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future.
To understand personal and political COURAGE, we could do far worse than to learn from this woman:
In the face of this approaching disaster, it behooves men and women not yet overcome by war madness to raise their voice of protest, to call the attention of the people to the crime and outrage which are about to be perpetrated on them.
Finally, if we want to know more about BEING HUMAN, we might read, from time to time, the writings of this word-artisan:
And it was at that age...Poetry arrived
Hard to follow lines like that, but I’ll suggest only that that there is poetry to be found in our time in the churches, gyms, street corners, and parks where people are gathering to protest, to dissent, to resist, to refuse absolutely the propaganda and war machines of the Right.
Hope that I might meet you someday in one of those churches, gyms, or parks where people are gathering, organizing, and fighting for a better country. Thanks for reading.
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
Better Rhetor, Tim Robbins
We'd love this exchange just for the reference to the '69 Mets. Democracy and free speech are great, too!
Dear Mr. Robbins:
Now this is a huge surprise. From FAIR.
CNN's Reliably Narrow Sources
For the rest, and it's worth reading, go here.
Fire the Teachers!
You know things have gone to hell when kids are writing poems and asking questions. Time to fire the teachers!
From the Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center:
Free Speech Fight In New Mexico
And here’s the offending poem:
For more, go here.
Tuesday, April 22, 2003
Victory And Killer's Remorse
Wise Nations Do Not Exult In Military Conquests
Here at Better Rhetor, we take great delight in exposing the lies, inanities, and downright bad faith in much contemporary rhetoric. Every so often, though, we encounter a Better Rhetor, one whose language can inspire, heal, hearten, and make strong. Here is one such example from Better Rhetor Shepard Bliss.
By Shepard Bliss
America's celebration of our military victory in Iraq has left out something important. Our country needs to temper its euphoria with humility or pause for the killing that was done in our name and with our tax dollars.
It's not just that we risk further alienating our allies and the international community, whose support improves our security in the post 9/11 world. Victors in wars face certain dangers, most notably when they fail to reflect and exercise restraint, but instead seek new conquests without addressing war's aftermath for both victors and victims.
Indeed, there are better and worse ways for a nation to conduct itself in victory. Simply celebrating military prowess is not what wise nations do. Wiser leaders and those who know the human costs of combat and seek a return to civil society try to be humble.
For the rest, go here.
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
"What You Need to Know"
(And Why You’d Better Know It)
So now we see that President Bush has warned Syria that it needs to go along with U.S plans for the region. His exact words were "Syria just needs to cooperate with us."
This is a variation of a familiar Bush refrain: What people "just need to do," or "what they need to know," or "what you need to understand." You hear this often with Bush, almost as a recurring theme, as in these comments made last year in reponse to a question about whether the U.S. was prepared to use military means beyond Afghanistan:
What people need to know is… we are going to do our job in Afghanistan first. Then we can find other areas… of opportunity to rout out terrorism.
Or this, when asked during the presidential campaign about his past drug use:
"The game of trying to force me to prove a negative and to chase down unsubstantiated, ugly rumors has got to end," Bush replied, adding: "What people need to know about meis that when I swear in, I will swear in to not only uphold the laws of the land, I will swear to uphold the dignity in the office, of the office to which I had been elected, so help me God.
Or this, when talking about his plans to restructure social security:
I can say definitively every Social Security recipient is going to get their check.And that's what the American people need to understand.
Liberals have had a lot of fun mocking President Bush’s frequent verbal gaffes. And they are funny, a lot of them, with what pies being higher, and our nation held hostile, and the human being and the fish coexisting peacefully, and all the rest of that strange lingo that defines the verbal landscape of George Bush. Listen to him long enough, and Bush can make Reagan sound like Cicero.
And maybe Bush's repeated use of "what you need to know" could be seen as just a verbal tic, a way of filling out and amplifying a statement. (Next time Dick Cheney comes out of his undisclosed location to give an interview, count how many times he uses the phrase "if you will" when answering a question.)
But I think there’s more to it than that. Like Mark Crispin Miller, I think these performances reveal more than a comical disregard for the language or a second-rate intelligence. I think they reveal something innate about George Bush, something intrinsic to his personality and view of the world.
In the Bush lingo, "What you need to know" functions a way to cut off questions, end discussion, and discourage thought. It is a profoundly authoritarian phrase, one that speaks to Bush’s patrician background and privileged upbringing. He knows what we need to know, and he will make no bones about telling us. More, the use of this phrase is deeply anti-democratic, a command that the people follow and not question. It is the speaker’s way of letting you know who’s in charge, who has power, who has the right to speak. It absolves listeners of responsibility and encourages them to place all troublesome thoughts in the hands of the Dear Leader, the Grand Inquisitor, the God-king, or whatever title the dictator-of-the-day has bestowed upon himself. (And It’s almost always a "He," isn’t it?)
Bush is no dictator, not legally, but he is an authoritarian, one who seems to resent intensely the questions or criticisms of others, no matter how mild. From the start, his presidency has been spectacularly anti-democratic, whether in its quest to expand executive powers, its obsessive pursuit of secrecy, its contempt for the U.N., its incessant propagandizing, or, at the most basic level, its theft of the democratic process in Florida. "What you need to know" captures the authoritarian nature of the Bush regime, letting all of us know that we are no longer required to question, to think, to act. Bush will do these for us. That's what we need to know.
For some, this can be a tremendous relief, a lifting of burdens. You don't need to trouble your head: Bush will do your thinking for you. That's what you need to understand. Such thoughts, for some, may be comforting. It may be easier at last to love Big Brother.
For the rest of us, though, what Bush says we need to know and what we really need to know are very different things. What will we do about it?
Friday, April 11, 2003
From Spin to Strut
At the very first sign of military difficulty in Iraq, when Americans started getting killed and captured, and the Iraqi people weren’t swarming into the streets to greet us as liberators, the hawks who had pushed so hard for war began spinning so vigorously it’s surprising their heads weren’t detached from their necks.
Uber-hawk Donald Rumsfeld made clear that "the plan," i.e., the bright shining military plan that suddenly and unexpectedly looked tarnished, was in fact "Tommy Frank’s plan," meaning that Franks would take the fall if the whole thing blew up. Meanwhile, administration chickenhawks Dick (We Will Be Greeted as Liberators) Cheney, Kenneth (It Will Be a Cakewalk) Adelman, and the odious Richard (The Enemy Will Collapse at the First Whiff of Gunpowder) Perle, were all desperately bobbing and weaving away from their own arrogant predictions and trying, we assume, to salvage their careers if the whole thing ended in disaster.
But then the U.S. military bailed them out, at least for the time being. Saddam’s Hussein’s regime indeed collapsed, and while there are many questions yet to answer, the hawks are now doing their victory dance in the end zone. First there was Cheney’s crowing about the the wisdom of the military plan, suddenly lustrous again, followed by Kenneth Adelman’s piece of self-congratulatory puffery, in which the former Reagan advisor could say, in so many words, "Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah!"
We might find it comical if so may people hadn't died as a result of all this hubris. Meanwhile, here’s one prediction that never required any spinning or revisions. From an interview with Noam Chomsky, back in December:
Q: Do you think the Bush Administration is bluffing about attacking Iraq?
Watch for the strutting. More to follow. At least until things turn bad again, when the strutting reverts to spinning.
Some Things Are Beyond Comment
But that’s never true here. We have finally have comments! Thanks to Patrick at Bombs Over Bloghdad! for showing me how to set it up.
Sunday, April 06, 2003
I Had This Dream About Donald Rumsfeld
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
—Percy Bysshe Shelly’s Ozymandias, recalled for me by You Got Style.
Credit Where It’s Due
No sooner do I write that the major media are unwilling to deviate from Official Truth by considering anti-U.S. perspectives on the war, and not 24 hours after I name 60 Minutes as a chief culprit, than does 60 Minutes run this credible piece by Ed Bradley exploring Jordanian anger toward the U.S. as a result of the U.S. invasion.
Kudos Ed Bradley. Kudos Don Hewitt.
Saturday, April 05, 2003
Contours of Debate:
Theirs and Ours
Just when you think irony is really, truly, and finally dead:
In a recent editorial in The New York Times, Ethan Bronner argues that the long dictatorship of Saddam Hussein has so degraded Iraqi political discourse that most people, far from thirsting for democracy and freedom, may not understand or even be capable of imagining it. Bronner says that the Iraqi reluctance to greet Americans as liberators, so famously predicted by Cheney, Wolfowitz and others, cannot be explained solely in terms of Iraqi fears of Saddam Hussein. Instead, Bronner writes, many Iraqis actually support Hussein over their alleged liberators, i.e., the United States—a state of affairs that makes no sense to Americans raised on ideals of liberty and free expression:
I know this seems unfathomable [Bronner writes]. How could any people support a leader of such cruelty and megalomania? Don't Iraqis, like other people, thirst for freedom? Maybe, but political freedom is such a foreign concept that most Iraqis have no context in which to thirst for it. The contours of debate within Iraq are so narrow that there is no meaningful way to discuss negative feelings about Mr. Hussein. Indeed, the language of Iraqi politics has been so degraded that it provides no framework for opposition, let alone for what might be imagined as an alternative. It is, as one diplomat put it to me, "like a church — people don't stop to ask if the God they are praying to is good."
There is an important truth here. There is also an irony about as subtle as a safe dropped on one’s head from ten stories up.
The truth is that the corruption of public discourse can limit debate. When you have been fed an Official Truth for so long, and when you have seen others persecuted for dissenting from this truth, and when there are no competing voices or alarms, there may come a time when Official Truth becomes, finally, just plain truth. You begin to believe. You begin, at last, to love Big Brother. Bronner puts it this way:
Part of the explanation is the nature of totalitarianism: millions of Soviets wept when Stalin died. Part of it is the nature of being held hostage. Iraq is a nation of Elizabeth Smarts.
The Elizabeth Smart reference is regrettable—a gratuitous & foolish remark—but I think Bronner is essentially correct. The degradation of political discourse can make it hard for many people to think thoughts that are contrary to Accepted Truth. (Of course the opposite is equally possible: Many Iraqis may harbor convictions that are poorly understood by Saddam Hussein and Ethan Bronner, and which will be the basis of a vibrant civic discourse. We assume what Iraqis "think" and "believe" at great risk.)
Either way, it is not hard to see that language is the basis of our reality, shaping who we are, what we believe, and what we can imagine in the world. And it is not hard to see that for many Iraqis such questions have always been framed in the language of Saddam Hussein. And this would indeed corrupt healthy public discourse.
But the irony here, well, you wonder how Ethan Bronner missed it. We in the U.S. are, of course, a people who pride ourselves on our freedom of expression and fierce individuality. That’s part of our mythos, our ideology. But we are also—increasingly and more stridently—a nation of Official Truths that narrow debate and corrupt thinking.
It is not permissible, for example, to discuss in our major media the question of whether George Bush is a war criminal and a terrorist, a man responsible for the murders of children and parents in Iraq. That’s the view of many people around the world, but we do not seriously discuss such things here. It’s beyond the pale. It’s not "rational discourse." Nor is it permitted to sustain a discussion in the major media of whether the current war is just the latest manifestation of a genocidal foreign policy that has resulted in the suffering of millions of people across the world, from the Philippines, to Vietnam, to Guatemala, to Iraq.We do not discuss such things on shows like 60 Minutes or 20/20. Such conversations are beyond the borders of Acceptable Discourse.
Are such claims—made by people across the world—actually true? Is George Bush a terrorist? Has U.S. foreign policy been the cause of enormous suffering and death? In terms of our public discourse, it doesn’t matter. Such ideas are so far outside the boundaries of Accepted Truth that we cannot even begin to address them. To quote Ethan Bronner again, "The contours of debate . . . are so narrow that there is no meaningful way to discuss" the uncomfortable or the subversive.
Instead, we are seeing an ever more aggressive enforcement of acceptable truths: The Dixie Chicks ostracized for criticizing the president (in a campaign apparently orchestrated by a major corporation); shoppers arrested for wearing the anti-war t-shirts in public malls; journalists fired for expressing the wrong views. (Does anyone really think Peter Arnett would have been sacked if he praised U.S. policy rather than criticized it? Would his "judgment" and "objectivity" have been questioned? Or wuld he have been celebrated for his "courage" and "clarity"?)
Bronner finishes his column by writing, with seeming exasperation, that Iraqis cannot even understand all that we are currently doing for them in this war:
They believe that the United States, which has led the international boycott of their country, has been keeping them down for the past 12 years. Tell them the same country has decided to spend billions and risk its young people to liberate them, and they will probably have no idea of what you might be talking about.
They believe our sanctions have been killing them. They don’t realize we are liberating them. Their contours of debate are too narrow, according to Ethan Bronner. It's the White Man's Burden revisited: They don't understand we are killing them for their own good.
The people of Iraq may well need a new language for their public discourse. They'll need a great many things once Saddam Hussein is gone. But I'm more worried about the public discourse in our country, and how we will find the language to question our own versions of Official Truth.
What to do in a Terrorist Attack!
(Helpful Hints from the Dept. of Homeland Security)
"Hurricanes, animal corpses and the biohazard symbol have a lot in common. Think about it."
For more invaluable advice, go here!
Blacks Showing Decided Opposition to War
From the GALLUP NEWS SERVICE:
The beginning of war with Iraq brought about a rally in support for military action, from percentages in the high 50s prior to the breakdown of the diplomatic process to the current 71% who say they favor the war. A closer look at the data from two Gallup Polls conducted since the war began shows that a majority of most demographic groups favor the war, with two exceptions being blacks and ideological liberals. Opposition among blacks is especially widespread, at 68%.
Maybe this would be a better country if everyone were black.