Saturday, April 28, 2007

American rhetoric: Not dead yet

To be sure, American rhetoric is in a decrepit state. But as Monty Python once observed, it's not dead yet.

The letters section is the most interesting reading in the local morning paper. You may not read the mind of average Joe there, but it gives you a glimpse at what and how the activists in the area think. For conservatives, their rhetorical influences are clear.

There was a classic this morning. Spurred, no doubt, by Rush Limbaugh's April 19 accusation that the Virginia Tech massacre was perpetrated by a liberal, the letter writer says liberals ...
should ask themselves how many times they have trashed America to promote their agendas.

How many times have certain politicians cheered on teachers and professors who spew venom and rabid hatred of everything American? How many judges have they appointed who support any ruling that undermines America?
Fine, I'll bite. How many?

Slayer of straw men since the 1980s, Limbaugh has been one of the most corrosive influences on American rhetoric, as displayed by this letter writer who sees the "subversive bilge" of liberal "'hate America' hate speech" behind the shooting rampage.

Straw men, innuendo, fear mongering, character assassination and talking points have replaced reason and facts in American rhetoric. The Bush administration and its war in Iraq are the results.

In an interview with Sen. John McCain this week, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart had had enough and fought back. While saying he respected McCain's service, he challenged the "support the troops" talking point, asking why questioning the president's strategy or asking for a timetable was less supportive than "extending their tours of duty from 12 months to 15 months, putting them at stop-loss, and not having Walter Reed be up to snuff." McCain dodged the question, replying that troops feel they're fighting for freedom and proud of their service — a variant of "support the troops."

But Stewart would not be cowed (it's his show) and repeated his challenge. He left McCain looking at the floor after he shot right back with:
JON STEWART: All I'm saying is you cannot look a soldier in the eye and say "Questioning the president is less supportive to you than extending your tour three months." You should be coming home to your family.
In his Jon Stewart interview last night, Bill Moyers used that exchange to observe how conservative operatives are lost when stripped of talking points and forced to resort to reason.
BILL MOYERS: Your persistence and his inability to answer without the talking points did get to the truth ... that there's a contradiction to what's going on in that war, that they can't talk about.
Why? Maybe because they've been consistently dishonest, logically inconsistent, immoral in their methods, and they don't care what the American people think anyway. But Stewart explained his thoughts further (emphasis mine):
JON STEWART: I don't think politics is any longer about a conversation with the country. It's about figuring out how to get to do what you want ...

You know, one of the things that I do think government counts on is that people are busy. And it's very difficult to mobilize a busy and relatively affluent country, unless it's over really crucial — you know, foundational issues ...

So, there's a disconnect there between — you're telling me this is the fight of our generation, and you're going to increase troops by 10 percent. And that's gonna do it. I'm sure what he would like to do is send 400,000 more troops there, but he can't, because he doesn't have them. And the way to get that would be to institute a draft. And the minute you do that, suddenly the country's not so damn busy anymore. And then they really fight back, and then the whole thing falls apart. So, they have a really delicate balance to walk between keeping us relatively fearful, but not so fearful that we stop what we're doing and really examine how it is that they've been waging this.
That sad story will come out whatever they do. It stretches from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib to Baghdad to Guantanamo. They’re as busy trying to keep us from thinking critically about it as they are avoiding doing that themselves.

Still there's hope, as Stewart's encounter with McCain shows. The real trick will come when confronting politicians who, unlike McCain, have no need of a conscience.

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