John Kerry and ‘you’

Senator Kerry and the GOP machine is making my life as a teacher easy. I just talked about unidentified antecedents in class Monday, and here he is, getting in huge hot water over the same thing. It’s language in action. I have a great real-world example for next class.

The NYT, as usual, completely botched explaining the quote in its eagerness to look fair – actually, they didn’t even bother trying. They need someone sharper on staff.

It’s always worth it to go and look at a transcript or video to make a real judgment based on context rather than secondhand rumor. This is the original news article, I believe, suggesting his comment was part of a warm-up act of bad one-liners, including Bush living in a “state of denial.” This video clip gives the actual quote, but very little before or after. Inconclusive so far… but Chris Matthews of MSNBC appears to have read a transcript or seen unedited footage that has yet to appear online. He may be alone – I can’t find anyone else who even claims to have seen one. But he references the “state of denial” joke and opines that Kerry is talking about Bush:

MATTHEWS: [I]f you listen to the transition of words there, it clearly looks like he was talking about President Bush being in a state of denial, not realizing when he took us into Iraq what he was going to face because he didn’t study hard in school.

Now if you take the quote out of context and leave it by itself (as nearly every news source has parroted) then the ‘you’ is left to the imagination:

“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Bush is not mentioned in this sentence, and the connotation shifts to a generic ‘you’ without the explicit understanding that ‘you’ is Bush, getting stuck in Iraq because he didn’t do his homework in gathering good intelligence. It’s a vague or unidentified antecedent – in this case, the identifier is in previous remarks that go unquoted. Kerry’s own defense of the quote is consistent with this – the joke was for Bush.

So Kerry is guilty of nothing, alas, but leaving his pronouns without support. The media couldn’t follow this, probably due to lack of a good transcript, apparently, though Matthews was on his toes. The heavily cropped video on Google and YouTube, too, avoids the context. But the damage, of course, has been done… a classic case of a sound bite that in turn bites the speaker.

More interesting than Kerry’s poor pronoun usage, though, is the automatic assumption of who the ‘you’ was. Almost universally, the news, the politicians asked to comment, etc, upon hearing or reading the quote knee-jerk assume that soldiers were being maligned as uneducated slackers and that smart students can avoid going to Iraq, yadda yadda.

I suspect there is a stereotype of members of the military that lies at the root of this knee-jerk interpretation. In searching for the transcript or a video, I saw a lot of military members defending themselves against this perceived ‘attack’ – and all quite unnecessarily. Think for a second. Kerry is a vet. A decorated one, no less. Reason would suggest that in all likelihood such a quote is out of context. No American politician, not even Dan Quayle at his dimmest (there’s a stereotype for you), knowingly or unknowingly insults the troops. But, of course, the GOP is awfully good at tarnishing war heroes that don’t share their politics.

San Antonio

The ABC conference went surprisingly well. I will never again drive to San Antonio, or any other conference more than a few hours’ drive away. 11-13 hour drives are too much for my creaking bones and it is near impossible to sleep more than 15 minutes after such exercise. It also ate up two days when I could have been reading.

My Friday presentation was scatterbrained and impromptu as usual – maybe I just should give up and use Powerpoint like everyone else – but a small group stuck around, good-naturedly disagreed with me, and asked good questions. I met some nice people. For example, a fellow I sat down next to at lunch turned out to have a degree in religion and we had a long talk on citations in the gospels. It’s pleasant to meet someone that has read everything I have and knows what I’m talking about.

I was also invited to the rhetoric SIG, which was interesting, and I tagged along with a large group of Iowa State (or was it Ohio State?) & Utah State PhD students to Chili’s for dinner. That was also interesting, but for a different reason – it was a social gathering that would be nigh impossible here in Memphis. Counting me, there were 9 people there eating, and I can’t ever recall a time when 9 PhD students from the UofM got together and shot the shit. Outside of a class, that is, I can’t recall ever hanging and having a reasonably elevated conversation with more than 3 others simultaneously. There are just way more MFAs here.

They were shocked to learn that I take 4 and teach 2, which I found amusing. All of them were 2 and 2, a fanciful proposition ’round these parts.

I was only there for the day, but my impression of ABC was that its focus was mainly on business writing as opposed to more lofty “technical” writing, and it catered equally to non-tenure-track folks.

Another thing emerged from the experience that I did not anticipate – I should probably try to publish my termination letter work. Until now I didn’t really have the drive to write it up, article-style; now, I really want to make the case for more humanistic composition. I knew of course a long time ago that no one has said much on this stuff – but I have not realized the full implications until now. I wonder if one of ABC’s journals would take it. There is certainly a hunger in some of the folks there for rhetorical analysis. We’ll see.

To close, here’s a picture (missing, 3/29/07) of the very impressive monument in front of the Alamo. It is nearly as iconic as the relief of Col. Shaw and his men in Boston. I was starting to get chills inside the church, but one look in the Alamo gift shop neatly released any awe (not to mention the Pizza Hut across the street and the huge 3-story mall a block away). Alas, the monument is the only part of the surroundings that the ending of Preacher got right, until a lot of landscaping has occurred in between.



I should really be finish this linguistics paper off. It’s about hyphens. But it’s not going to happen tonight – probably in the morning. There are a variety of topics I could babble about in this post, and have been meaning to babble about, but the full-bore babbling instinct is out for repairs.

I could talk about my recent guilty enjoyment of a poorly-reviewed PC game, Scarface (which is a brilliant take, I think, on the movie of the same name – I’ve never played a game based on middleman-level cocaine distribution before).

I could talk about the persuasive writing class I taught tonight, which went well despite my repeated inability to pronounce the names of various OT prophets and the predictable failure of the laptop cart. The major ideas seem to have taken – that the gospels are a series of arguments that present four different perspectives on Jesus and the OT citation schemes that the respective authors use is not dissimilar to what they as students do when supporting their own arguments. Next time I’ll have a handout for everything instead of just half. There was way too much page-flipping. They kept up, though.

I could talk about my unrealistically optimistic view of the drive to San Antonio that I must do later this week for a conference. I hope the car holds out. I have a odd feeling it needs more attention than just an oil change and a wash. Nothing a garage on the way can’t fix if necessary.

I could talk about my new, more conservative approach to my doctoral studies. I have more or less decided to cut back some for sanity’s sake. Instead of sending out 3-4 papers this semester, I will aim for 2, and let the others simmer ’til spring and develop in presentations. This approach should allow me to swim to the shores of Christmas relatively intact. I was in danger of burning out. It’s still uncomfortable, but I no longer feel panicked.

I could also stop saying that I could talk about something and then start talking about it anyway, too, I guess.

Rationality, religion, etc

There’s a really good article in the new issue of CCC by Patricia Bizzell on the arguments used in the Barcelona Disputation of 1263. It’s a model, I think, of the kind of stuff I’d like to do in my dissertation, although in a much more exploded and in-depth way. But the thrust behind her essay pushes all the buttons that I like pushed – rhetoric as a double-edged sword, the manner in which rationality can serve or hinder religious and political thought (the ethos of using logos when people’s worldviews are based on pathos, perhaps?), and how religious texts with an assumption of holy inerrancy are presented and digested by various groups.

I was just plain glad to see some NT & OT discussion in a comp journal, too. My particular interest is way, way before the 13th century, before Christianity formed orthodoxies capable of setting up one-sided debates like the one Bizzell describes, but the question of how reason can sit with religion (and in particular with religious texts) is essentially the same. She’s spun it with a modern classroom twist – which I supposed is necessary for CCC – which I agree with fully, though I would take it a bit further and say the religious texts that our culture is/was largely based on are fair game for analyzing and teaching argument – not just the debates surrounding them. Friar Paul and Nahmanides are not just making arguments centered on textual evidence, they are doing argument analysis, creating arguments about polemic religious claims that are themselves arguments, much like any student in one of my courses writes an argument analysis paper.

Now while the act of analysis is technically similar, there is also the religious and political charge of analyzing a text that is supposedly inerrant after centuries of textual corruption and redaction. Pick your testament – they had less knowledge of manuscript transmission in the 13th century than we have now.

Inerrancy assumes, I would argue, that any claim in an inerrant text is not an argument or part of one – it is truth, and stating truth is not an argument, per se. Reason, however, sees a claim as a claim, whether it is in the Gospel of Mark, the New York Times, or President Bush’s latest speech. Claims, if they are to be believed beyond faith, require reasons, evidence, etc, the whole Toulmin model. When much of the NT cites the OT for evidence (quite often inaccurately, alas) that Jesus is the Messiah (the key subject of the Barcelona debate, I gather), there is a tacit assumption that those ‘inerrant’ claims need evidence. But if they are true to begin with, why descend into the realm of reason at all? It’s still difficult for me to deal with Christianity’s historical concerns for proving itself in terms of reason when faith, it seems, is all that is required. Even a holy and inerrant text seems superfluous. Why all the concern over documentation? Does the Bible come down to just being a conversion tool?

Anyway, that article really cheered me up, as I’ve been having some doubts that I can write a dissertation concerning NT and early Christian rhetoric without creating an impression I’m some sort of biblical studies person lost in an English department. That’s just not the case; that area is just the angle I tend to think about composition and agrument from these days, along with whole text/paragraph theory. my general obsession with diction, and a concern for the visual from technical writing.


It is quite late, 3:35 am to be exact; yet there is some residual energy, so I will type it away.

Most of today has been devoted to finally reading through the books I got from Harding a month ago and taking notes. I’d rather just read – I’d already read the things weeks ago, but taking accurate notes (in MS Word, alas, as these books are not mine and I cannot mark them up!) are quite necessary, as I need to cite all of these books in the to-be-rewritten-metaphor article, especially Joachim Jeremias’ The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. I actually understood half of the points he made on Greek syntax in the Gospels; I’m not sure whether to be thrilled or frightened.

Which brings me (Killick is not only person that begins sentences with ‘which’, aha!) to a more disturbing point. Certain books lately have just pissed me off. I threw Michael Crotty’s The Foundations of Social Research across the den the other day. It deserves its heavy front-cover crease. I’ll read it many times over the next few years, but I’ll throw it about the same number of times, I’m sure. Then I think I’ll burn it. Likewise I found Mogens Stiller Kjargaard’s Metaphor and Parable to be intolerable today (and it’s not just the translation – it’s the sheer inane thrust of the whole work) but its binding is too stiff for anything but a firearm. Sigh.

I think one of the biggest reasons I got into rhet/comp is that the authors are half readable. There are exceptions, of course – Nan Johnson’s 19th Century Rhetoric in North America flops to mind – although once deciphered, its value emerges. But the tech writing books I spent ‘03-’04 reading in grad school were almost always snoozers. The only one that wasn’t was Dr. MacNealy’s Strategies for Empirical Research in Writing – if only all textbooks were written so clearly and with such brevity. If I ever teach methods, it’s first on the list, updated or not.

But for the most part, the New Testament rhetoric stuff that I read is pretty passable in terms of readability. They usually dig into the text right away, which I like, and forgo an overdose on theory. If they do begin such a rhapsody, it is generally short, within reason, and not physically painful. I’m fully aware that there is a “popular” kind of scholarly writing where a crossover with the bestseller list is possible, and I’m not talking about that. I’m simply referring to actual clarity of speech when discussing complex ideas. I have not yet learned to control my book-throwing impulses when I encounter potentially good, complex ideas that are further obscured by unnecessarily complex, and therefore poor, language. I can dig deconstructionism, but I have to take Chomsky’s position on Derrida – if all reasonable efforts by an intelligent entity to understand the text have failed, what is left may be brilliant, but it is useless.