In Defense of Cheap Rhetoric

I agree with Meghan McCain’s recent eulogy of her father on whether Donald Trump partakes of “cheap rhetoric.” I would go further, though, and say his style is the cheapest kind of cheap. But I am also compelled, as an academic that studies rhetoric, to defend the word ‘rhetoric’ and even ‘cheap,’ when used to describe rhetoric.

Rhetoric as a word comes from ancient Athens, where philosophers such Plato and his student Aristotle, among many others, were deeply interested in how Athens’s democracy functioned through public persuasion, which they called ‘rhetoric.’ It had a bad name then, too, as empty and deceptive discourse, but some, such as the philosopher Isocrates, thought skill at rhetoric was at the very core of being a citizen. After all, it is hard to govern, especially in a citizen-state like Athens that chose its public officials by lot (random, essentially) if you cannot get people to accept your positions and ideas.

Aristotle recognized rhetoric as happening only in specific venues such as the assembly (Athens’s thousands-strong forerunner of our Congress), jury trials, and the eve of battle. Most rhetoric and communication scholars today have expanded upon these categories, though, and subscribe to some version of a “big rhetoric” concept, which states all communication is rhetorical, or, in other words, persuasive, down to the simplest “hello” or “how are you doing?” asked in public. Every instance of communication, according to this model, is trying to get its audience to do something, even if just to pay attention and accepting what the speaker or writer is saying to think is important. Modern advertising is probably the easiest to understand manifestation of this idea. Rhetoric is always a curator, selecting and deciding what to present.

But we do not need the “big rhetoric” perspective to see Meghan McCain is a wielder of rhetoric herself, and her powerful eulogy is a great example of what rhetoricians like myself use a ten-dollar Greek word to describe, epideictic, a ceremonial rhetoric that “praises or blames” at occasions like funerals or church services. An epideictic speech like a eulogy celebrates the values we hold and assaults the ones we detest. Mrs. McCain does both with her carefully chosen words. The subject of her blame is obvious.

Watch the video of her speech online. Her rhetoric is not cheap. Like her father, who had earned a massive amount of ethos – a Greek word that blends character and reputation – through his biography and statesmanship, Mrs. McCain has her own powerful ethos simply as a daughter who has lost a father.

I could mention the rhetorical techniques she used in her speech – her use of repetition to stress McCain’s fatherhood, her impassioned delivery, her stinging rebuke of Trump’s lame fundamentalist slogan – but I will not. I will just mention paralipsis, the technique I just used, where I said I would not say something, but did anyway. It is one of Trump’s favorite devices – an inherently dishonest maneuver. In other words, cheap rhetoric.

Unlike Donald Trump, who has acquired everything that he has with money, John McCain, while far from poor himself, or perfect, had many qualities that cannot be purchased with money. These qualities were learned through painful experience, won through tough conflict, and expressed through measured deeds. But the one I want to mention here, which ties most closely to the Athenian idea of rhetoric, is his renowned ability to be bipartisan in Congress. Like Isocrates, who I mentioned earlier tied skill in rhetoric directly to ideal citizenship, McCain understood better than perhaps any currently serving member of Congress that government cannot function effectively without eloquence that aims to help all (or at least most) and not some.

In this political age, ideas are rarely viewed on their merits. They are automatically checked for approval against one’s party line. Whether or not the idea is helpful or not is irrelevant. Good rhetoric, in the Isocratic view, is to be employed in support of the citizenry, not in the maintenance of power. And that is the difference between John McCain and Donald Trump – one sought to help Americans and embody virtue; the other seeks to defraud Americans and embodies vice. That’s another Greek device, antithesis, of course.

Perhaps I am reading too much into Meghan McCain’s remarks. Perhaps she subscribes to the usual view of ‘rhetoric’ as always being deceptive and cheap. But her father stood for decades in Congress as an example of how rhetoric is supposed to work. So, I hope she does not think only that. And, by writing this, I hope you do not think only that either.

The good and the bad and perhaps some ugly

My losing streak for journal submissions has finally dried up. Two strong R&Rs that look promising have arrived, along with another crushing and disappointing rejection where I apparently managed to erase scholars of color, queerness, and other diverse groups. Or at least that’s what I’m told.

I remember the first time I got a competent rejection. It was in 2008, while I was finishing my doctorate. I sent a piece to Rhetoric Review and the longtime editor, Theresa Enos, sent back a short letter that more or less said, “Sorry, but there’s not enough there there.”

I thought about this, and I realized she was right. The thesis was of the “gee, this is interesting” variety and ultimately not useful to anyone. After a lengthy revision, the next journal started with what seemed to be a solid R&R but became a bait and switch with a third reviewer who thought they had found the critical flaw in my argument (they hadn’t; they just hadn’t read closely the two-page rebuttal in the middle of the piece), but it hit on the third journal. This added up to a three-year delay in publication, of course. I don’t know how folks that don’t write essentially evergreen argument manage to sustain careers.

Speaking of Rhetoric Review, until recently I didn’t know it was the first rhetcomp journal to require peer review, in the early 80s. Which makes me think – most of the classic scholarship of rhetcomp is in the 70s. I wonder.

A guitar

I have not bought a guitar since 2003, and not a new one since, oh, 1993. This summer I decided to change that, and bought a brand new 2018 Gibson J-15.

It is the most inexpensive acoustic Gibson makes, which in layman’s terms means ‘not very bloody cheap’ because like all Gibsons, it is USA-made and gorgeous. I got it at a very steep discount online that felt almost criminal. Its main competition was a gently used 2013 Gibson Songwriter, which was a very nice guitar in its own right, but it didn’t scream BUY ME in my ear as the right guitar tends to do.

I tried a lot of Martins and Taylors. The Martin 000-015 was a live wire, but its lack of electronics was a dealbreaker. The Mexican Martins were all duds. Most of the Taylors, even the higher-end ones, were ok, but felt like toys. I found a nicely discounted GS Mini-e, but I could have snapped it in half over my knee.

I used to have a ’77 Gibson Heritage that I bought in Boston in 2001 or so. I sold it at a reasonable profit several years ago and have regretted it since. Now I feel much better. Getting a different guitar usually triggers a long period of increased playing for me, and I have been needing that.

Melania, you could save us

It occurred to me today that Melania Trump could singlehandedly save the Union and be the most beloved First Lady in history. It might take her a few hours, tops.

All she would have to do is call a press conference, and during it denounce her husband’s presidency and behavior, and announce she is filing for divorce.

I don’t think the GOP has any possible countermove to that. Neither does Trump. Attacking her in any way would backfire. They would have to maintain a stony silence while she undercuts everything that he has claimed about himself.

I don’t think she has the guts, though. There is little chance she married this man while blind. And I’m sure such an action would violate her prenup. Trump would have been sure to muzzle her with a threatened lawsuit and a cutoff of funds.

However, I’m positive a grateful nation would make sure she wasn’t left penniless. Do the right thing, Melania. It is easy when you know what is right – much harder, though, when you don’t.

Let’s Just Buy Them

I wonder if anyone of the U.S. representatives that has bargained with North Korea in the past has considered, or even offered, to just buy their nukes to get the process started.

The estimates I’ve seen for the total cost of Kim’s nuclear program are between $1-3 billion. To the U.S., that’s spare change, so why not just buy them?

NK is thought to have about 60 nukes. Offer $500 million cash for each complete warhead successfully delivered to Oak Ridge for decommissioning. That’s $30 billion total, giving Kim at least a 1000% return on investment if he spent $3 billion to get them. An infusion of cash nearly three times his country’s GDP (12 billion) would be hard to turn down, even if he just uses it to build better torture chambers and more statues of himself.

To us, it would be completely worth it, even if we paid twice that. $60 billion is a bargain to avoid a nuclear exchange, and $30 billion is a steal.

Kim could try to game this. He could turn over 50 or so older warheads, collect $25 billion, and keep 10 or more modern ones, losing very little capacity to strike. But we could combine the offer with insistence on unrestricted inspection, not shipping or paying for them except all at once after confirming we have all of them, and sweeten the deal by placing zero restrictions or expectations on how the money could be spent and signing a peace treaty. Now that would be something.

In any case, as complicated as that would be to arrange, all that would really only be Step 1 of disarmament. Next would be deals for the missiles, the reactors, the technology, the facilities – all the apparatus to start it all easily would have to be destroyed and then constantly checked forever afterward. That’s what Trump can’t understand. This is not like buying a hotel. I struggle to come up with a sufficient parallel. The scope of Superfund comes to mind.

 

Some professional updates.

Another rejection came in, this one for a co-authored piece.

I can’t figure out what it was rejected for, though; the editor gives no hint, and the reviewers didn’t find anything serious, just trivia. One of them even praises it in their opening (misstating the thesis, of course) like it’s an acceptance or at least an R&R, and doesn’t undercut it afterward.

So my overall reaction is… huh. Like the other two rejections I’ve gotten this year, there is little evidence they understood the argument at all. I have communicated to my co-author, a grad student, that this is not surprising, and the long process continues.

In brighter news, I just completed a very lengthy, complicated R&R that I have been sweating for months, so the same day one comes back, another goes out! There is no other productive response to rejection, especially silly ones, but persistance.