Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On Politicians & Syllogisms.

Rhetoric is volatile. The words we choose & the order in which we choose them can't help but be powerful, influential, easily shaped & more easily misunderstood—even expertly deployed, by some, & these are (hopefully) those to whom we are asked to listen on matters of great import (e.g., "winning the future," as an audience Presidentially browbeaten with this phrase have surely grasped by now). & yet, of course, just as the most successful media have always been those that distribute porn, so is the most cunning & successful rhetoric almost unfailingly toxic, the most manipulative—dissemblance where there ought to be growth.

For those of you who didn't watch the President's speech last night, do, if only to applaud lines like "with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family" & "Starting this year, no American will be kept from serving the country they love because of whom they love"
[Here's hoping I quoted those correctly; I was typing while he talked...]—&, if you're like me, to cringe a little, every time he calls America "the greatest nation on Earth," bracing yourself for the the Yertle-tower of our hubris to collapse. In short, it was a sobering speech, both in content & construct—from folksy by-name exemplars to clever interpolation of Democratic policy proposals with Republican bone-tossing. President Obama didn't even have to say it outright: going by the careful tactics of his speechwriters alone, it's hard not to recall that the world is different, irrevocably, & made of soundbytes.

Still, if you'll permit me a digression from the Main Event, his is not the rhetoric I want to discuss—the kind I so hyperbolically slandered in my introduction. Oh, no: that prize goes to Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who had the distinct pleasure of delivering last night's Conservative Rebuttal.

As much as I'd like to object to Mr. Ryan's stipulations about Obama's proposed budget, I can't in good conscience: I would never be so vain as to assume that passing skims of various news outlets & a fanatical devotion to The West Wing bring me anywhere near the level of understanding required to legitimately debate finance with a Budget Committee chair. That said, I can & do object wholeheartedly to his sleight-of-hand entangling of that very budget expertise with conservative politics, as if the one implies the other.

In fact, in my estimation, it harkens back to one of the most basic rhetorical forms in the book: the Syllogism:

Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Or, from Ryan's earnest jawline:

Spending too much is bad. The government is spending too much. Therefore, Government is bad.

It's not that this statement is manifestly wrong, per se; when the government spends too much, that is, indeed, bad. Rather, poison starts to take hold with that slippery excising of the conclusion's rightful definite article—a reduction of "this period in the practices of the United States government" to the dangerously blunt "Government," which comes off as an Orwellian golem with arms made of taxes & big spiky boots bent on crushing Freedom.

There is no doubt that the size & purview of government is an issue—maybe the issue—that deserves constant reexamination & debate by its members, both citizen & legislator. Personally, as a self-professed Fruity Liberal Wuss, I tend to prefer that the government be held responsible for the wellbeing of its citizens (re: schools, roads, even—fingers crossed—health care) in ways that include more input (re: taxes) than many seem to be comfortable with. That's an opinion I'm more than willing to discuss—to rehash, ever, which policies deserve to be under federal vs. state control. What I refuse to tolerate, however—&, in fact, find unconscionably dangerous & stupid, yet manage to see regurgitated daily by men & women in tricorner hats—is this shrewd, alchemical peddling of the notion that the very idea of Government is somehow contrary to Liberty.

To be clear, the concern itself is not what's stupid. In fact, it's the seminal question behind all of the great social contract thinkers (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau): How do we reconcile the manifest benefits of living in society with the loss of freedom that such a system seems to require? That is, why do we choose to live under a government, if its laws necessarily restrict our ability to do whatever we want? The Hobbesian picture is, as you may recall, rather bleak: he describes man's pre-societal State of Nature as a vulgar, untenable State of War, one that makes surrendering freedom in exchange for any small amount of order look all too attractive. In his description, forming a government seems to be the rock over the hard place, the better of two undesirables.

Whereas Hobbes's understanding of freedom might best be characterized as "being able to do what you want, when you want," both Locke & (mainly) Rousseau attempt to carve out a more positive definition. Each argues, in his own way, that true freedom is defined by the ability to protect both self & property in the interest of self-betterment—that coming together under a common set of regulations keeps the baseness Hobbes feared in check &, in that way, allows you more opportunities to pursue your goals. If everyone can do what they want, when they want, there can be no guarantee of safety; you'll constantly be looking over your shoulder, worrying that your neighbor might dominate you in some way—through harm or theft or Black Eyed Peas out of giant speakers—& there will be no greater power to rein him in. So, rather than "freedom to set your lawn on fire while wearing a silly hat," government provides us with "freedom not to be killed in your sleep"—or, as John Stewart put it in his recent interview with former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, "freedom not to have E. Coli in your spinach."

Of course, if you were to ask the men & women in tricorner hats, I think that the first thing they would tell you is that they believe the government is encroaching on exactly this kind of freedom—that the current administration is foisting laws on them that they believe will fundamentally & negatively alter their way of life. Locke had an answer for such complaints, of course: he explicitly states that any law that doesn't increase freedom should be done away with. But here's the rub: as exemplified by the videos of Chase Whiteside & New Left Media (among others), it seems that the people most steamed about this impending tyranny of our proto-Socialist government have no idea why they think that.

All Mr. Whiteside does is repeatedly ask for specifics—just as all Stewart did to Pawlenty was repeatedly ask why Obama is perceived as more tyrannical than the president who enacted a blanket education reform like No Child Left Behind—&, time after time, no answer comes. There are no reasoned arguments, no statesmanship. Rather, there are a series of talking points, ten-word answers & catch-phrases (almost all of them attributable to a certain cable news channel)—& this is, I think, the site of the real tyrannous disaster.

Because, in fact, perhaps the most crucial aspect of Locke's faith in government—Rousseau's insistence that by living in society, we are "forced to be free"—is that the public be actively involved in the practice of its government. For all the flag-waving & "LIBERTY"-shouting, people seem to have forgotten that the key component of this Democracy (or, well, Democratic Republic) they so champion is that it demands its citizens be politically involved—&, moreover, that political involvement is measured least by the ability to shout & hold a sign. It's no coincidence, perhaps, that the Tea Party has named itself after the flashiest & emptiest act of the American Revolution. Sure, the Red Coats saw we weren't to be messed with once we ruined their Earl Grey—but the Tea Party was, at its core, a single & symbolic act of thuggery. Rather, informed debate—a measured discussion of issues—is what this country was founded on, & is, in fact, the only thing that will keep it running as those founders intended.

As such, in any responsible & open society (as I believe we all wish the United States to be), there is plenty of room to point out precisely which laws you consider unnecessary. Indeed, in order to be sure our government is operating at its full Locke/Rousseau-ian freedom-supplying potential, we ought to consistently question its practice. There might even be room for me to suggest that government can be more than a glorified judge & jury—a bringer of betterment to the least well off under its purview, to make sure that they too feel their non-domination is at its peak. You can, in turn, say that my view is excessive—is naïve—is harmful, specifically, in numbers & bills passed. What you don't say, Paul Ryan, is this:

"It's no coincidence that trust in government is at an all time low, when the size of government is at an all-time high."
I mean, do you see what he did there?

Today's government is big. Today's government is mistrusted. Therefore, its bigness is the cause of its mistrust.

Not its practice, not its policies, but the very fact of its size. More Government < Less Government. It's that simplified. Seriously, now: that's the equivalent of me saying, "I slipped on a patch of ice yesterday. I was wearing my blue shirt yesterday. Therefore, blue shirts cause people to slip on ice." Correlation simply does not imply causation, no matter how much we may want it to—&, moreover, no matter how succinctly it may turn a pretty (& pretty damn manipulative) phrase. 

News outlets have been engaged in furious debate over political rhetoric since the tragedy of the Arizona shootings—questioning its power, its penchant for violent imagery—& the overall consensus seems to be a blanket chill-pill issued to politicians, a challenge posed to keep their venom in check—to recognize the impossible influence of the simple act of speaking. However, I'd like to tack on an amendment: I think that the only way to really raise the level of our public debate is to drain this bile from both its content & its construct. Though calls for "Second Amendment remedies" to solve Ms. Palin's problems are certainly not helping, neither are her bite-size generalizations about the role of government (or "Obamacare," or "lamestream media," on & on). Oversimplification, rhetorical manipulation: they're symbiotic, the one the afterbirth of the other, tumbling with acrobatic precision into a muddle of pomp & circumstance & network news. Imposed ignorance is more tyrannical than any legislation, & more pernicious than any tyrant; these are issues that deserve specific, in-depth treatment, not performative summary.

Though my knowledge of The West Wing may not be enough to bring me to Ryan's financial par, Mr. Sorkin has supplied me with an exchange (from Season 4, Episode 6) that sums up my criticism of his rhetorical tactics with elegance to spare:

Debate Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?

Governor Robert Ritchie: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason - the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.

Debate Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.

President Bartlet: There it is. That's the ten word answer my staff's been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They're the tip of the sword. Here's my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I'll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while, every once in a while, there's a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren't very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that's way too big for ten words.

Because the truth is, politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to have skimmed their Shakespeare—stopped reading after Lady Macbeth whispers in her husband's ear to look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't. Either that, or they've forgotten how, once their mouths are opened & the Rubicon is crossed, all the perfumes of Arabia could never sweeten such a crude, divisive argument.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Normally, I try not to correlate songs too rigidly with post themes (re: talking & finkishness), but I have been re-Eno-ing as of late—rediscovering (though I never really leave it) one of my all-time favorite albums ever, ever, ever: Here Come the Warm Jets, his first solo effort post-Roxy Music. All of the songs are fantastic & fascinating, from more traditional glam to deconstructed instrumentals—layers of synth bubbling & receding, pulling you in like undertow. "Dead Finks" is one of the album's quirkier tracks, to be sure, but it's also catchy & wonderful—if only in reminding us that to be a zombie all the time requires such dedication.

1 comment:

  1. "Rep. Paul Ryan said that 'trust in government is at an all-time low now that the size of government is at an all-time high.' He’s wrong on both counts. Trust has been lower, and government has been larger, in the past."