Monday, January 16, 2017

Religion and Political Rhetoric

Political leaders in the United States in both major political parties are once again using "Judeo-Christian values" or "Abrahamic values" to argue about social welfare programs and budget priorities. Sadly, there is also a tendency within the Republican party to use faith as the basis for foreign policy.

Donald Trump using "faith" to make any argument strikes me as absurd. At the same time, I am troubled by the rise of theocratic Islam internationally. Israel, possibly the most "secular" of Middle East nations, also allows its religious fundamentalists too much influence over public policy.

It is valuable to know religious texts. Many people believe them and the stories shaped centuries of Western culture. It might also help to know when to ignore politicians.

The trio of major monotheistic religions — Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam — really do not belong in contemporary politics if we want to move beyond myths, legends, and ancient cultural biases. The historical texts associated with these faiths can be easily cherry-picked to make arguments from almost any perspective, something I've attempted to illustrate in the past.

Texts from the ancient past are violent, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist, tribal, and probably a dozen other undesirable things. Do we really want to look to books that endorse polygamy, rape, murder, capital punishment for social offenses, and other ancient cultural norms for contemporary guidance?

Consider the Christian Bible, with its Judaic origins. You can easily prove how misunderstood the "Historical Jesus" is based on knowledge of Roman and Middle Eastern norms of the time. You can use the text to argue for "conservative" (Puritanic, Protestant) social ethics using the older chapters, or you could argue for a "progressive" set of ethics associated with social gospel movements.

I've posted examples of these maneuvers in the past. It's unpopular to demonstrate that religion isn't the best resource for political clarity and consistency.

I wish we could simply hit a "mute button" when any politician uses religious rhetoric to make an argument. Yes, I understand faith has helped many people and guided good changes in this nation and elsewhere, but generally faith today is not the driving force behind social progress.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Social Media Feedback Loops

I'm stuck in bed, or sitting for a few minutes at a time. This has led to way too much social media and news input. If I could be outside tending to my fall pruning and clearing duties, that's what I would rather be doing.

Social media lead you to read one post, read the replies, and read more. That's how it survives: we get hooked during our moment of inactivity. It feeds our fears, our anxieties, our nightmare scenarios. It reinforces our beliefs and then we read more reinforcement.

Social media can be and are often a force for change. But right now, some of my close friends are in downward emotional spirals because they cannot stop and step away. They believe every horrific post. They seek out more horrific posts to prove how bad things are to themselves and their other friends. The echoes are getting overwhelming.

People say I don't understand how scary this is. LA Riots were pretty bad. I've been beaten and stabbed. I've received death threats. Once someone wants to kill you, it is sort of hard to imagine anything worse.

Step away from the newsfeed. Think. Plan. But resist going down rabbit holes. Satan has not won the election. Neither did Hitler.

An entertainer with no real plan won. A charlatan. Beyond that, we have to wait and see what happens. You have to have no faith in our entire system if you believe one man can or will manage the sorts of things I'm seeing predicted on social media.

Panic is the worst state of mind for planning a resistance. Clear your mind and think about what to do next. Social media rarely helps clear the mind.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Labeling Romney a Racist, Stupid, Bully Led to Trump

My colleagues in rhetoric study logical fallacies and reasoning. Yet, over the years many of them have dismissed the extreme hyperbole of fellow elites on the left. I have heard, far too often, the hyperbole about conservatives and libertarians, accepted as factually accurate. Now, when we have a presidential candidate worthy of the past arguments, voters are immune to the descriptions.

An August 2016 column appearing on RealClearPolitics and The Daily Beast summarized the problem.

How Paul Krugman Made Donald Trump Possible
Liberal pundits write viciously about Trump. But they wrote viciously about Romney, McCain, Bush… and they wonder why people outside their circle stopped listening.

08.05.16 1:00 AM ET

His convention was called "one of the worst ever." Chris Matthews deemed him "dangerous" and "scary," Ellen DeGeneres said "If you're a woman, you should be very, very scared." His opponent ran an ad against him portraying him as uniquely dangerous for women. "I've never felt this way before, but it's a scary time to be a woman," said a woman in the ad.

He was frequently called a "bully," "anti-immigrant," "racist," "stupid," and "unfit" to be president.

I'm referring, obviously, to the terrifying Mitt Romney.
Take Paul Krugman in The New York Times. In Tuesday's column he wondered how any "rational Republicans justify supporting Mr. Trump." He concludes it's about "feelings," a dismissal of legitimate arguments many people, both Republicans and not, have against Hillary Clinton. But no one is more feelings-based than Krugman when it comes to Republicans. If he wants to know how people can take Donald Trump seriously, he should take a hard look at himself.
In 2012, Krugman called Mitt Romney a "charlatan," pathologically dishonest, and untrustworthy. He said Romney doesn't even pretend to care about poor people and wants people to die so that the rich could get richer. Romney is "completely amoral," "a dangerous fool," "ignorant as well as uncaring."

In March, Krugman had a column called "Clash of Republican Con Artists." In it, he called Trump's foreign policy more reasonable than that of Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz and said he's just as terrified of either of those men in the White House as he is of Trump. He wrote: "In fact, you have to wonder why, exactly, the Republican establishment is really so horrified by Mr. Trump. Yes, he's a con man, but they all are. So why is this con job different from any other?"

Yet a few weeks ago Krugman wondered how Republicans could rally around Trump "just as if he were a normal candidate." It was exactly Krugman who normalized him! What makes Donald Trump normal to so many is that they've heard all the hysteria from people like Krugman before. If you use the most vile language available on a good man like Romney, or on real candidates like Rubio and Cruz, you find you have none left for the Donald Trumps of the world—and no one is listening to you anyway.

If every Republican is always unfit for the presidency then Trump is no different and it shouldn't be surprising that rank-and-file Republican voters are lining up behind him. They know there aren't actually any Republicans of which the media approves.
I've attended academic conferences at which keynote and plenary speakers insulted not only Republicans, but also Democrats considered too close to their GOP colleagues. When academics (and Krugman relies on his standing as a professor to support his writing persona) toss about accusations that anyone they oppose is motivated by hate, greed, and is otherwise evil, there is no opportunity for civil discourse on policy differences.

Lumping Ted Cruz with Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney is a mistake. Cruz uses the same hyperbole against his opponents, even within the same political party, that my academic colleagues employ. The perspective differs, yes, but opposition is covered by a blanket dismissal.

If progressives are going to complain about the ridiculous claims of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, they must also monitor their own language and claims about moderate voices with which the progressives disagree.

You cannot clamor for "reasonable conservatives" if only weeks before you were calling all conservatives unreasonable.

Rhetoricians should ask how political discourse across the spectrum helped inoculate voters against evidence and reason. I'm convinced that calling moderates names and using hyperbole against them has had devastating consequences for the United States and other Western democracies.

Monday, November 07, 2016

2016: A Study in Rhetoric Gone Bad

Little can be said about the 2016 primaries and general election campaign that reflects well on the field of rhetoric.

Conduct all the focus groups you want. Study all the data available. What is revealed is that Donald Trump's rise is better understood by other fields than rhetoric.

Show his supporters facts, what most consider indisputable facts, and Trump voters dismiss the facts. Examine the emotional nature of his language and they don't care. Show them the contradictions. Reveal whatever you choose, Trump voters will often dismiss evidence against him… and no amount of persuasive skill matters.

If every voter had a college education, maybe the statistics would hold and we'd have different candidates and outcomes, but that doesn't help me feel better.

Some of my colleagues suggest there is a great lesson: "If only we taught classical rhetoric universally, there would be no Donald Trump [or Candidate X, Y, and Z, either]." That's as weak as the argument that the humanities somehow improve us as people, when many dictators fancied themselves creative artists and had been classically schooled in the arts. Evil people can be brilliant. There are plenty of brilliant sociopaths. Don't confuse intellect or education with goodness.

A lot of smart, educated, elite people supported Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Mao and, before World War II, some major publications reported glowingly on Hitler and Mussolini. People forget that educate people defended (and defend) some horrible dictators and bloody revolutionaries.

Trump, unlike many dictators and revolutionaries, isn't a skilled enough faux-populist to rise to power. At least that is my hope. Trump isn't intelligent, he simply has a college degree from a top-ranked university. I'm not certain that means much anymore.

An entire generation of scholarship will be possible thanks to the 2016 campaigns.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Insults Don't Persuade

The San Joaquin Valley of California in August...
The San Joaquin Valley of California in August, near Westley, Stanislaus County, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For every post insulting Trump voters, Bernie voters, third-party voters… remember that insulted people (the voters) are unlikely to listen to whatever reasonable explanations you might offer for another candidate or solution. 

Elites do this constantly. Ask "What's the Matter with Kansas?" or "Why is the Central Valley of California so Ignorant?" and then wonder why those same people tune out the arguments. 

You cannot issue general insults of the Rural West, the Great Plains, the South, the Southwest, and then wonder why those same voters don't give a rip what urban "thinkers" have to say. They don't trust the elites because the elites treat Flyover Country like dirt. 

Gee, I wonder why those "ignorant fools" we keep insulting won't listen to experts? 

There are reasons the voters in these rural areas have tuned out and turned away from the Democratic Party, Progressive Elites, and Mainstream Republicans. They are tired of being treated like caricatures instead of real people.