Thursday, February 09, 2012

Rhetoric as a Foundation

I've argued, obviously in Quixotic fashion, that undergraduates should not have "majors" at more universities. My preference is for students to specialize after a true liberal arts education. This doesn't apply to all students at all colleges and universities, because there are some professional programs that do culminate at the bachelor's degree level. But, I am passionate that more students should be generalists to better understand themselves and the world.

To my colleagues on the "left" I argue that few subjects are more "radical" than traditional rhetoric and philosophy. For centuries, the great thinkers have sought the most effective methods to advocate for change. Many of the great figures in rhetoric have been "radicals" in their times and cultures.

To my colleagues on the "right" I argue that few subjects are more "traditional" in education than the skills of public discourse. The great republicans (small "r") have recognized the need for rhetorical education. There is a tradition in rhetoric of celebrating a shared culture and values. The epideictic tradition is ceremonial and communal.

I don't consider myself neatly left or right. In my experiences, educators and community leaders across the political spectrum recognize the need for rhetorical skills, especially the skills associated with rhetorical analysis and synthesis.

We all benefit from an engaged, thoughtful community. Rhetorical education helps prepare students to listen, read, and see the world with a better awareness of how others try to shape and guide opinions. I want my students to be critical thinkers, and that does not mean my students will agree with me.

Sadly, I read that our leaders — including the President of the United States — want three-year degree programs with more focus on vocational training and "employability" over general skills. What these leaders are forgetting is that a good liberal arts education prepares students for a future in which no job will be the same from year to year.

I hope educators, parents, and community leaders speak up and defend the liberal arts requirements remaining within our university programs. While students might not understand why some courses are essential, they come to appreciate the liberal arts tradition as they progress educationally, personally, and professionally.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Analyzing Rhetoric with Minimal Bias

A colleague from another institution asked why I would analyze any speech or writings attributed to President Obama. "He's much better than any Republican," my colleague stated, as if that is reason enough to not analyze any Obama speech.

We should not let ourselves be afraid to critique anyone, regardless of our personal biases. When we are unwilling to analyze someone out of "loyalty" to a viewpoint, we are failing as academic role models.

Yes, Obama's speeches are better than those of most current politicians, but that is faint praise. His speeches are not perfect. They are sometimes good, but seldom great. Of course we should analyze his speeches. We would analyze any sitting president because there is seldom a more important rhetor at any given time in this nation.

Sadly, the best speeches seem to be in the past. Not even the recent past, either. Reagan was good, but rarely great. John F. Kennedy had great speechwriters. Truman had moments of greatness when speaking. FDR? Reading his speeches reminds us of what is possible. I'm even impressed with Cleveland's speeches. What happened to our oratorical skills?

A recent study found that Obama's speeches are composed at the eighth grade level. By comparison, our early presidents delivered college-level speeches. Something's wrong with our culture if we want presidents to sound average.

See Politico:
State of the Union Registers at 8th Grade Reading Level
The University of Minnesota's Smart Politics conducted an analysis on the last 70 State of the Union addresses and found that President Obama's three addresses have the lowest grade average of any modern president. "Obama's average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 10.7 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors," they conclude.
Full disclosure: my doctorate in rhetoric is from the University of Minnesota.

While it is cliché that we are judged by our language patterns, there is a fair amount of research finding that words and phrases are associated with specific socioeconomic classes. The president is making a choice, and that choice is to embrace the language of the lower class.

The British royalty made this choice, according to some language historians, to seem more "English" and less "French" to the public.

My students sometimes struggle with the concept of "code switching" — changing how we write and speak to appeal to specific audiences. Obama is an expert at code switching based on the audience before him. Studying this does not imply he is doing anything "bad" at all. He adjusts his speech just as a college student speaks differently to his or her parents than to peers or instructors.

But, the president also uses Biblical language more than people realize. He actually uses Bible references more than many Republicans. Why is this? Is it to "prove" his Christian faith? Or, is it because African-American voters are accustomed to a blending of religion and politics?

The problem is, Obama doesn't hold true to the scripture. That was my most recent post on this blog. It does bother me that any president uses faith to appeal to voters and the public in general. It bothers me more when a politician does this inaccurately.

When our president delivers mediocre speeches, in historical context, we should ask why. When he misrepresents facts or sources, we should not exempt him from criticism simply because his potential opponents are even less impressive orators.

Yes, I will continue to argue for eloquence and accuracy. That is what rhetoricians should do.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Obama, Taxes, and Jesus?

On February 2, 2012, President Obama spoke at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. This event dates back to Eisenhower, and is generally used to talk about unity and shared values. Not this year. Instead, Obama used the opportunity to promote his tax policies.

I do not mind a politician being guided by his or her ethical foundation, including religious beliefs, as long as those beliefs do not infringe upon my freedom. However, politicians of all types tend to misquote scriptures and misrepresent them. I'd rather politicians not attempt to be theologians.

American political life has a long tradition of Biblical metaphor and citation. It is effective for many audiences, but it also is seldom accurate in terms of the scriptures various politicians try to cite. I know taking things out of context is what political speech writers do, though.

Obama could have delivered a simple, nonpartisan speech and left it at that. That's fine for an event like the National Prayer Breakfast. Rhetorically, appealing to unity would have been best.

I wrote this blog entry less than a year ago:

The president's speech is filled with misrepresentations of the Bible, selective readings that do not reflect the essence of the scripture.

I am agnostic, at best, and more inclined towards atheism. But, I am unwilling to accept a president intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting a faith.

And when I talk about shared responsibility, it's because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it's hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I'm willing to give something up as somebody who's been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that's going to make economic sense. 
But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus's teaching that "for unto whom much is given, much shall be required." It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who've been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.

What? Has Obama read the section of Luke he is citing, which includes Luke 12:48? It is a parable about servants keeping watch over a house. They have been given food, shelter, and other comforts. In return, they are expected to protect the house.

In case you miss the metaphor, which the president either misses or ignores: the "comforts" are faith and the servants to whom the Word was given are the faithful.
Luke 12:37: Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them sit down to meat, and shall come and serve them.  
38: And if he shall come in the second watch, and if in the third, and find them so, blessed are those servants.
39: But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what hour the thief was coming, he would have watched, and not have left his house to be broken through. 
40: Be ye also ready: for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh. 
42: And the Lord said, Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall set over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season? 
43: Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.
44: Of a truth I say unto you, that he will set him over all that he hath. 
45: But if that servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; 
46: the lord of that servant shall come in a day when he expecteth not, and in an hour when he knoweth not, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint his portion with the unfaithful. 
47: And that servant, who knew his lord's will, and made not ready, nor did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; 
48: but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes . And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more. 
49: I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what do I desire, if it is already kindled? 
50: But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! 
51: Think ye that I am come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: 
52: for there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
This is a warning to be a good steward, to do your job well based on what you have been given by the household master (the Creator) so when the master returns he will be pleased. This has nothing, nothing at all with being given material comfort.

There is nothing about being blessed with physical comfort. Luke 12 isn't about sharing wealth. Servants have no material wealth. You could actually read it, if you wanted to twist it another way: "You've been given the means for a job. If you do the job, expect more rewards."

Actually, that's a pretty "conservative" idea. Do your job and you will be compensated. I like that reading of the text.

Remember, the Bible also asks us to work six days, warns against being idle and lazy, and even tell us that Jesus was once rich. I'm not kidding, you could read the following in several ways:
Corinthians 8:9: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Remember, Jesus was a carpenter in a time when carpenters were also architects and engineers. It was a well-paid profession at that time. This entire "humble carpenter" thing has been distorted. Joseph was not poor, he was probably "middle class" or even "upper-middle" for the time period.

But, let's not let facts get in the way of a call for more taxes.

What does the Bible actually say about taxes and government? Again, please read my previous post:

It is clear in the Bible that The Creator does not approve of high taxes (they are declared equal to slavery!) or big government.

The president should have asked someone to check that little detail. He's calling for a 35 to 39 percent tax rate. Has he read what happened when David raised taxes and conducted a census? It wasn't pretty.

The story of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is the story of a land grab by a government. During a time of hardship (famine) the Pharaoh buys the land of farmers, making them "slaves" to a 20 percent tax rate. The farmers were allowed to farm the land, but not own it.
Genesis 47:20: So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh's. 
21: As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. 
23: Then Joseph said to the people, "Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. 
24: And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones."
Ironically, it was stored grain (a form of taxes) that allowed Pharaoh, to take the land. Sound familiar? Bailouts paid during a time of need lead to government control. Had the people stored their own grain instead of paying to Pharaoh during the good years, they might have avoided this fiasco.

In the Bible, when government takes from you, it seldom ends well. Maybe there is a lesson in that?

Christians are expected to give what their hearts compel them to give, not what a government takes from them. I certainly feel better giving time or money to causes about which I care. I'm not a Christian, but I definitely appreciate the concept that meaningful giving is voluntary. I don't feel great when the government takes anything. The president confuses giving with taxes.
II Corinthians 9:6: The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 
7: Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 
8: And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 
9: As it is written, "He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever."
As far as I'm concerned, this is all political theatrics. The president, like all politicians, is using faith to suit his goals. I don't like it when Republicans do it. I don't like it when Democrats do it.

In a speech that is overtly political, and misleading, the president does include this:
Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C.S. Lewis, "Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another."
He includes this citation right after talking about taxes and "giving."

I'm not a Christian, and you have no right to make me behave like whatever you imagine a Christian to be. I respect faith, but don't use your faith to justify making me do anything.
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