Monday, August 26, 2013

Rhetorical Economist, Economics Rhetorician

English: Image of Deirdre McCloskey "for ...
English: Image of Deirdre McCloskey "for Public Use" as stated on her website (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Deirdre McCloskey [] might be the "rhetorician" I've most enjoyed reading. She's decidedly libertarian, often addressing the supposed "moral failings" of the philosophy. Though her degrees are in economics (Harvard grad, but we forgive her), she understands rhetoric better than many elite professors in that discipline. Her dry wit alone makes her books worth the time to read.

If I could suggest some books, as I do for my students:
McCloskey has written fourteen books and more articles than I could count. Her attention to detail without getting lost in minutiae is a rare gift among academics.

She dares to critique the big names in rhetoric and philosophy, doing so deftly. She also pays homage to one of my favorite scholars, Wayne C. Booth, in many of her works. Booth's study of the "Rhetoric of Fiction" (and a book of the same name) is foundational for those of us interested in how narratives shape the audience experience. To apply Booth to economics? That thrills me.

While McCloskey is, first and most quantitatively, an economics wonder, I call her a rhetorician with the utmost respect. She is a rhetorical economist.

I am not an economist, though I do often wish I had the degree. Instead, I am a rhetorician deeply passionate about economics. I devour economics texts, histories, biographies, and even Federal Reserve white papers. The math is fascinating, the models wondrous… if deeply flawed. And that is why I don't mind being a rhetorician of economics. If I can help explain economics, especially "conservative" and "libertarian" economic theories, using any of my writing skills, that would be rewarding.

Fiction often promotes, critiques, or outright attacks economic theories. It is no secret that most of my colleagues in the humanities are politically and economically to the left. Their writings and the readings they select for courses are often unabashedly anti-capitalist. I wish to be the voice of the other side.

As I have written, libertarianism is often attacked and mocked without any concern for the actual philosophy. Shout "Ayn Rand!" and the debate is over. Libertarians are soulless creatures with faith only in the free market. McCloskey offers an alternate narrative. While she doesn't embrace the Austrian School in economics (she is decidedly Chicago), she does not mock (too often) the experiences and ideals of the great Austrian proponents.

McCloskey reveals a great many weaknesses in the Keynesian rhetoric (and models). She reminds us that quantitative analysis can be "right" and still miss a great many variables. Or, it can be "right" for no good reason. Good math doesn't always equate to good theory or good policy.
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Monday, August 19, 2013

First World Problems

Dunkin Donuts logo
Dunkin Donuts logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
First World Problem.

Until this summer, I had no idea that "First World Problem" was a new catch phrase to describe the somewhat silly things we ponder while much of the world just wants to survive from day-to-day.

In rhetoric and writing studies, these are the "big issues" that I cannot take seriously. I know it offends my colleagues, but they don't seem to recognize how incredibly detached from the reality of most other humans they can seem. You spend your life finding First World Problems, you start to be a caricature of humanities scholars.

Real issues: Women's rights. Marriage equality. Inequality of opportunity. Crony capitalism (and crony anything in any system, too). Poverty. War. Violence in culture.

But real issues get sliced and diced until rhetoricians and other scholars spend years studying, seriously studying, little splinters that miss the big picture. When you care passionately about something, you can lose yourself. And many of my colleagues do just that.

One colleague used to complain, as she held her venti double whatever-it-was, that the logo for Starbuck's Coffee was sexist and she was going to stop going there any day now. I suggested Dunkin' Donuts, but there were other social sins at that store. She decided Starbuck was less evil than DD. (I love Dunkin' Donuts, and their deep-fried rings of sin.)

A colleague recently complained, passionately, that she couldn't find any good female characters in fiction: in words or on screen. I offered several, but she dismissed them for an endless variety of reasons. She couldn't even enjoy Jane Austen's women, because they were "patriarchal" in the end. My argument was that Austen was nudging the social edge, pushing limits. Not good enough, I was told.

Great modern women of fiction? I'd argue a great deal of pop fiction has good female characters. But if the character dares to love a man, this colleague dismissed the woman as yet another subservient female. I'm sorry, but you can't call Hermione Granger subservient to anyone. (But, as I was reminded, the books are about Harry Potter, not Hermione.) What about the women detectives in current fiction? Nope, at least in the books most of them are married and/or parents.

The horror! The women have children! Why, they can't be good role models, then. Only single women or lesbians need apply. And yes, this colleague made the argument that only lesbians are truly free women. So much for biology.

In the mindset of some rhetoricians I meet, science does not matter when it comes to human nature or human biology. Women who have children and then decide to raise those children? That's disgusting. The government should raise the children, one colleague told me. I suppose she hasn't read Brave New World in a few years. Yes, how could letting government take over family duties go wrong?

When you spend your days and nights performing "feminist critiques" of literature and film (and everything else), you are immersed in First World Problems. It is a FWP that you can't accept how many women post pictures of their children to Facebook. Seriously? That's a big issue in your world? My wife and I use images of our cats — we love them and care about them. The argument that women "subvert themselves, surrendering their identity to that of their children" was too silly for me not to call it total garbage.

You know what? I wish I had children. They would be my avatars. I'd be that annoying friend with constant updates about my children. Nothing would mean more to me — to my identity — than being a parent.

You have to be pretty self-absorbed to complain that parents are "victims" of their children and society. Get real. In most of the world, they'd be thrilled to have healthy, happy children involved in a half dozen activities. Whining that your female "friends" post pictures of children instead of themselves? You're the one out of touch with what matters to most adult humans: their families.

You read the "scholarly" article and presentation titles and can't help but sense that professors aren't living amongst the rest of us. And I'm a professor. Then again, I've moved from teaching within the humanities to teaching in a school of business. That sums up how alienated from my discipline I have become. I like my academic home. It's happier than my old home.

Ah, but business is evil!

One former colleague sees "class warfare" in everything. He can't enjoy anything, at least I've never heard him say anything positive about any form of modern entertainment. All media are part of the corporate plan to brainwash the working class. He can offer a Marxist critique of almost every film in existence, including films that I thought were made to critique capitalism and promotion socialism. Silly me, even the most radical filmmakers are really part of the system. We're all part of the system. We're all doomed by the "One Percent" that will crush us.

When he critiqued my beloved Warner Bros. cartoons, I knew he had lost touch with anything close to normal reality. Yes, the cartoons are artifacts of their times. There is racism, sexism, classism, and so on. And I still love them. Bugs Bunny did not make me a libertarian. How many cartoons or movies feature the "rich guy" or the corporation as a hero? Other than Iron Man and Batman, we are far more likely to encounter the evil corporation in our pop culture. Even in cartoons, Mr. Plotz is "bad" while the Animaniacs counter his focus on money. Mr. Plotz fired his own father in the cartoon to save some money.

This colleague has said he never wants to marry or have children, since the world is so horrible.

Really? Your world, teaching full-time at a major university, is too horrendous to share with another human? Wow. That must be a lousy job, then. Maybe it's as bad as coal mining or factory work? There must be something else you can do, then. I'd suggest becoming a monk or something, but this colleague also hates all religion, even those that aren't part of Western hegemony.

I haven't met many content, much less happy, colleagues in rhetoric or the other humanities. Why is that? Probably because they cannot accept how good their lives are. Mention their success and comfortable existences and you risk triggering a tirade of guilt. Life's not fair, et cetera.

When you get to spend your time being upset about capitalism hidden in cartoons, the sexism in Jane Austen, and so on, you don't have much in common with other people.

Not that I don't have FWPs, too. If the cable goes out, if I lose my Internet connection, it's a major catastrophe. Of course, after I reflect on the situation, I turn to old-fashioned paper. My life is really great. I have a wonderful wife, great cats, nice house, and more. I've worked hard for what I have, but also had the luck to be born in a relatively decent location compared to much of the populated world.

Should we always aim to improve society? Sure. We can argue for marriage equality in the United States without forgetting the state of the world, a world in which supporting "gay marriage" is heresy. A world in which being the wrong sect within a faith can be deadly. That world doesn't care that Jane Austen's women aren't radical enough.

I try to understand the perspective of my colleagues, but I can't. Life is short, and then you die. In the meantime, try to enjoy life a bit. Share whatever joy you can with others.
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