Category Archives: Rhetoric

The analogical reservoir

Thus Hitler became a hegemonic historical analogy. He did not so much join the ranks of earlier historical symbols of evil as render them unusable. Indeed, perhaps because Western observers became convinced that wartime analogies had underestimated the Nazi dictator’s radicalism, they began to employ Hitler as the baseline for evaluating all new threats. This tendency is captured—in caricature—by Godwin’s Law: the notion that the longer an internet debate drags on, the more likely participants are to invoke Hitler.

[…]

Our present moment is a tricky one: Some commentators feel more justified than ever in invoking Hitler, yet many feel a bit numb to the comparison. The solution, it seems to me, is not to ban comparisons to the Nazis—as if such a thing were possible—but to grant that analogies have always been a tendentious business, and that only the future can tell which ones were valid. Commentators should proceed with a little more humility, a little more circumspection, and, perhaps, a little more creativity.

Before 1945, the analogical reservoir was more abundantly stocked. Even in the most obscure local papers, there were constant references to an extremely diverse array of historical figures from the classical era to the 20th century: Pharaoh Thutmose III, Alexander the Great, King Herod, Emperor Caligula, Attila the Hun, Richard III, Henry VIII, Guy Fawkes, Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Boulanger, and Benito Mussolini.

If commentators restore comparative diversity, they may not prevent a “new Hitler”—diversity did not prevent the original Hitler either—but they might better hold their audiences’ attention and point them in the direction of more germane historical episodes.

—Gavriel Rosenfeld, “How Americans Described Evil Before Hitler”


Emergent propaganda.

Thus the very common type of Twitter user who expresses himself or herself almost completely in hashtags: pre-established units of affiliation and exclusion.

And yet — Russian bots and political operatives (who have turned themselves into bots) aside — social media lack the planned purposefulness intrinsic to propaganda. So they must be a different kind of thing, yes?

Yes and no. I think what social media produce is emergent propaganda — propaganda that is not directed in any specific and conscious sense by anyone but rather emerges, arises, from vast masses of people who have been catechized within and by the same power-knowledge regime. Think also about the idea I got from an Adam Roberts novel: the hivemind singularity. Conscious, intentional propaganda is so twentieth century. The principalities and powers are far more sophisticated now.

–Alan Jacobs, propaganda and social media


A long-term abusive relationship.

The best I could do as moderator some days was to keep the conversation from completely turning into a flaming cesspool. Last month, I was speaking to a friend, describing my long-held hope that things might someday improve, that every time a conversation in comments went really well, maybe it signaled a turning point—that from then on, things would get better. As soon as I said that aloud, I realized that it sounded as if I had been living in a long-term abusive relationship.

–Alan Taylor, For Ten Years, I Read the Comments


The supreme culprit.

The Ad:

The Context:


If true.

If true. If true. If true. In one way, certainly, it’s a fitting refrain for the America of 2017, with all its concessions to the conditional tense: alternative facts, siloed reality, a political moment that has summoned and witnessed a resurgence of the paranoid style. And yet it’s also an abdication—“moral cowardice,” the journalist Jamelle Bouie put it—and in that sense is part of a much longer story. If true is a reply, but it has in recent cases become more effectively a verb—a phrase of action, done to women, to remind them that they are doubted. If true used as a weapon. If true used as a mechanism to enforce the status quo. For years. For centuries. The woman says, This happened. The world says, If true.

–Megan Garber, Al Franken, That Photo, and Trusting the Women


“Perhaps more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do it.”

via Vox.


Thoughts and Prayers

I look at it this way: I’m not going to effect a change in anyone’s condition by doing X, Y, or Z “take action” thing (from Oxford, as an academic theologian) right away. I can continue engaging in the political system, work with university life to underscore the devastating folly of uncontrolled gun ownership, and so on. But at this minute, in the face of such catastrophic evil, I can take an action that binds me closer in solidarity with many others around the globe, and that (in the faith by which I live) responds positively to a divine command and orients me toward a radically more benign state of affairs. So I pray.

I get the force of the “don’t pray, do something” admonition — but it relies for its force on the premise that prayer is “doing nothing” (a premise I don’t share), on the premise that I’m trading away a more effectual course of activity (when prayer and activism are not zero-sum alternatives), and on a general resentment of public figures who make much of theological platitudes without directing any of the executive or legislative authority they have toward ameliorating a situation. Is tweeting, “Don’t pray,” an improvement over tweeting, “I’m praying”?

–Fr. A.K.M. Adam, when asked about critiques to “thoughts and prayers” responses to tragedies by Vox‘s Tara Isabella Burton


White tears white tears

The most popular public forum at Reed is Facebook, where social tribes coalesce and where the most emotive and partisan views get the most attention. “Facebook conversations at Reed bring out the extreme aspects of political discourse on campus,” said Yuta, a sophomore who recently co-founded a student group, The Thinkery, “dedicated to critical and open discussion.”(The Atlantic used first names for students out of concern for online harassment.) Raphael, the founder of the Political Dissidents Club, warned incoming students over Facebook that “Reed’s culture can be stifling/suffocating and narrow minded.”

It can also be bullying. When the parent of a freshman rebuked RAR for derailing a lecture, a RAR supporter tagged the parent’s employer in a post. In mid-April, when students were studying for finals, a RAR leader grew frustrated that more supporters weren’t showing up to protest Hum 110. In a post viewable only to Reed students, the leader let loose:

To all the white & able(mentally/physically) who don’t come to sit-ins(ever, anymore, rarely): all i got is shade for you. [… If] you ain’t with me, then I will accept that you are against me. There’s 6 hums left, I best be seein all u phony ass white allies show-up. […] How you gonna be makin all ur white supremacy messes & not help clean-up your own community by coming and sitting for a frickin hour & still claim that you ain’t a laughin at a lynchin kinda white.

The RAR leader proceeded to call out at least 15 students by name. One named Patrick defended himself, saying in part, “I didn’t realize this was [your] opinion of me as a friend. … I will not give you my support simply because you are leading a noble cause.” The leader referred to that defense as “white supremacy.” Another leader used a vulgar insult, followed by “White tears white tears.”

Non-white students weren’t spared; a group of them agreed to “like” Patrick’s comment in a show of support. A RAR member demanded those “non-black pocs [people of color]” explain themselves, calling them “anti-black pos [pieces of shit].” Another member tried to get Patrick on track: “Hey man, everyone getting called out on here, me included, is getting a second chance tomorrow to wake up and make the right decision.”

–Chris Bodenner, The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country


The convenience of right timing.

Being assaulted by a man who later acknowledged being gay confused me so much about my own sexuality because I connected my sexuality to being abused. It took years to rework that my sexuality was not borne out of pain. I was not gay because I was abused. 

Even though my abuser didn’t “come out” until many years after he assaulted me, Spacey’s response made me relive my entire interactions with my abuser and my own thinking on sexuality and abuse. I was a black boy who was already told that being gay was a problem; imagine adding on top of that the idea that my sexuality was connected to the abuse.

To be clear, Spacey knew exactly what he was doing by “coming out” in response to sexual assault allegations. I’ve never been a fan of the “right time” to come out, but we all know this happened as a way to distract from the real story while simultaneously offering a fake apology for maybe allegedly assaulting a teenager. I’m not allowing that.

I’m also not allowing for folks who don’t seem to understand why people are upset at the convenience of Spacey’s timing. His statement conflates molestation, sexuality and drunkenness in a way that will ultimately harm queer people who are merely attempting to live a free life.

–Preston Mitchum, Kevin Spacey and the Damage Done


Sayonaratron

Defeated it might be, but like victory, tron has many fathers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one version comes from Scots, meaning “a weighing machine” or “the place where the tron was set up.” You can still visit the Tron Kirk in Edinburgh, where the salt tron once stood as a public beam for sizing up merchandise. In contemporary usage the term actually springs from ancient Greek, with the invention of the first vacuum tube or “kenotron” around 1904; its creator came up with the name by combining the Greek words for “empty” (keno) and “tool” (tron). Subsequently, the radiotron, thyratron, klystron, and rhumbatron went on to become vital components of the radio industry in the 1930s, while the resonant cavity magnetron was at the heart of every radar set in the Second World War. Don’t be deceived: These components bear scant relationship to elementary particles such as the electron, neutron, and positron, all of which really end in the suffix –on; their names are a red herring, akin to the old rumor that the Mustang car was named after the fighter aircraft and not the horse.

–David Munns, The ‘Tron’ Suffix and the Promise of Future Technology