The rhetoric of “the possible”

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic March on Washington and delivered his historic “I have a dream speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His words, his cause, and the tireless pursuit of the great American “good” earned King a place in history and an esteemed spot in the rhetorical canon. More to the point, his words not only stirred the passions, but they pushed back against the status quo and became a real force in changing the material conditions in people’s lives.

We (as in the collective “we” who dig rhetoric) know this story by heart. For me, and no doubt many others, words like King’s made me want to study rhetoric. They remind me why I picked up and moved to Ohio to live among the corn. If, as George Kennedy asserts in Comparative Rhetoric, the emotional force that drives rhetoric is largely grounded in conservatism and reinforcing tradition, I can’t help but wonder about the emotions King stirs in me even today when I hear this speech.

These words do not assure me that the strength of American founding principles have everything under control. They do not relieve my conscience that society is “A-ok” with its adherence to tradition and give me a pass to sit on my butt and watch Law & Order reruns while monging on double-stuft Oreos. They do not even allow me to exercise my primal love of both the fight and the absurd by watching politicians and political pundits scream back and forth at each other on the news. (I’ve often wondered if The O’Reilly Factor is the modern-day Roman coliseum where every poor sap who sits opposite O’ Reilly finds himself mauled by a growling “Papa Bear,” who will not let him/her leave the coliseum until they have been utterly silenced.) King’s words make me want to do, to get up and change the world.

Granted, I read Kennedy’s statement that rhetoric is grounded in conservatism as an honest admission that on the rare occasion we say things like “Give me liberty or give me death! but most days we say things like “Give me fries with that Big Mac.” This doesn’t change the fact, though, that many of the rhetorical models that I hold up are grounded in change and, more importantly, growth. To borrow from John Poulakos’s definition of sophistic rhetoric, these models arouse the desire to achieve the possible.

My hesitance to completely buy Kennedy’s emphasis on the conservative function of rhetoric became clearer this past weekend when I watched the 2009 film The People Speak, a compilation of actors and musicians who read and performed words immortalized in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

The film is built upon monologues of famous speeches and letters that reflect racial unrest, class conflict, gender and sexuality inequality. As I was watching this “history from below,” Zinn’s people’s history, I realized that I was watching a film about rhetoric just as much as I was watching a film about history. Through the words of individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Cody Stanton, etc., the performers told the story of individuals who spoke passionately of the possible and made people believe in their version of it. While there were definitely appeals to tradition and American founding principles in various individuals’ speeches/letters, I could not find the call to action: “Let’s get back to the way we once were!” or “Let’s just keep on keeping on exactly as we’re doing now!” Instead, I heard, “Let’s reconsider the traditions and principles we value and consider what we could be!” These models, for me, exemplify good rhetoric. Then again, I just may be a sophist.

Contrast the proclamations of the possible in the words of American rhetors we canonize, such as the ones listed above and featured in The People Speak, with Glenn Beck’s August 28, 2010, rally to restore honor (just a few “respectful” steps down from where King stood). Beck clearly co-opts the larger narrative rehearsed in so many of the monologues delivered in the film:

Once upon a time, an oppressed individual rose up in the name of democratic principles and  humanity and persuaded others to reconsider the traditions and values they cling to so as to reinterpret them and forge a better society.

Instead of forging a better society, Beck’s version of the narrative has people simply reclaiming the better society that he is sure once existed. Beck clearly knows the narrative above well enough to know that it has worked in the past and that it probably will be persuasive now even with his revisions—at least if he is an “Athenian addressing Athenians,” and in his world of Fox News, he is.

Now consider Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s recent announcement to host rallies at the revered spot where Beck once stood.

Stewart’s “Million Moderate March” and “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and Colbert’s satiric “March to Keep Fear Alive” highlight Beck’s rather obvious attempt to use fear and hysteria as a substitute for King’s passion. The insanity Stewart alludes to highlights Beck’s cast change in this larger narrative that would substitute the oppressed rhetor with an (extremely) privileged entertainer. To borrow from Amir’s discussion of D’Souza, Beck is an “easy nut to crack.” He is such an easy nut to crack that those who have the most success at cracking him are comedians like Stewart and Colbert. Beck’s antics defy logical argumentation. “Hey there, rich white guy, you can’t play the part of the minoritized victim of racism and economic oppression. That’s just silly.” If logic doesn’t work, try using humor to amplify the obvious lack of logic. I can’t help but wonder, though, if Stewart’s and Colbert’s upcoming rallies work because they operate upon the recognition that what is so absurd about Beck is his abuse of what history has immortalized in so many forms as “good” rhetoric:

His frightening tearful tributes to the Constitution are more hysteria than passion (pathos).

He dons “oppressed rhetor drag” (He disguises himself as a King or a Douglass) (ethos)

More importantly, Beck builds his narrative upon a return to an idealized past instead of reinterpreting tradition, values, and founding principles to proclaim the possible.

This isn’t to say that rhetoric only has a single function—social change—but the Beck, Stewart, and Colbert drama that is playing out right now reminds me of the larger social dramas that have played out throughout American history and the metanarratives that tell the story of “good” rhetoric by telling stories about possibility. There’s a reason King is in the archive and Beck won’t be–at least I sincerely hope Beck doesn’t find himself in I hypothesize that King’s inclusion and Beck’s exclusion may have as much to do with rhetorical “emotional energy” that inches a society away from its hard and fast conservative roots and toward potentiality, as the fact that Beck is just ridiculous.

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2 Responses to The rhetoric of “the possible”

  1. lanceelyot says:

    I’ve always found Kennedy’s definition in Comparative Rhetoric interesting, because energy is used as a theoretical trope in many Eastern cultures, but Kennedy manages it to truncate it in our usual Western way.

    In a way, I do see what Kennedy is saying about this energy being conservative. It is obvious to us when rhetoric is being used to overtly motivate us or society, but it is not so obvious to us when rhetoric is being used to keep things the same. I think Kennedy would have done better to describe this energy with dynamic of balance, rather than conservation, because I think it more accurately describes what he is trying to say.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out some way to teach Voices of a People’s History in my 112 next semester. I think that looking at what rhetoric from below really looks like helps us to recognize when rhetoric from above is only posing as rhetoric from below, like Beck.

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