Dashing through the discord in a one-horse open sleigh …

To start, here’s a nice strawman argument for you all:

Anyhow, first real snowfall here in Oxford, OH. That puts me in a good mood – sugarplums and holiday cheer and all that. I sound cynical, don’t I? Really, though, it’s not because I don’t buy into the whole Christmas spirit thing – I do, I’m a sap – but because I’m reminded of the looming annual debate over one of the words I just used: holiday. Is it “Happy Holidays,” or “Merry Christmas”? The legions of Christmas-defenders are amassing as I speak, ready to raise holy hell and loudly boycott Target or J.C. Penny or any other enterprise employing a religiously ambiguous expression of seasonal cheer.

To me, nothing sucks the happy out of the holidays like a nasty ideological debate about the place of religion in public commerce.

Here’s a brief exchange from the Yuletide-spreading Facebook group “It’s Merry christmas [sic] not happy holidays” (real names have been omitted):

Imposing-looking bald man: Yep, CoCa Cola can stick their Political Correctness up their ASS !!!

Person who has The Great Gazoo for a profile picture: For the record, Coca Cola does print Merry Christmas on cans packaged in 12 packs, but on the 2 liter bottles it says Happy Holidays.

Imposing-looking bald man: well, they had a 20m x 15m digital sign on the London M25 motorway, that lasted about 1 week in November , before it was replaced – perhaps 2 million commuters / day seeing “happy holidays” was an own goal !!!!

Cleary, these people (who, as Facebook shows, exist overseas as well as in the USA) feel alienated by the “political correctness” of “Happy Holidays.” What seems ironic to me, though, is that companies like Coca-Cola who print “Happy Holidays!” on their products and ads are making a clear stab at Burkean identification with the public at large (communal sense of holiday spirit = $$$); they are systematically trying to avoid alienation, but in doing so, un-identifying themselves with those who are ideologically predisposed to the idea that Christianity should own the holiday season. I don’t usually sit around feeling sorry for multi-million dollar corporations, but this is a tough spot to be in. Do we use the inclusive expression of seasonal cheer and cheese off the Bible-wielding right-wing, or do we say “Merry Christmas” and maybe alienate someone else?

So. I’m not Christian, but I don’t find “Merry Christmas” offensive. That would be sort of hypocritical, since I, like many Americans secularists, still celebrate this holiday. What I do find offensive, though, is the arrogance stemming from the assumption that any one religion should own any chunk of the American (or British, for that matter) calendar year. That logic, followed to its furthest extent, would point to the belief that America is an inherently Christian nation – which, as a non-Christian American, makes me uneasy. The Christmas/Holidays debate seems to have this polarizing effect – the “It’s Christmas!!!@#!$” people get their feathers ruffled, and in doing so, reveal the colors of their monocultural ideology, thus ruffling the feathers of cultural pluralists like me. Deck the halls with ruffled feathers, I guess.

Also, though, I’m just annoyed that this argument has to come up year after year. Funny how the sourpusses (yeah, I just said “sourpusses”) who do the most to ruin the spirit of Christmas are those who cling hardest to that very word.

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Frankenstein’s Genre

DJ Gregg Gillis–better known by his stage name, Girl Talk–is a mash-up artist. He collects bits and piece of hundreds of songs from all genres–some popular, some not–and spends countless hours at his computer, editing and re-editing them, cutting and pasting them, and finally stitching them together, creating an album pulsing with a life.

Okay, okay–so that’s a bit dramatic. But what Gillis–Girl Talk–is able to create with these carved out pieces of song is not unlike what mosaic artists did and do–with one notable exception: bits of rock aren’t copyrighted, and the songs making up a Girl Talk “mosaic” most certainly are.

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Tea Party for the Walking Dead: Engaging the Working Class Monster

The topic for this blog has been kicking around in my head – changing shape and meaning – since 2009, when Time Magazine contributor, Lev Grossman commented on the pop-culture zombie craze of that year in his brief piece, “Zombies Are the New Vampires” Grossman asserts that the zombie “exemplifies some real American values” through his “plucky and tenacious” qualities.  The zombie is “humble,” notes Grossman, adding that unlike vampires, zombies are “monsters of the people.”  Grossman concludes “it was the beginning of the end for vampires when Lehman Brothers went under, those bloodsucking parasites. Down with vampires. Long live (or is it die?) the zombie: the official monster of the recession.”

Consider also the following 2009 South Park episode’s commentary on this subject (illustrated here as a clip remix):

I loved Grossman’s piece when I read it and connected it right away to Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s housing bubble satire. But let me here admit that I hate zombie movies.  Zombies are absolutely terrifying, even in the construction-paper world of South Park; you cannot reason with a zombie, so far as I know.  And though they eat human brains, zombies’ own brains are infected with a pathological, carnal idiocy.  They are tenacious – tenacious in their desperation for flesh to tear apart and devour. And so here is where I disagree with Grossman and align myself with Parker and Stone – the zombie is, I agree, the monster of the recession; but not as a glorious depiction of American tenacity, a fun and whimsical way in which we act out our confidence in the ability of American workers to survive economic death.  The zombie is a manifestation of real and growing elitist fears about the power those workers possess in numbers, a fear that we too may be closer to “catching” the disease ourselves.  This is a fear of contagious, man-eating ignorance and desperation – the kind of poverty and idiocy that many of us believe becomes the pathology of any society.  What lead me here?  Rhetoric, of course.  Namely that of AMC’s original series, The Walking Dead and Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project.

Now, before you start thinking I am about to call Beck out on his zombie-leader, monster-making status, I need to confess that part of why I hate zombie movies lies in my deep sympathy for the brainless, half-chewed ghouls – even while they’re frothing at the mouth and breaking through some innocent and lovable human’s barred storm cellar door.  And here is where I parallel this to my natural and indelible sympathies with the American worker.  The woman who collects the trash and dusts the offices in Bachelor Hall (we will call her Paula to protect her identity), my father, mother, uncles, grandparents – hell, the lady behind the cheese counter at Kroger and Dale who fixes our furnace when it goes out . . .these are people I feel truly kin to, still.  And so, in some ways, I write this to explore academic and liberal elitist fears of the Tea Party movement, many of which have admittedly become my own fears, but also to answer how Tea Partiers and zombies become “infected” and then epidemic when “those who know best” ignore them.

So far in the world of The Walking Dead zombies are traditional.  These are not the fast-acting super zombies of I Am Legend, no.  They cannot speak, they are only dangerous in large groups, and they are really, really desperate for sustenance.  A bullet or sharp blow to the head stops them re-dead in their tracks – because their “brains are infected” with the disease that makes people in to monsters.  And the parallel here almost seems too easy – how many times I have heard colleagues, friends, my partner, journalists scoff at the infectious moronic claims Beck and other TP representatives make regarding (insert any of the following: Barack Obama’s nationality, taxation for public health care, government Czars, founding fathers, Jesus Christ, Muslims. . . .). As I proceeded with my inevitable analysis of The Walking Dead with its characterizations of poor whites as violent and racist, brain-eating, rag-wearing women and children, and the South (Tea Party territory, for sure) itself as a place of apocalyptic upheaval, selfish, flesh-eating anarchy that has overthrown human civility and reason  – I felt that I was seeing rhetoric that reflects elitist fears of Beck’s followers – and the tenets of his movement.

Check out the rhetoric of Beck’s 9-12 Project, a guiding set of principles for the Tea Party.  Note the culture war language about “surrounding” the “few” elite leaders in power, the confidence in the individual to be his own “authority” on how to govern, the resentment towards a government asking taxpayers to be charitable.  Are we (and here I align myself with liberal, academics) afraid of this now mass mediated, talking head-lead assault on progressivism and populist practices?  Why shouldn’t we be?  After all, if folks in red states stop seeing taxation as a means to the end of public good, will access to education and health care – and ultimately our own relevance as academics – be eaten away?  Are Tea Partiers – white, working, uneducated lower classes – devouring our humanity in their desperate search for sustenance?  Or have they simply been a force ignored too long by liberalism – left with too little access to brains, voice, sympathy?

To answer this question I will give you these three intersections of Tea Party, working class, and zombie rhetoric.  1) Beck’s mission statement asks “Do you believe that your voice isn’t loud enough to be heard above the noise anymore?” – defining potential Tea Partiers as silenced, ignored, drowned out by the current political and social rhetoric 2) Paula, my maintenance woman pal, teases me about being “so smart” – asking that I call her “dumbass” and frequently laments that, though she will go without a raise until 2013, Miami’s president makes close to $300,000 per year and “don’t care nothin’ for us down here.” 3) The zombies of The Walking Dead cannot talk, are frequently underestimated and overlooked, and truly harmless unless amassed.

Zombies are absolutely terrifying; I’ll say it again.  But then, the monsters we make usually are.  By paying attention to the Tea Party – not Beck, but the real, scared, hungry people who lose their jobs and listen to him with rapt attention, to the Paulas who invariably, invisibly sweep these halls of the university – liberal academics can recognize the power we are scared of, we can legitimize and engage working class concerns, take them seriously as the formidable force they can become.  After all, the challenge of avoiding zombification in any t.v. show or horror flick, is usually a simple matter of understanding how monsters get made.

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Sarah Palin’s Presidential Strategy: Pretty Darn Smart

A number of commentators have noted in the past week that Sarah Palin’s political strategy is pretty darn smart — and that we shouldn’t be surprised if it actually works in 2012 to secure her the Presidency. Her brilliance — yes, I used that word — is understanding the changing role of new media in politics, and the old guard of both parties just doesn’t grasp it. Yes, she sees politics as a reality TV show for which the goal is, at all costs, to stay on the island. She is remarkably good at doing just that. Meanwhile, the intellectual elite think, Wow, how dumb and misguided. Not so dumb. But definitely dangerous to turn politics into a celebrity game. But maybe the electorate is deciding that politics has become no more than that — a meaningless game in which there’s a lot of noise but very little meaningful action. So why not make the game more interesting? Forget presidential debates. Turn on Dancing with the Stars. And why not? If the old guard and intellectual elites can’t get anything done, change the channel. Robert Reich is seeing it, as do Bob Cesca and Melissa Harris-Perry. (Cesca sees her strategy as “Three basic steps: blurt out crazy shit, act wounded and victimized by the reaction, repeat.” Harris-Perry sees Palin as “the perfect reality-show star.”) With the help of Fox News spin and a continued bad economy (as seems likely), Palin’s strategy for staying on the island could well work, god help the island.

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“E-days”: The End of Snow Days or the Storm of the Future?

As a child growing up near the “snow belt” in northeastern Ohio, I loved snow days. Whenever my favorite meteorologist (Dick Goddard – look him up) would say, “get out your yard stick, this one will be a doozie,” I would anxiously watch the cancellations scroll across the bottom of the TV hoping to see my school’s name pop up.  That’s why I had mixed feelings when I heard that one Ohio school district – Mississinawa Valley – has decided that instead of cancelling school entirely on snow days, they will hold “e-days” to prevent pushing the school year into June (McCord). First, I thought, “Outrageous! How will the kids perfect their death defying sledding in temperatures that could cause frostbite?” Once nostalgia calmed down, I began to think – hey, snow is cold, I would probably play on my computer if I had a snow day now (Mississinawa Valley argued that students would play on the computer anyway during snow days), and maybe this isn’t such a bad idea.

Okay, so what does this have to do with a blog about rhetoric? Well, for one thing we just conducted our own distant learning exercise by holding our Monday’s class via a Dim Dim webinar, and, to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it. Albeit the craziness that ensued at times, and the constant barrage of ideas, I felt a sense of freedom in the different rhetorical context. That is, the chat forum was better equipped to handle my incomplete ideas, to advance several conversations at once, and to feed into our, sometimes, tangential thinking. I found myself more apt to participate and less apprehensive to throw out ideas; it felt collaborative and comfortable.

By entering the Dim Dim virtual space, we created a rhetorical context that I – and it seemed many of my classmates – approached with different rules. For example, we cracked jokes while maintaining scholarly focus and directed our comments directly at certain people – which we have only begun to do in our traditional classroom. It seemed Dim Dim may have alleviated the awkward interrupting that can happen in live conversation and decreased the “teacher as authority” power construct (at times). Granted, a webinar class isn’t everyone’s style, and if you’re a slower typist, it can be downright frustrating. I wouldn’t want a totally virtual class, but these types of interactions -and “e-days” – may prove an effective cost saving tool, and, potentially, a supplementary forum that creates new ways to interact in a relaxed yet educationally focused space.

The “e-days” article, Dim Dim webinar, and Composition in the University, have me thinking about the composition classroom – I have students who abhor the laptop classroom, even writing brilliant papers calling for technology to be removed from the composition classroom. Would students who grew up with “e-days” embrace technology in the classroom and these new rhetorical contexts more?  What exactly can we learn from “e-days”? I know several composition instructors who have virtual office hours (even the Miami University librarian has virtual office hours), use instant messaging to communicate with students, and integrate other rhetorical spaces into their classrooms (i.e., Google docs, YouTube, blogs – ahem, RhetHistoria – and so on).

Not to mention that universities (and some high schools) across the country are now offering distance learning, and as Crowley proposes, “…there is a place for composition in the university, and that place does not depend upon Freshmen English” (265).  Perhaps the “e-days” are an example of where we need to take the composition classroom or a sign of how strong the distance learning trend has become (maybe a foreboding Angel in the Snow?). These programs may have even cut down on some of the elitist barriers that Crowley outlines by eliminating location as a factor in admission (222). Despite the mixed feelings and data regarding distant learning, I think many “e-days” may be ahead of us as a way to reduce cost. We need to explore these venues with an open mind as potentially useful supplements to create new rhetorical contexts for our students.  Well, at the very least, some kids in the Mississinawa Valley School District may defrost while working on their virtual lessons.

Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Print.

McCord, Emily. “For Some Ohio Students, Less Play on Snow Days.” NPR.org. NPR, 22 November 2010.Web. 22 November 2010.

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All Part Of The Plan

Here’s a tip: If you ever find yourself qualifying a statement with “I’m not a bigot (racist, sexist, etc.), but…”, then you should probably think four or five times before finishing your sentence. Regardless of whether or not you think NPR’s firing of Juan Williams was justified, I think the resulting fallout surrounding the firing revealed more about our media than it did about the incident in question. In this On The Media interview, William Saletan contends that if NPR had put Williams firing in the context of other questionable remarks, then the resulting conversation would have been quite different:

Well, I think we’d be having a completely different conversation, you and I and the whole political blogosphere, if NPR had said, look, we have a longstanding issue with Juan Williams, and not about any particular comment but over the course of his career, and we don’t feel this is appropriate.

I think Mr. Saletan is missing the forest for the trees here. To claim that qualification and proper context would have resulted in a different conversation is to ignore the rather obvious fact that a large segment of our media have a vested interest in promoting and disseminating anti-Muslim sentiment. In this segment from the Daily Show, John Stewart points out the absurd lengths to which Fox News goes to capitalize on anti-Muslim fear and hatred.

So context does matter. And the context in which NPR fired Williams so obviously threatened the legitimacy of the right-wing’s attempts to capitalize on anti-Muslim sentiment that even the appearance of sanctioning someone for using one of these commonplaces necessitated that the right-wing media turn Williams into some sort of martyr to “political correctness”. Can you imagine the drop in Fox’s quarterly reports if casual Muslim-baiting became a taboo move in journalism? No, better to keep the status quo. That way when someone like Octavia Nasr commits a similar gaffe, the right wing media can jump all over her and destroy her career. You have to fill those 24 hours with something after all.

But I think there’s another way in which context matters here. Williams specifically invoked his ethos and authority as an expert on African-American racial issues to justify his position:

I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I’ve got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

As Amir pointed out in an earlier post on Dinesh D’Souza, the use of your identity as an appeal to authority to speak for or about other groups doesn’t hold water (N.B. I’m not comparing Williams to D’Souza: the difference between the two is roughly the difference between Robert DeNiro and the Situation). I don’t think Williams appeal was as cynical as D’Souza’s. I think it was more a reflection of the medium in which he was presenting. The “expert” commentator is expected to be able to move fluidly from issue to issue and offer authoritative commentary on whatever hooves its way into his frame of reference.

And it was precisely this mode in which Williams found himself operating when he offered his comments. While there is no question that Williams is an expert on African-American racial issues in America, there are plenty of reasons to question his expertise on Islamic culture and on terrorism in particular. No self-respecting terrorist would try to board a plane in “Muslim garb” (whatever that is). The whole point is to blend in and not draw attention to one’s self. There’s precisely zero reason to feel afraid of someone who sticks out. Williams could obviously benefit from reading the work of someone like Scott Atran, who has spent the last few years debunking myths about terrorists. Instead, Williams chose to provide a stereotype– not so much of Islam as a whole– but rather of the suicide terrorist as crazed religious zealot, and in doing so, he contributed to the general anti-Muslim sentiment that pays the rent at Fox.

Of course, none of these nuances really matter in the end. Even if you think justice was served in the case of Williams firing, he is still going to get several million dollars from Fox. And even if NPR’s firing was a nod to “political correctness” (i.e. a sanction against offhand bigotry), this, too, doesn’t seem to matter. Just today Republicans tried to defund NPR by passing a bill in the house. In case you were wondering, this is part of the business plan as well. Murdoch’s been working on defunding the BBC across the pond and there’s no reason for him to deviate from that plan in this country. Selah.

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It Works Coz You Get to Fill in the ____

The first thing I do in the morning when I wake up is turn on the T.V. This morning, I became struck by the ad for a product I always keep in my house: SmartWater. The ad shows an image of Tom Brady, the quarterback of New England Patriots working out. It was eye catching and appealing.

Image 1

I also logged on the Facebook as I was watching T.V., and there I saw that my friend just posted a picture from a political protest:

Image 2

After checking Facebook, I went on to Miami’s website to check my email, and this image emerges:

Image 3

Since I’ve seen it before a thousand times, I didn’t never really think much about it. It’s another example of advertisements, I thought to myself.

But what do these images have in common, despite their different purposes?

I want to show that they work by letting us (the viewers) fill it the blank. They work because we supply the missing link or what rhetorician and logician call the premise. They are examples of enthymeme—a truncated syllogism. But what does that mean exactly?

To understand enthymeme, we must first learn about syllogism.

In brief, a syllogism is an argument that contains 3 parts: premise 1, premise 2 and a conclusion. The premises logically lead to a conclusion that is irrefutably true as in this famous example that has been used over the years:

  • Premise 1: All men are mortal beings.
  • Premise 2: Socrates is a man.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is a mortal being.

The conclusion that Socrates is a mortal being follows from the premise, and it is irrefutable. For Aristotle, syllogism is used in philosophy and demonstration to help one derives at the truth.

Enthymeme, on the other, hand is different. It is an “abbreviated syllogism.” The premise is omitted, and the conclusion drawn is a probability—unlike syllogism. An example might be helpful here:

“He must be a socialist because he favors a graduated income-tax.” (taken from Corbett and Connors, 1999)

This statement is an enthymeme because the premise (“anyone who favors a graduated income-tax is a socialist”) is missing. What we have then is one premise and a conclusion. The conclusion in this case is not an irrefutable truth. We don’t know for sure if the man is in fact a socialist.

Let’s now return to the three images I saw this morning and apply what we know about enthymeme to them.

Image 1:

  1. Several enthymemes are evident in this ad:Tom Brady drinks SmartWater, so you should drink it too. (Omitted premise to be supplied by the viewer: What Brady chooses is good for you.)
  2. SmartWater can get you fit and attractive like Tom Brady, so you should drink it. (Omitted premise to be supplied by the viewer: Being fit/having a fit body like Brady is desirable.)

Image 2:

This image too is an enthymeme. The missing premise (assumption) is that gays like to shop. The omitted premise draws from and reinforces a stereotype about gay men. Though problematic, this example illustrates the point that the conclusion from an enthymeme is not an absolute truth and can be subject to debate. Legalizing gay marriage does not guarantee that gay men will go out and shop, and as a result, the economy will be rescued.

Image 3:

Here study abroad is being used as a marketing strategy to attract students to Miami University. The enthymeme behind this ad: Miami encourages study abroad; therefore, you should consider going here. The missing premise: Study abroad and international perspectives are important and good for you.

I hope that the analysis I have provided, thus far, have clarified what an enthymeme is. There’s one more thing I want to say about the omitted premise. As you might already notice, the missing premise behind each of the three enthymemes reflects the assumption (in the case of image 2 a stereotype) that our society holds about a particular topic, group, or people. These assumptions should be subject to careful critical interrogation because they often indicate a way of thinking that privileges one social order, class, appearance, race, nation, ethnicity, ideas, etc. at the expense of another. In other words, behind each missing premise lies an ideology. In image 1, for instance, we have the ideology of the athletic superstar and normative body type. This ideology reinforces how people should look, what type of body they should have, and it also helps to prop up the status of athletes in our society. Knowing this, it is important to always question the missing premises that an ad asks us to supply. Doing so can help us become a more informed consumer, citizen, and thinker in the future.

Exercises:

Can you identify the enthymeme and ideology behind these images?

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