Daily Archives: January 9, 2011

Frye on Rhetoric, Mobs and Ideology


Glenn Beck exhibits his brute talent for race-baiting and incitement to violence

Frye in Words with Power:

When the rhetorical occasion narrows down from the historical to the immediate, as at rallies and pep talks, we begin to see features in rhetoric that account for the suspicion, even contempt, with which it was regarded so often by Plato and Aristotle.  Let us take a rhetorical situation at its worst.  In intensive rhetoric with a short-term aim, there is a deliberate attempt to put the watchdog of consciousness to sleep, and the steady battering of consciousness become hypnotic, as the metaphor of “swaying” an audience suggests.  A repetition of cliche phrases is designed to bring about a form of dissociation.  The dead end of all this is the semi-autonomous monster called the mob, of which the speaker is now the shrieking head.  For a mob the kind of independent judgment appealed to by dialectic is an act of open defiance, and is normally treated as such.

We spoke of the endlessness of argument in the conceptual area, but rhetoric has an ad hominem or personal weapon available to stop argument.  One may be told, “You just say that because you’re an atheist, a Communist, a Jew, a Christian, or because you had a castrating mother,” etc., etc.  Such verbal weapons are illegitimate in the conceptual mode, where an impersonal  basis is assumed.  But they play an important role in ideology–not always a sinister or violent role, as one may also be led to examine one’s position to see what limitations are built into it.  (CW 26, 32-3)

That last point is subtle and reassuring.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with ad hominem arguments in the right context — we may indeed be called upon to rethink our stand on issues in light of personal biases.  Satire, of course, completely depends upon the ad hominem affront, and it is perhaps the most direct assault on the inadequacies of ideology that literature affords.

And that’s the difference I see between left and right in the most readily available public discourse.  The left tweaks the nose of the right with fact-based mockery, and the right responds with death threats and talk of “second amendment remedies,” which predictably leads to violence.  The left has Jon Stewart whose satire is usually most devastating when running a piece of footage that provides a missing piece of crucial information; the right has Glenn Beck whose involuted paranoid fantasies seem only intended to leave his audience unmoored and waiting for him to tell them who to hate next.  While it’s true that you don’t want to mess with Matt Taibbi, he’ll  never threaten you with violence or unleash a horde of angry minions upon you.  But if you cross Sarah Palin, she’s capable of putting a target on you while barking “RELOAD” to an already irrational mob.  One is acceptable and enriching civilized behavior, the other is psychopathy.

Matt Taibbi on John Boehner


John Boehner’s closing remarks before the vote on health care reform last March.  It’s important to remember that in John Roberts’s and Antonin Scalia’s America corporations are persons, and that’s Boehner’s real constituency.

Matt Taibbi has a profile of new House Leader, John Boehner, in this week’s Rolling Stone.  A taste:

John Boehner is the ultimate Beltway hack, a man whose unmatched and self-serving skill at political survival has made him, after two decades in Washington, the hairy blue mold on the American congressional sandwich. The biographer who somewhere down the line tackles the question of Boehner’s legacy will do well to simply throw out any references to party affiliation, because the thing that has made Boehner who he is — the thing that has finally lifted him to the apex of legislative power in America — has almost nothing to do with his being a Republican.

The Democrats have plenty of creatures like Boehner. But in the new Speaker of the House, the Republicans own the perfect archetype — the quintessential example of the kind of glad-handing, double-talking, K Street toady who has dominated the politics of both parties for decades. In sports, we talk about athletes who are the “total package,” and that term comes close to describing Boehner’s talent for perpetuating our corrupt and debt-addled status quo: He’s a five-tool insider who can lie, cheat, steal, play golf, change his mind on command and do anything else his lobbyist buddies and campaign contributors require of him to get the job done.

Thomas Paine

On this date in 1776 Thomas Paine published Common Sense, which arguably turned the American Rebellion into the American Revolution.

Here’s Frye in a letter to Helen in July 1932:

Now the United States is a big thing to criticize, but it has the advantage of having so many aspects that it is hardly possible to make a criticism of it which is not more or less true.  But a statement which is more or less true, like “Germans are more intelligent than Frenchmen,” or “women are more moral than men,” is meaningless and a waste of wind, and of what is of considerably more value, time.  That is the objection I have to Dreiser, and, on principle, to Lewis.  No man has adequate cultural equipment to satirize the U.S. according to it, so that all he can do is imitate, or simply set the standardization of the Babbitts beside his own cultural standardization.  There is too much eighteenth-century sentimentality and sloppy thinking in American culture anyway, and the path from Thomas Paine to Elmer Gantry runs straight and smooth. (CW 1, 41)

And from Elmer Gantry to creatures like Sharron Angle and Sarah Palin who believe that the second amendment supercedes the first — especially when advocates for the first amendment aren’t particularly eager enthusiasts of the second.