Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mini-Review: Thank You For Arguing

Thank You For Arguing. by Jay Heinrichs. Ch. 26

I don't know quite what to say about a chapter which begins with a leading quote that translates, "Quid multa? clamores," as "I brought the house down." The Latin is a self-satisfied remark from Cicero to his intimate friend Atticus (letter I.14) in February of 61 BC about a particularly quick comment the orator tossed off. The tendentiously-related English is from Ch. 26 of Jay Heinrich's Thank You for Arguing, in which Heinrichs purports to demonstrate the brilliance and utility of President Obama's rhetorical prowess. The gap between the English and Latin, though, speaks volumes. Namely, it says that the author is not serious about scholarship or precision, but is content to repackage serious work for lazy readers. I'll charitably assume this is the case rather than considering if the author hasn't done his homework or that the author of a book on rhetoric doesn't know Latin and Greek.

To cut to the chase, though, it's the title of the chapter, not the book, which held my interest in the store: Capture Your Audience: The Obama Identity: Steal the tricks of a first-class orator. Dear reader, that's one wacca away from full blown incredibility. Let's break this down.

Skipping over the introduction in which the author relives the glory of Obama's ascendency, the sloppiness starts. First we get the turn of phrase that "Aristotle wanted political speeches to be deliberative," which makes anyone who has read Book I of the Rhetoric cringe at the kitschy summarization of Aristotle's detailed taxonomy. Then, Heinrichs uses the word demonstrative, which doesn't explain to the reader what epideictic means in a formal, specific, Aristotelian sense. All political or demonstrative or forensic oratory be demonstrative in some loose sense? In fact Heinrichs goes out of his way not to use this word, saying on p. 30 that only academics use it because "they're just being demonstrative," which is his periphrastic way of saying people who use this word are assholes. I wonder what he thinks of people who write it in Greek! Third, he writes that "in a speech that seeks to bring people together, you want to get demonstrative" with no explanation. He's not wrong at all, but that statement tells us almost as little as his next, which reads, "Get to know demonstrative rhetoric'll become a better orator yourself." Manum de tabula, discipuli, the master has arrived!

Worst perhaps is his tag that, "This is rhetoric the way the ancients taught it." Well, I know what he means, which is that this is authentic ancient style, but besides the fact that it's not, he's using a modern example of use to prove how ancient rhetoric was taught. We don't have to get into the history of rhetorical manuals and progymnasmata, but this is sloppy.

Next he breaks then-Senator Obama's 2004 keynote address at  the Democratic National Convention into five parts: Introduction, Narration, Division, Proof, Refutation, Conclusion.

In the introduction, he praises Obama for "establishing his character" at the beginning of the speech by citing Obama's phrase, "My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely." How does acknowledging your presence on a stage establish character? It was obvious he was standing there. Those words don't describe, explain, depict, or evoke anything.

In his demonstration of Obama's narratio he explains that "a moral" links Obama's character with the American way. A moral what? He has three choices:
  1. the moral teaching or practical lesson contained in a fable, tale, experience, etc.
  2. the embodiment or type of something. 
  3. morals, principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct.
I can't find what "moral" could mean in the speech.

Next he writes that "the good orator uses the division to represent both sides." The division of what? What is "the division?" Does he mean the division of the speech in to introduction, facts and details, proof, and conclusion? Is the division a part of the speech? He says to "use the division to sound like you're more reasonable than the other side," which is so vague and incomplete that you have to question whether he knows  what he's talking about. At any rate, it's impossible for such an explanation to be of use to anyone, let alone a layman.

Even if we assume that by division of the speech he means its organization into exordium, narratio, probatio, and peroratio, how could one say as he does that, "the good orator uses the division to represent both sides," an exceedingly general statement.

Then he cites the use of a catalogue as "proof," in place of, say, direct evidence like witnesses and contracts, argumentation from evidence or example, or even an emotional appeal. A list constitutes proof. Wow.

After this he cites the following as evidence of the entire refutatio:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.
That's not bad, but it's not at all enough by itself to constitute a full-blown refutatio.

As far as conclusions go, fine, let's say the speech has one, if only so we can admit it's over.

Finally, it's very telling that Heinrichs sees this speech as being successful because it's all about Obama, even though it was supposed to get John Kerry elected. This is a clever way of avoiding the fact that the speech failed. Of course many great speeches, even the best, have failed to produce the outcome their authors had hoped, but to call either set of Philippics, say, failures is not the same as to call this speech a failure. Cicero and Demosthenes might have chosen poor tacks of persuasion, hypothetically, but they didn't fail by having the ulterior motive of aggrandizing themselves. So either Obama wrote a bad speech or he deliberately threw Kerry under the bus to promote himself, a fact about which "Cicero would be proud." Don't let that tack-on about Cicero being proud pass, though. Heinrichs uses his presumption of Ciceronian approval to justify an ulterior motive which he imputes to Obama, all to avoid the fact that the speech failed. Now that is some rhetoric.

Now Heinrichs turns his attention to some of Obama's other speeches, citing and praising a line from President Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address in which Heinrichs finds an instance of prosopopoeia. Literally "to put on a face," this device most properly involves adopting a persona through which one speaks, especially the guise of a deceased. More loosely some categorize under the umbrella of prosopopoeia the use of the historic present and the introduction as speaking of any absent party. Cicero's usages are perhaps the most famous, especially the instance in the Pro Caelio (s.34) in which Cicero, adopting the character of Appius Claudius Caecus, excoriates the infamous Clodia, his wicked distant progeny. As notable is the use in the First Catilinarian (s. I.7) in which he pleads with Catiline in the voice of the Roman people.

The difference in Obama's usage is that there is no layer of mimesis, no moment in which he puts on the mask of another. He is actually speaking for the people. Also, Obama uses we 32 times throughout this short speech, and as such no given moment nor the whole is prosopopoeia.

After a some preposterous praise not worth our attention, Heinrichs characterizes the following passage as "pure enargeia," Greek for vividness:
One march was interrupted by police gunfire and tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60 were wounded, and one 16-year-old boy lay dead.
That's vivid? A sentence with no imagery, told in the present tense, with no amplification by structure, and no characters? Heinrichs is at pains to paint this scene as vivid, pointing out how the unfolding story seems to "zoom in" on the details as it progresses. But the narration is bland chronological, that is to say, normal. How is this order "cinematic" and "pure enargeia?"

Compare it to Cicero's vivid narration of the night raid in which the lackeys of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily, attempt to steal statues from the square at Agrigentum. We may identify in this passage against Verres (In Verrem II.IV), devices such as the vivid present, pleonasm, characterization, impersonal verbs (emphasizing action), diminutives, sarcasm, the charge of sacrilege, humor, imagery, assonance, emphatic placement, and climax, which constitute enargeia. There is no enargeia in Obama's sentence in which he tells a story with no details or characters in a past tense.

Heinrichs is aware of Obama's tense problem, though, for admitting the story is in the past tense he hurries to say that "it's in the service of demonstrative rhetoric" and that its "secret" lies in that alleged cinematic narration. Since demonstrative rhetoric is concerned with praising or censuring someone and is concerned with the present state, it's hard to reconcile this sentence to the speech. Heinrichs seems by demonstrative to mean simply anything that has a point.

The remaining examples which Heinrichs points out are not misnamed as rhetoric but simply bland and unremarkable instances. Calling attention to them, let alone lauding them, is akin to praising Transformers for adhering to Aristotelian tragic theory because its action takes place in one day. Yet Heinrichs seems to know his praise of Obama's rhetoric is not on the firmest  ground, conceding in his closing paragraph that, "Soon after taking office, Obama toned down his demonstrative rhetoric, choosing to deal with pragmatic policies between campaigns." First, the time "between campaigns" is usually referred to as a presidency. Second, Obama spoke ad infinitum and ad nauseam during his first term. He also spoke poorly, but just as poorly as he ever did. It's not surprising that liberals want to remember a perfect honeymoon, though.

Their desire to agree agree with and elevate their idol has clouded their judgment and this chapter of Heinrichs' Thank You For Arguing demonstrates what I've written elsewhere about reactions to Obama's rhetoric: if you already agree, you'll love it. Unfortunately, that's not the stuff of great rhetoric. Likewise, sloppy uses of terminology, sketchy examples, encomiastic editorializing, and imprecise explanations are not the stuff of great books. If you're looking for a sophomoric justification of Obama's greatness, though, this will surely float your boat. Thanks, but no thanks.

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