Christopher Hitchens on Reparations for Slavery

In a debate at Boston College about reparations for slavery, Christopher Hitchens supported them and also gave an excellent lesson in rhetoric that he labeled “don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”  A link to a video of his remarks (and, if you like, contrast Hitchen’s discourse with Trump’s rhetorical vomit):

Hitchens on reparations


Of “Statesmanship”

A far-flung colleague with some personal experience with Congress wrote the following:

“A statesman can get elected, but never re-elected. Much of the voting populace thinks it’s begging for a statesman, but what it really wants is Pontius Pilate. The impact of the ever increasing media and the various outlets for immediate and accessible communication have made statesmanship impossible. What allows for statesmanship is the desire of the voters to elect someone whom they trust to do the right thing on their behalf. In this day and age, virtually all of the voters think they know the right thing regardless of how this knowledge may have been acquired.”

To follow up on the point(s) a bit: the more confused voters are, then, by the process–lies, truthiness, spin. baiting, propaganda–the less likely they are to know who might have their genuine best interests in mind, and the less likely they are to identify correctly what their best interests are. In this regard, it is interesting to observe the reactions to the bombing of Libya. The reactions from politicians seem chiefly calculated; some may be “philosophical” or principled: hard to say. The reactions from common folk seem products of predispositions against or for intervention (in general) or against or for President Obama. One wonders how many of the reactions are based on a thorough calculation or consideration of “self-interest.”

My own “self-interest” in the political arena tends to include a desire for long-range planning–in matters of foreign policy, the revenue-side of the budget, the environment, land-use, energy (precisely how safe are the reactors–I mean really?), and so on. I’ve never been tempted to vote for a candidate (for example) because she or he might lower, raise, or leave alone my personal local, state, or federal taxes. I cite this example merely to demonstrate how flexible the “self” part of “self-interest” can be, not to suggest my way is correct.

The Oxford Dictionary online links statesman and statesmanship to the good or expert management of the state and its interests, but I think the terms have taken on a connotation that suggests the politician in question is acting with a bit more honor and a bit less personal calculation than does the usual politician.

Once in a meeting of our faculty, a good friend and colleague could have pressed for a vote that would have gone his way, but instead he chose not to press the issue and to let the issue be unresolved until the next meeting, when his side of the issue may well have not prevailed. A dean at the time remarked, “That’s very statesmanlike of you.” Just so. The friend and colleague was being fair-minded–another connotation of “statesman” and “statesmanship,” maybe.

The word “statesman,” by the way, goes all the way back to 1600–the first OED citation being from a play by Ben Johnson. Also of interest (to me) is that we the people haven’t quite yet found a non-sexist equivalent; “the language,” that protean force, hasn’t accepted “stateswoman” or “statesperson.” Something satisfactory, idiomatically, to our “ears” will come along.

But back to the original points from the far-flung colleague: politicians, their handlers, and the media have so confused most citizens that most citizens may not know what their long-term self-interest may really be–as condescending as that may sound. People really do vote against what reasonably seems to be their self-interest. At the same time, politicians seem so caught up in zero-sum games, posing, baiting, and playing to the base that an old-fashioned, even quaint, notion of “statesmanship” never occurs to them.

Was President Obama behaving in a statesmanlike way when he compromised on health-care? I don’t know, but at the moment I’m leaning 60% toward a “Yes.” What is far more interesting, even to me, than my opinion (or lack thereof) on this matter is that it is probably impossible to have this discussion with most citizens. Many progressives’ visceral response is that he “caved in” on the single-payer option and sucked up to large health-insurance companies. Many conservatives and other GOPers and apparently all of the “Tea Party” will have the visceral response that he let the federal government “take over” health-care. There just doesn’t seem even to be the elbow-room available to conduct the discussion.

Agreed-Upon Facts

In the world of America’s National Football League, a former coach, Jim Mora (Sr.), is renowned for a press-conference at which he is asked whether his team will advance to the playoffs. “Playoffs? Playoffs? Playoffs!” he shouts, repeatedly and sarcastically–to indicate that his team first has to show it win A game and play with skill. Playoffs? Out of the question.

In our pseudocracy, one might be forgiven for reacting the same way to the idea of agreed-upon facts that may underlie or precede a debate. Facts? FACTS? Facts! You must be joking.

On the radio the other day, a spokesperson for a politics/media not-for-profit organization said he believed it’s now virtually impossible to have a real debate with “the other side” because “the other side” won’t agree to any facts and because it isn’t interested in genuine policy-debate, or even in principle-debate.

To my mind, it doesn’t matter which “side” this fellow represents. He’s right.

So, today, President Obama did what presidents do: spoke of getting the economy going–“making stuff and selling stuff.” All well and good, but I think regularly we need a primer and what the government can (literally, is able to do) to stimulate the economy and what it can’t do. Clearly, it can, and did, save GM’s bacon. It can also forcefully encourage car sales, the purpose of which was to clear out a massive world-wide inventory (I know a car-dealer or two who agreed that there was simply too much inventory out there). But otherwise, what’s cyclical and structural and what isn’t? Most economists must agree on a few consensus-points in this regard.

Then there’s the Republicans’ stated claim that the health-care reform program “kills” jobs. There seem not be data that support the claim, and there do seem to be data that do support the counter-claim, tentative as it might be, that the reform may create hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs–in addition to achieving some of its main purposes: getting 30+ million into some kind of insurance program, modestly regulating insurance-companies, and so on. But the GOPers’ proposal, of course, is not data-dependent. It may not be data-cognizant.

Data? Data! You must be joking. It’s hard for me to joke about this, however, because I have some familiarity with the Aristotelian tradition of rhetoric–in which some consensus or common understanding of a situation, its facts, is essential to deliberative debate, meaning debate about what to do about something in the future, as opposed to forensic debate, which concerns an interpretation of something in the past.

What do do? Well, when in doubt, create a TV show. “Agreed Upon Facts.” Before two or more people may debate or discuss, they have to agree upon some facts. No agreement, no discussion. “Next!”

Obama, Kairos, and Prosopopoeia

Strategies and tactics identified and practiced in ancient rhetoric appear in our political, social, and academic discourse all the time, chiefly because they’ve been absorbed–to some extent unconsciously–and not because writers and speakers have necessarily studied rhetoric.

A good example was and is Barack Obama’s major speech on race, a speech he was more or less forced to give during the campaign because of his opposition’s having seized on the alleged controversial remarks of the Reverend Wright,  pastor of a church the Obamas attended.  (I should point out that the remarks and rhetoric of Reverend Wright, captured on video, probably did not seem controversial to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with African American church traditions–as Obama subtly alluded to in his speech.)

No doubt Obama, his campaign directors, and anyone else with a hand in composing the speech ever uttered the words “kairos” and “prosopopoeia,” but both concepts figure significantly in his speech.

A definition of kairos, from the site Silva Rhetorica: “The opportune occasion for speech. The term kairos has a rich and varied history, but generally refers to the way a given context for communication both calls for and constrains one’s speech. Thus, sensitive to kairos, a speaker or writer takes into account the contingencies of a given place and time, and considers the opportunities within this specific context for words to be effective and appropriate to that moment.”

“Prosopopoeia” is a synonym for “personification,” but more specifically it refers to when a writer or speaker shifts into another’s voice or point of view briefly.

How did Obama deploy kairos?  First, I’d argue, by turning a defensive position (forced to say something about Wright) into an assertive position (giving an extended, formal speech on race, in which might be embedded remarks on Wright).  He made the speech “major” before he gave it. Second, I’d argue, by deciding to go to Philadelphia and Independence Hall to give the speech.  Philadelphia, city of brotherly love and site of the writing of the Constitution, which in effect and in print defined African American slaves as 3/5 human. Symbolism, anyone?

Then Obama opened his speech this way:

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.”

So, having deployed kairos, he then began the speech conventionally and patriotically, by quoting famous words. Later in this section, he compares slavery to original sin.  As I watched/heard the speech live and heard “original sin,” I knew he’d moved from the conventional to the serious.  One may quibble with the Christian context of the analogy, and/or one may think it is too melodramatic.  I thought it was apt in the sense that the colonies and then the Republic stumbled over slavery and that the U.S. has never fully recovered, partly because it has never fully confronted the implications and consequences of slavery. Note that the Governor of Virginia recently and “mistakenly” left slavery out of a proclamation concerning Confederate history.  Way to prove Obama’s point, governor.

To conclude the speech, Obama deployed prosopopoeia–personification. For a moment, he allows “Ashley” (and an elderly Black man) to speak for him, or at least to articulate a point for him:

. . . She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

A sentimental anecdote? You bet. An obvious parable? You bet.  The elder black man shows up to support Obama’s candidacy, not because the man and Obama are black (so the parable reads) but because of a selfless young white woman–in the South.  And a white person and a black person are working together, for Obama, in the South. A subtext may be this: Obama may have been indirectly saying to his opponents, who extruded as much emotion and visceral reaction out of Reverend Wright’s rhetoric as possible, “So now the campaign is about emotion, playing on people’s heart-strings? Okay!”

Classical moves in a contemporary speech, with a lot at stake: instructive.

%d bloggers like this: