25 February 2010

Ur-story: Second Story Pt. 2

(cont'd from previous post)

Now, if you're one of those people who doesn't like to read critical reviews of books you haven't yet read because you don't like 'spoilers', rest easy; J.M. Coetzee's Summertime has no plot. There are no spoilers to give away. Please read on.

To recap from my previous post: Summertime is a fictional pastiche consisting of four transcripts and one narrative summary of interviews with acquaintances of as well as some fragments from the presumably authentic journal of one 'John Coetzee', deceased, all filtered through the prism of someone named Vincent who is compiling research for a biography of this same Nobel laureate 'John Coetzee' he hopes to write.

I've said here that J.M. Coetzee's novel "Disgrace is the most important and best novel I have read in the last quarter century." One of the reasons I so admire that novel has to do with J.M. Coetzee's masterful use of classical dramatic structure (reversal, rising action, climax, denouement) to achieve a profound thematic unity. It is formally perfect and thematically relevant and, thus, very satisfying both intellectually and emotionally.

J.M. Coetzee has eschewed these structural dramatic elements in Summertime in favor of this pastiche approach. There is no drama here. No plot.

Fine. What then of thematic coherence?

As I said before, Summertime is a series of voice exercises. By this I mean, we have J.M. Coetzee writing in the distinct voices of five different characters (six if you count the John Coetzee of the journals, and seven if you count Vincent the collator), each of whom illuminates some facet of the life of the fictional John Coetzee from 1971/2 until his first public recognition in 1977. The portrait of this character that emerges is fairly consistent: an awkward, introverted, private person; a failure of a son; a wan, ineffectual lover; a mediocre to competent academic; a stubborn Afrikaner wrestling with his patrimony; in short, a great writer who is not necessarily such a great man. All this amid the background of political unrest and social injustice in 1970s South Africa.

These incidents are told from the points of view of a liberal, female, middle-class South African therapist with whom John Coetzee had an affair; a female cousin whom John Coetzee once felt he loved; a Brazilian woman who suspects John Coetzee's interest in her is only because he has designs on her daughter; the male friend and colleague who beat John Coetzee out for a university teaching job; the Francophone lover and colleague with whom John Coetzee once taught a course on African literature; and finally (and most importantly) from the point of view of the biographer who wants to search for the sources of particular incidents in the novels of John Coetzee in his actual life even though he finds the personal writings of John Coetzee wholly unreliable.

In these various voices, we see a determined John Coetzee building a concrete apron around his modest home, so-called "Kaffir" labor considered unbefitting white Afrikaners of the time. We see a stubborn John Coetzee refusing to have a professional mechanic fix his car, so he and his cousin get stuck out in the middle of the veldt and have to spend the night in his car. We see an ineffectual John Coetzee pursuing the sensual Latina mother of one of his tutorial students staging a picnic which turns disastrous.  We see John Coetzee botching a university teaching job interview. We see an idealistic John Coetzee looking down on politics and failing to engage in the cultural battles of the war against Apartheid taking umbrage and then freezing up like Billy Budd at an interview with a literary magazine. And we see John Coetzee as a bit of an unreliable self-narrator:
"[Vincent:] Mme Denoel, I have been through the letters and diaries. What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record—not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity. As documents they are valuable, of course, but if you want the truth you have to go behind the fictions they elaborate and hear from people who knew him directly in the flesh.

"[Sophie:] But what if we are all fictioneers, as you call Coetzee? What if we all continually make up the stories of our lives? Why should what I tell you about Coetzee be any worthier of credence than what he tells you himself?

"[Vincent:] Of course we are all fictioneers. I do not deny that. But which would you rather have: a set of independent reports from a range of independent perspectives, from which you can then try to synthesize a whole; or the massive, unitary self-projection comprised by his oeuvre? I know which I would prefer." 225-26
The themes of John Coetzee's unhappiness and, frankly, his incompetence at the two essential Freudian categories of work and love recur throughout Summertime, giving us a unified portrait of a man who seems ill-at-ease in the world and who, in effect and by nature, resists the world.

This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through...

[to be continued]

23 February 2010

Ur-story: Second Story

Patrimony, inheritance, birthright, tradition, legacy, heritage, incest, filiopietism, Oedipus complex, anxiety of influence: these are all ways (and there are many others) to express one of the major recurring themes in literature and fiction. Once we move beyond the lone individual struggling to understand reality, gain identity, deal with knowledge of mortality and grief, and establish a place in the world—the theme I have been exploring in my Ur-story series of posts—it is the first relationship, more primal even than love and mating. And it is a theme as ancient as Abram & Isaac (& Ishmael), and Lot's daughters; as central to our mythic self-understanding as Cronus & Zeus and Jahweh & Jesus; as profound as the aforementioned Oedipus and King Lear and Darwin & the apes; and as current as the new work by J.M. Coetzee, Summertime.

I rarely find myself reading, or having read, much less being in a position to comment on a novel that is au courant, but having just finished reading Summertime and seeing this reference to it on one of my favorite websites (h/t), I decided to pen a comment. There are plenty of reads on this enigmatic book out there (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here), and I'll try not to repeat any of them here. But none of them, to my mind, captures what I take to be the central theme of Summertime: one man's struggle to decide whether it is his duty to take care of his aging, ailing father and whether, if he cannot escape that duty, he is capable of doing so.

It is by no means an obvious theme because it is embedded in a pastiche of let us call them post-modern or metafictional literary techniques—the focus of most of the reviews I've seen. To understand how to read this book, it might be instructive to re-read my post here about William Gillespie's short book The Story That Teaches You How To Write It. The key is to pay attention to all the elements on the pages before you.

Thus, the American first edition of Summertime, the version I have, calls itself "Fiction" on its title page. We can, I think, safely take that at face value. Many of the reviewers spend valuable column space speculating on how much of the work is actually fictional and how much reliably autobiographical. As for me, I don't think it matters to an understanding of the book and, ultimately, am uninterested.

The confusion comes because the book—I'm not sure whether it can rightly be called a novel—is ostensibly about one "John Coetzee" who is said to be dead. For purposes of this post's clarity, I shall refer to the (dead) character in this fictional work as "John Coetzee" and the writer of this book as "J.M. Coetzee".

In my earlier Ur-story series of critical readings, I proposed a theory for understanding works of literature in terms of the essence of the story they sought to dramatize, that is to say the ways in which they dealt with the theme of confronting the human predicament of mortality and the accompanying sense of loss. On this theory, the story is a model of coming-to-consciousness emotionally. Summertime takes this essential understanding as its jumping-off place and goes on from there. J.M. Coetzee is using his own namesake, John Coetzee, as a character (though absent) in this book. John, like J.M., was a South African writer with a major literary reputation. Yet, in this book John Coetzee is dead.

Now one of the more difficult exercises for the writer of fiction is to give the reader a sense of a character through the eyes of the point-of-view character, the latter of whom is self-centered. Nick Carraway, for instance, is not what you might call self-centered. He is curious about and observant of his cousin Daisy and, of course, Gatsby. It is difficult to do because, as I've pointed out, much contemporary writing takes its cue from the 'method acting' school of drama; the writer doesn't merely impersonate, s/he takes on the aspect of the point of view character. And everything is about the self-discovery of the self-centered POV character; other characters tend to come across as stage props or furniture in the main character's world. James Wood, among others, famously calls this the free indirect style. I've called it 'method writing' (others have as well, e.g., see here, here, and here).

That is what J.M. Coetzee is attempting to do here, i.e., to give readers a sense of the fictional John Coetzee (and, importantly, his father) through the eyes of not one (arguably) but several point-of-view characters. Summertime consists of some notebook/journal fragments from John Coetzee and some transcripts of interviews and a narrative summary of another interview by one "Vincent", who is researching a biography of the late John Coetzee. Vincent apparently has taken some liberties with his transcriptions and summaries, and his interviewees often call him out on this. Thus Vincent's editorial control and thus his reliability are put at issue from the get-go.

So, let's call Vincent the Nick Carraway of Summertime and John Coetzee the not-so-great Gatsby.

Summertime is a compilation of Vincent's raw materials: interviews with five characters who knew John Coetzee (as presumably revealed in his journals) during the 1970s in South Africa and several of John's own notebook entries. Like the aforementioned Gillespie book, Summertime is thus a pastiche.

At first read it feels like J.M. Coetzee (the real life writer and Nobel laureate who has a world-wide following) has tried to pawn off a book written on the cheap (perhaps to fulfill a contractual obligation) by simply drawing on a few fragments from his own notebooks and some writerly exercises—to wit trying to imagine what some people (presumably with fictionalized identities) from his past might have thought about him—and cast the whole as a sort of po-mo, meta-fictional game by using the persona John Coetzee, having him be dead, and interjecting the fictional biographer. And that may very well be what this book is. But if it is merely gamesmanship, it is a sophisticated game and keeps the reader guessing. It does not readily betray its secrets.

But let's not cast aspersions on the writer's motivations. Let's take the text at face value, and examine it critically in terms of the sorts of things we look for in works of fiction. That is to say, let's treat it as the new form which, in the spirit of the game, it cries out to be.

(to be continued)

18 February 2010

Something Completely Different

If there were two things you could do today to improve your overall health, moderate your weight, and protect you from such potentially debilitating diseases as cancer, heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes, would you do them?

What if I told you they were relatively simple and easy, and didn't really involve much sacrifice on your part?

Fact is, there are. And what are those two things, you ask?
1) Cut out ALL trans fatty acids (trans fats, margarine, partially hydrogenated oils, etc.) from your diet.

2) Cut out ALL high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from your diet.
Truthfully, it's that simple. Read the list of ingredients of the foods you buy. If either of these two things are on the list, don't eat them. And over time, as you begin to figure out which foods usually contain these things, you'll be able to figure out which foods to avoid when you go out to a restaurant. (Hint: salad dressings and breads are often prominent offenders in both categories.)

The science on this is unassailable. And for advice like this you could pay hundreds of dollars to a diet plan or weight-loss guru. If you want to read well-written (popularized) articles on the topic, start here: Trans fats; HFCS.

You can research the science on the web if you choose. It's there. Both these products are the result of the corporatization of our food stream: they are cheaper to manufacture and store and, thus, add to the bottom lines of such entities as King Corn.

Perhaps the wisest dietary advice I ever heard was this adage from Micael Pollan: "Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Also, here.

I realize this post doesn't really fit into the usual WoW categories. It's just a little late winter food love from your host as you try to figure out how you're going to fit into that Spring Break bikini. Of course, if you can't live without your daily 'margarine float', well eat, drink, & be merry for tomorrow we die!

17 February 2010

How Stupid Are Texans?

Yo, it doesn't take much for me to throw this pic up. If you fish around you'll find it posted here at least twice. (Look for the 'Jesus Dinosaur' label in the side bar on the right.)

Why do I put it up again? According to a recent poll conducted by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune:

Three in ten Texas voters agree with that statement that humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs; 41 percent disagree, and 30 percent don't know.

Key word here: voters.

So, let's get this straight: Three out of every five Texas VOTERS either believe that human beings coexisted with all the dinosaurs or simply don't know any better. That's how stupid Texans are. And lest we forget: they produced two of the last three U.S. presidents. Sarah Palin believes it too. You can read about their "science" on Conservapedia. The stupidity is breath-taking.

This comes on the heels of Sunday's article by Russell Shorto in the New York Times Magazine about how the christers have captured the Texas State school board and want to control what goes in their text books: How Christian Were the Founders, noting how the text book decisions of the Texas school board have a profound influence on the book purchases by the other, smaller states' boards.

Seriously, someone needs to mess with Texas! They are leading us back toward the Dark Ages. Maybe they should be allowed to secede.

15 February 2010

The Big Lie

Let's get something straight right here and now: Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution reads, in part, as follows: "The Congress shall have Power ... To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water." This authority does not reside in the Executive (the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, etc.) or the Judicial branches of the government. The Legislative and only the Legislative branch of our government has the power to declare war.

The leaders of the Republican Party—Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney—do not seem able or willing to grasp this basic fact, but persist in the lie that it is the President who declares war.

Palin suggests that a declaration of war by President Obama would be a political maneuver, designed to achieve re-election. Some of us felt that G.W. Bush used the Iraq invasion for that very purpose, having seen how his father's failure to keep his own Gulf invasion going through the 1992 elections brought about his electoral defeat. Make no mistake about it, Palin is signaling her minions that if she is elected she will not hesitate to play the 'war card' to retain her (and by inference their) grip on power. This is the way she thinks. She is dangerous. This, of course, is one of the reasons why the founders of this country vested power to declare war in the legislature, and not the presidency.

Cheney's lie is even more insidious if only because it attempts to re-write history using the sloppy argot of conventional wisdom. On ABC News's This Week of Feb. 14, he made the following remarks:
CHENEY: Well, my reference to the notion that the president was trying to avoid treating this as a war was in relation to his initial response when we heard about the Christmas underwear bomber...

KARL: Right.

CHENEY: ... up in Detroit, when he went out and said this was the act of an isolated extremist. No, it wasn't. And we found out over time, obviously -- and he eventually changed his -- his assessment -- but that, in fact, this was an individual who'd been trained by Al Qaida, who'd been part of a larger conspiracy, and it was closer to being an act of war than it was the act of an isolated extremist.

It's the mindset that concerns me, John. I think it's -- it's very important to go back and keep in mind the distinction between handling these events as criminal acts, which was the way we did before 9/11, and then looking at 9/11 and saying, "This is not a criminal act," not when you destroy 16 acres of Manhattan, kill 3,000 Americans, blow a big hole in the Pentagon. That's an act of war.

KARL: Well -- well...

CHENEY: And what the administration was slow to do was to come to that -- that recognition that we are at war, not dealing with criminal acts. And as I say, my response there dealt specifically to the fact the president called it an isolated extremist. It was not.
He is claiming that the U.S. is at war. That is a lie. No WAR has been declared by the U.S. Congress since 1942. Cheney and Bush never sought a declaration of war against anyone. They sought an authorization to use force, against Iraq and Afghanistan. And they talked about a 'war on terror'—a virtually meaningless phrase which they used to authorize, as Cheney says in his interview, tactics recognized historically and world-wide as torture and to engage in illegal domestic surveillance, among other things. Many feel they used the rhetoric of war to frighten the populace and justify the consolidation and expansion of Executive powers, not vice versa.

This opinion is bolstered by their fiscal sleight-of-hand in keeping their military adventures 'off the books.' They didn't include the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan military actions in their official budgets, nor did they make any effort to finance those actions. That's just an old accounting trick (they called themselves the 'CEO administration') concocted by business bosses to make their company's finances look better to shareholders/owners than they really are—in the case of politics, to get re-elected. The consequences of such chicanery usually don't come due until after the boss has collected his/her bonus and moved on, leaving the next administration to clean up their mess and attempt to right the ship.

The problem they faced was that there was no one to declare war on. The perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 atrocities were, as far as anyone can tell, a stateless group of operatives. It was not the act of an enemy state. If it had been, I have no doubt we would have declared war on that state. And, quite frankly, I feel it would have been justified. Bush/Cheney, however, made the ill-conceived, ill-advised, ill-justified decision to invade Iraq. It solved certain problems for them (which Cheney proceeds to enumerate in his This Week interview) and gave Bush the gravitas of being a 'War President' when it came time to stand for re-election, but it was never war.

The Tea Party protesters and Republican fundamentalists rail against Democrats for straying from the Constitution and claim that all they want is a limited government which hews closely to the original Constitution. But it was Bush/Cheney, more than any administration in my lifetime, which abused the Constitution in general and the War Powers Clause in specific, inter alia, for their own political ends. They continue to insist that their actions were wholly constitutional and that they successfully prosecuted war. And they persist in calling President Obama weak because he does not recognize a war that they themselves refused to recognize officially and constitutionally by seeking a declaration of war from Congress (which they might not have been able to obtain) and including these war-like activities in their financial statements (which would show the electorate just how they were bankrupting the country).

Moreover, the Tea Partiers brought in Sarah Palin to give the keynote address at their convention a week or so ago, yet her lack of grasp of the Constitution is so breathtaking that even Cheney slapped her down on this point in his interview on This Week. Yet—and here is where the danger to the country lies—the issue has been joined: arguably the two top Republicans in the country are debating whether the President should use war as a political tool. Palin says yes. Cheney says Palin should be careful what she says; presidents should never think this way—out loud. (Though many believe that is precisely the sort of political calculation Cheney and Karl Rove used in "persuading" Bush to make the decision to invade Iraq. For Cheney to admit such a thing would be for him to admit to an even worse war crime than he admits to in this interview w/r/t torture.) Nevertheless, the issue is out there in plain sight. Clearly, they think about these things. And that should give us all pause.

09 February 2010


I post this image in response to a comment by Frances Madeson on this previous post. This haunting image of a manacled person with schizophrenia in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) entered into this story.


If you don't read BDR's blog, BLCKDGRD, every day, you're missing something, whether it's politics, local news and sports, literature, music, poetry, or out-and-out or merely-tongue-in-cheek curmudgeonry. He misses little. For example, in this post, he refers to my previous post about Congo and Nicholas Kristof's important op-ed piece in Sunday's New York Times in the same sentence. The more attention brought to this seeming intractable humanitarian crisis the better.

BDR's clearly paying attention and has proven himself a true blegfriend over and over again. Frankly, I don't see how he finds the time to do what he does without getting paid.


Over the weekend, there was a little get-together of about 600 people in Nashville, Tenn. You may have heard about it; they called themselves a tea party. Personally, I'm not sure why such a minuscule gathering garnered so much press and publicity and commentary in the media and around the blogosphere. You'd've thought it was a million-man march or a multi-city, multi-million person protest against the plan to invade Iraq (which didn't get anywhere near as much press). Even though I watched it on C-Span, I was planning to ignore Sarah Palin's closing keynote address. It was shallow. It lacked any sort of logic or reasoning. It was all ATTITUDE. But here's the thing: Andrew Sullivan, a former conservative Republican, heard the same speech and, as his ear is experientially attuned to the dog-whistles of the right wing, came away with a very different appreciation here and here. As he says, it was pure sophistry (something I wrote about recently here in my two "Feck" posts). Yet:
It was the most electrifying speech I have heard from a leader of the GOP since Reagan.

She can electrify a crowd. She has the kind of charisma that appeals to the sub-rational. and she has crafted a Peronist identity - utterly fraudulent, of course - that is political dynamite in a recession with populism roiling everyone and everything. She is Coughlin with boobs - except with a foreign policy agenda to expand Israel and unite with it in a war against Islam.

Do not under-estimate the appeal of a beautiful, big breasted, divinely chosen warrior-mother as a military leader in a global religious war.
I cannot vouch for his conclusion, but it does give me pause.

04 February 2010

Family of Values: Humanity, Pt. 2

Even if you've been paying attention, you might not be aware that there's a humanitarian crisis going on in Central Africa. According to this article from the BBC, "The number of people killed in a decade of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo may be half of the accepted toll of 5.4 million, a study has suggested." Still, that means that close to 3 million people have been killed in DRC in the last ten years. Did you know that?

What is the civil war about? Poverty? No doubt. Ethnic hostilities? Sure, but these have been manipulated by outside interests seeking access to the region's most important resource: minerals. Sound familiar? No, I'm not talking about 'unobtainium', but close. According to this article by the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire, "The DRC is one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, with sizeable deposits of gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten. The majority of the minerals are smuggled to neighboring countries where they are sold to smelters, and ultimately find their way into products such as cell phones, laptops, and video games, as well as components for automobiles, airplane engines, and medical devices." Ever hear of 'coltan'—no, I hadn't either. Yet, apparently it's a crucial element in such conveniences as cell phones, computer chips, and nuclear reactors.

There are also diamonds. Did you know that Pat Robertson, the television huckster who claimed on his religion-themed informercial, the 700 Club, that the Haitian people deserved the devastation of the recent earthquake because they had made a "pact to the devil," owned a private diamond mine in Eastern Congo? According to investigative reporter Greg Palast:
"Through an emotional fundraising drive on his TV station, Robertson raised several million dollars for the tax-free charitable trust. Operation Blessing bought planes to shuttle medical supplies in and out of the refugee camp in Goma, Congo (then Zaire).

But investigative reporter Bill Sizemore of the Virginian Pilot discovered that over a six-month period - except for one medical flight - the planes were used to haul equipment for something called African Development Corporation, a diamond mining operation a long way from Goma. African Development is owned by Pat Robertson."

And that's to say nothing of the potential devastation to the habitat of the endangered mountain gorillas, of which there may be only some 700 individuals in the wild.


Sometimes fiction can illuminate situations. Here's a story from the current Journal of War, Literature & the Arts about the region, its beauty and its brutality, its gorillas and its guerillas. [Full disclosure: I have what you might call an intimate knowledge of the author (as well as that grinning jackass in the photo above from 1988).]

02 February 2010

Feck! Mo' Better Feck!

Just a quick follow up to my "Feck! Feck! Feck!" post of yesterday.

If you want to see other related posts about similar topics, click here, and scroll down.

On Sunday, Roger Ailes, the founder and CEO of FoxNews appeared on ABC's This Week talking head gabfest, along with mainstay George Will, Arianna Huffington, and Paul Krugman. He was practically incoherent—except for his truculence. His statements were simply a memorized set of talking points which primarily plugged his network's slogans. Here's the transcript. The one bit of candor that slipped out was really quite revelatory: Barbara Walters asked Ailes if his latest commentator, Sarah Palin, was qualified to be President. Here's his response:
WALTERS: ...Do you think she has the qualifications to be president?

AILES: FOX News is fair and balanced. We had Geraldine Ferraro on for 10 years as the only woman the Democrats ever nominated. Now we have the only woman that the Republicans nominated. I'm not in politics, I'm in ratings. We're willing. [I think he actually said 'winning'.]

HUFFINGTON: Roger, you clearly are in ratings, but if you are in ratings, can you explain to me why FOX went away from the meeting the president was having in -- why did you go away, 20 minutes before the end?

AILES: Because we're the most trusted name in news.
There. "I'm in ratings." But when contradicted—Obama's Q & A with the Republicans was the most highly-rated political news of the day—he resorted to a slogan. "Trust us." The two—ratings and trustworthiness—are fundamentally incompatible. Ratings is about 'entertainment'; trustworthiness is something else altogether having to do with such things as truth, accuracy, and fact-based premises.

Another telling moment came in a give and take with Krugman in which Krugman accused Ailes's network of deliberately misleading its viewers in an effort to keep them uninformed about the health care reform issue. Ailes responded that the American people were not stupid, a non sequitur, then, after some cross-talk, accused the President of trying to take $500 billion away from old people—a thoroughly discredited canard.

I think this highlights some of what I was saying yesterday about enthymemes: the right tends to demagogue the issues, often using false or discredited assertions as the unspoken premise of their argument. Yet, to the extent the propaganda is "catapulted" and reinforced by misleading/slanted/biased reporting, these assertions become commonplaces. FoxNews watchers will get what Ailes is saying because they believe its unspoken premise to be true. As Aristotle taught, it is extremely difficult to dispute an engrained, unspoken premise.

The problem lies in the failure of the right-wing to engage not only the left-wing but the mainstream in dialogue. President G.W. Bush pre-screened audiences and questions every time he engaged in dialogue, even, it was suspected, press conferences; it was clear that the press was intimidated by Bush because he froze out any news organizations who challenged his assertions. So-called political debates have become primarily chances for the candidates to spout their talking points from their campaigns; they talk past each other, and the questioners never get a chance for follow-through. Congressional representatives stand up and speak to empty chambers; they don't respond to valid points from the other side; they merely posit their focus-group tested talking points. Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio talk show hosts pre-screen the few callers they take, refusing to take criticism unless they have specifically planned a response to a specific point. Similarly, Limbaugh and Palin and others refuse to appear on non-sympathetic news shows which might challenge them to articulate their views and unspoken premises. Cable news commentators tend to be bomb-throwers: they make outrageous claims (usually to self-selected, sympathetic audiences), guaranteed (on the Ailes model) to generate controversy, with little or no regard for the truth; and often they are in the direct employ of political organizations or their PR flacks, though this is never disclosed. Mainly, they attack anyone who would challenge their views—whether it is the 'mainstream' media ('liberal' media in their minds) or other commentators. A challenge to their point of view is personally threatening to them and they often resort to vile ad hominem attacks to defend their positions.

Radical views fester in the hot-houses of cloistered communities. Today, a new poll came out showing that sizable percentages of avowed Republicans either believe or don't know whether Obama should be impeached (for no apparent reason), that he was not born in America, that he is a socialist, that he wants the terrorists to win, that ACORN stole ten million votes in the last election, that Sarah Palin is more qualified than Obama to be president, that he is a racist who hates white people, that gays should not be allowed to serve in the military or teach in schools, that gay couples deserve no state or federal benefits, that sex education should not be taught in schools, that the Genesis version of creation in the Bible should be taught in public schools, that contraceptives should be outlawed, that the birth control pill is abortion, and that abortion is murder, and, lastly, that their state should secede from the Union.

This refusal to engage is the state of our public discourse at the present time. President Obama made what I take to be a serious attempt to get past this situation with his televised, un-prescreened Q & A with Republican members of Congress. Anyone who saw it would conclude that he has a firm grasp not only on all the issues, but on the pros and cons of both sides of the issues. Yet, FoxNews cut away once it became clear that he was able to actually answer and engage with the questioners, even challenging the unspoken premises behind many of their questions.

As the old saw has it, sunshine is the best disinfectant. Enlightenment comes from education, to which many on the right are just plain averse; they want their views to be reinforced, not challenged. The question is how to engage the hermetic recesses in which these sorts of radical views prevail in a way which is neither preachy and arrogant nor militant and threatening. Obama, in Jedi-master mode once again, may have shown us the way. Will he be able to follow through? Will we?

01 February 2010

Feck! Feck! Feck!

My online dictionary defines 'feckless' as lacking in effectiveness or vitality. This pretty much describes the public image of Congressional Democrats.

From its inception, WoW has urged them to use effective rhetorical framing of the sort advocated by George Lakoff and Drew Westen (full disclosure: a personal acquaintance and professional colleague of Wisdoc). Many felt it was precisely the Obama campaign's and Howard Dean's Democratic Party's campaigns' uses of positive framing that produced their stunning electoral victories in November, 2008.

Now we read that Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's Chief of Staff, who has written an entire chapter of a book criticizing Lakoff, is urging Obama and the Dems to ignore framing issues and concentrate on making Harry Reid-type legislative deals a la Sens. Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu. This, of course, is the same
Rahm Emmanuel, the man who tried to kill the 50 state strategy before it started, the man who insisted with the DLC that we should ignore the progressive base to try and win moderates, the man who is probably the reason Dean got fired from the DNC.
If the Democrats again choose to make their case like John Kerrys and Harry Reids, they are going to suffer a similar setback as Kerry did in a very winnable 2004 election.

And, guess what? The opposition hasn't stopped trying to frame their way back into power.
Nine months after he penned a memo laying out the arguments for health care legislation's destruction, Republican message guru Frank Luntz has put together a playbook to help derail financial regulatory reform.

Here were Luntz's ten frame points for defeating healthcare:

(1) Humanize your approach.

(2) Acknowledge the “crisis” or suffer the consequences.

(3) “Time” is the government healthcare killer.

(4) The arguments against the Democrats’ healthcare plan must center around “politicians,” “bureaucrats,” and “Washington” … not the free market, tax incentives, or competition.

(5) The healthcare denial horror stories from Canada & Co. do resonate, but you have to humanize them.

(6) Healthcare quality = “getting the treatment you need, when you need it.”

7) “One-size-does-NOT-fit-all.”

(8) WASTE, FRAUD, and ABUSE are your best targets for how to bring down costs.

(9) Americans will expect the government to look out for those who truly can’t afford healthcare.

(10) It’s not enough to just say what you’re against. You have to tell them what you’re for.
Sound familiar?

Now here's Luntz's latest position paper on killing financial reform, along with comprehensive energy reform the next big Democratic legislative push. The idea is to frame the legislation as a big government program, excessive bureaucracy, a give away to special interests, potentially corrupt, full of earmarks and backroom dealing, anti-freedom, anti-populist, anti-small business owner, tax and spend, another big bank bailout, etc., etc. We've seen this approach time and time again by the right. Demagogue the debate. These are emotional issues with many voters. Defending the move with talking points about what it does and doesn't do, what it does and doesn't contain will not work. And that approach very well may have lost health care reform.

Democrats do not seem to have learned: there is a real marketing angle to getting significant legislation passed. Everyone must be on board. Essentially, it takes a movement. Lakoff argues this point here:
the movement must already have:

* A popular base;

* organizing tools;

* an overall narrative, with heroes, victims and villains;

* a generally accepted, morally-based conceptual framing;

* a readily recognizable, well-understood language;

* funding sources;

* and a national communication system set up for both leaders and ordinary citizens to use.

The base is there, waiting for something worth getting behind. The organizing tools are there. The rest is not there.

This is basic Communication 101. To be effective, there must be a moral component: reform is fundamentally right because [...] and its opponents are fundamentally wrong because [...]. And, connected to this, there must be an emotional component; the arguments must touch people where they live; bread-and-butter, kitchen-table, passion-arousing issues. Having logic and facts and good policy on your side is a plus, but it is not sufficient to win the day. You must be persuasive.

Classical, Greek rhetoricians understood this and had a word for it: enthymeme. In the parlance of our times, looking simply at the English cognates, we could translate this as using "memes" which enthuse our audience. Here is an excerpt from my draft, unpublished non-fiction treatise: The Burden of Persuasion.
"According to Aristotle, the basic unit of factual argument is the "enthymeme". Etymology: Gk: en- in, thymos mind. Thus, "to establish in the mind." An enthymeme is an informally-stated syllogism which omits either one of the premises or the conclusion from a standard syllogism. The omitted part must be clearly understood, felt, or believed by the audience. Whenever a premise is omitted in an enthymeme, it is must be either a truism or an acceptable and non-controversial generalization. By making the audience supply the missing premise or conclusion, i.e., work out the syllogism for themselves, you impress the conclusion upon them, yet in a way gentler than if you spelled it out in so many words. The audience must supply the missing term for itself.

Of course, this is the ultimate aim of argument: persuading the audience not only to agree with what you are saying (the point of rational, logical, syllogistic-type arguments), but to actually believe that what you are arguing is what they have been feeling and thinking all along. Not just saying what you feel you need to say (and saying it well)—which often comes across as lecturing or arrogance or talking-down-to-them—but persuading your audience by arguing from a common set of assumptions. When you argue from common ground, you identify with the audience, its passions and beliefs, and they instinctively feel you are one of them and will more easily be led to agree with you."
The Democrats seem not to have learned this lesson in basic communication. They come across as feckless. And so long as they rely solely on Kerry/Reid-esque wonkishness, they will continue to argue amongst themselves about minute and ultimately negligible policy differences, meanwhile losing the larger battle for the hearts and minds of the very electorate they want to rehire them later this year and, again, two years hence, an electorate that is beginning to demonstrate a fair amount of discontent. This article from the BBC, "Why do people often vote against their own interests?" makes this very point: the people do not like being lectured to by people who feel like they know more than them. My response is that 'what we have here is a failure to communicate'—a failure Obama seems to have tackled head on by meeting with the Republican congressional delegation at their annual retreat in Baltimore on Friday.

Here then is a big 'feck you' for the Congressional Democrats: listen to the electorate; identify morally and emotionally with their fears and concerns; don't get defensive, but share their outrage; you don't have to demagogue the issues, but don't lecture them or preach to them or try to tell them what you think is best for them; establish common ground; frame your policies and programs in the terms of what they already feel, believe, and think (in that order!)—because this is what you, too, truly feel, believe, and think; be real: go with what you feel and believe, not with figures and charts (that stuff is back-up support for when you're challenged by knowledgeable opponents; you must have it and you must know it and be able to deploy it appropriately, otherwise you're just demagoging); show how the opposition's policies and programs (to the extent they actually have them) are simply not consonant with what the majority of the electorate truly feel, believe, and think; and, most importantly, don't use Capitol Hill jargon and double-speak and policy-lingo—not only use arguments from common ground, but also use language that shows you share their concerns—that is, be relevant!