Posts Tagged ‘Rhetoric’

Ten years ago today, our country and my family received a terrible blow.  We were attacked.  Our countrymen were murdered.  We were shaken. 9/11 is an important historical event that has defined much of the last ten years, but it was also a family tragedy for me, as my Uncle Donnie Regan gave his life that day in the line of duty with the New York City Fire Department.

I distinctly remember the day, as I’m sure most Americans my age do.  I was living in Texas at the time–taking time off and about to start my first law firm job in a few weeks–and received a call from a close friend.  They were evacuating the Dallas Federal Building.  I turned on the TV.  The first tower was already down.  I was stunned.  The second tower came down soon thereafter.  My alarm at this took a little time; at first, I thought this was a replay of the first tower falling.  Then I realized that this situation was even worse than I thought.  Rumors of the “mall in DC” being on fire were on the news.  No one knew the extent of it.   I spoke briefly to my parents, when I heard that Donnie–my uncle and the father of my cousins to whom I am closest–may have been at the towers.


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In addition to the fact that our “allies” look like something from Mad Max–and some consist of al Qaeda--I am struck that we’ve not heard an Oval Office address.  I cannot recall a military action in my lifetime without some run up, a domestic debate, some sign off through resolution or otherwise by the Congress, and a solemn case made to the American people by the President.

Obama, instead, allowed himself to be persuaded this was a good idea–scared perhaps the Clintons would undermine him for inaction–and then he was off to Brazil.  Obama seems to think he could get into war as an afterthought, much like his appointment of strange leftist weirdos such as Van Jones.  He forgot forces on the right and left have an opinion about this.  And he really forgot that he was not elected to start “wars of choice” but rather to end them.

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Sarah Palin got in some hot water this week for suggesting the left’s rseponse to the Loughner shooting was a “blood libel.”  Way back in the day, when Jews and Christians lived apart from one another in Europe, this was a popular myth of Jewish mendacity:  that they engaged in ritual murder of Christians for their religious ceremonies.  It was fueled by confusion, prejudice, and the theological view of Jews as the murderers of Jesus. More recently, it’s become a secular term to denote murdeous intent by one’s political and cultural enemies.  It’s undoubtedly what was leveled at the conservative half of the country by the left in the wake of Arizona’s shooting.  The self-righteous rage at Palin reflects the various ways she is hated as a symbol of this half of the country.  It also reflects another important phenomenon: the self-righteous view by the mostly leftist Jewish minority that no one can ever make an analogy to Jewish suffering without also agreeing with broader, mostly left-of-center Jewish views, and that to make such analogies is an act of hateful anti-semitism.

Paul Krugman, however, has upped the ante.  After his earlier, divorced-from-facts attacks on the right, he has now suggested that those critical of the federal government’s various unconstitutional welfare programs are engaged in “eliminationist” rhetoric.  That’s an interesting term.  It finds its origins in the propagandistic book Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen is an historian who penned a controversial and largely discredited thesis that the Germans of the Holocaust mass murdered Jews after embracing an “eliminiationist” paradigm, and that this view was widely embraced by Germans at every level of society.  While short on facts and analysis–after all, why did the Germans hide the Holocaust if it was a logical outgrowth of majority views–the book was popular and reached a mass audience.   Krugman’s defamatory slur is doubly troublesome, as it conflates the rhetoric that would eliminate welfare or national health care with the kind that would eliminate millions of people.  Details, details.

The left and right undoubtedly do not like one another in this country and have different values.  However, it is the left that appears more unhinged, at least in its mainstream.  While we have our share of fringe elements concerned about the Trilateral Commission and Obama’s birth certificate, it is the mainstream Democratic Party that invited Michael Moore to their annual convention in 2004.  It is they who responded to this attack with venomous rage before a single fact connected this mentally ill shooter to any political faction at all.  And now it is Krugman–not Sarah Palin–who has tried to connect his opponents with murderous, Nazi antisemitism.

I’m not sure if anyone else has picked up on this inflammatory usage of his.  In any case, he is a fool, and the left, in their hate, are projecting their own hostile and homicidal feelings on the right, whose Tea Party rhetoric and appeals to the Constitution are almost completely nonviolent.

Indeed, the left’s habitual violence, far from being condemned, is embraced at the highest levels.  While his campaign and Tuscon speech were largely conciliatory, Barack Obama began his political career in the living room of a former Weather Underground terrorist, Bill Ayers.  The Weathermen, as they were also called, were notorious bombers, cop-killers, and all around bad people.  Angela Davis, a California professor, was involved in a communist murder plot in the mid 1970s; today, she’s honored as an esteemed academic.  By contrast, no one in the mainstream right rallied around Tim McVeigh (undoubtedly a right-wing, if extreme terrorist), nor Eric Rudolph, nor other violent extremists of the right.  Such extremism, incidentally, is a feature of any political movement. The question is how such extremists are dealt with and treated by the mainstream leadership.  Here the left has failed, where the right has largely behaved responsibly.  But the left appears to be engaging on a wide scale in what psychologists call “projecting”:  that is, imagining their opponents to have their own worst traits.

Let’s not forget, it’s the left that romanticizes Che Guevara and makes excuses for the dictatorship he served; is it any wonder they assume all their political opponents want to kill and destroy as much as they do.

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Obama’s Post-Election Rhetoric

I’ve thought for a long time that Obama’s rhetoric has some serious problems.  Earlier in the campaign, he was cajoling his supporters to work for him.   He has insulted middle America, suggesting it is fearful or racist at different times.  In dealing with Congress, he has been imperious and unwilling to adjust his tone and policies to his bipartisan opposition, and this was particularly apparent on health care.  He seems to believe that when everyone agrees with him is the essence of good faith and bipartisanship, and thus he gets quite snippy when he faces real, principled opposition. 

He has lost the touch, if it ever existed.  Americans want results, straight talk, and are worried about the growth of government.  His campaign, with its “fill in the blank” talk of hope and change, allowed Americans to think he would deliver some of these political goods.  He has not, and Obama is unwilling to learn from the midterm election; he thinks he’s right and that his policies will work in the end.  Also, he does not really understand America and never did.  He doesn’t believe that beyond “red and blue” states stuff from his campaign.  He’s a sophmoric leftist who finds large swaths of American history and individual Americans unseemly, racist, angry, stupid, and easily misled.  He has contempt for them.  And this contempt, coupled with his great love of and belief in himself, is absolutely fatal to a politician.  I do not believe he’ll effectively adjust to a Republican majority in Congress, and the weird confluence of circumstances that led to his election will not be repeated.  He plans to be saved by an economic recovery, but he won’t, because his spendthrift policies are fatal to any economic recovery. 

His only audacious hope should be something like what transpired in 1996:  a mild economic recovery couple with an atrocious, uncharismatic candidate along the lines of Bob Dole.  But I believe, unlike Clinton, he’s so out of touch with Americans and as visibly unsympathetic with them as any politician in our lifetime, that the deux ex machina of a terrible Republican candidate will not occur and even that may not save him.  One caveat, let’s hope to God that the mediocre Palin is not front and center in 2012; that actually might save him, and that would be a disaster for both the country and the Republican party.

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Obama, the “Major Generalist”

I find Mark Steyn’s writing occasionally quite good, and I thought his recent column on Barack Obama’s Gulf Oil Spill speech pointed out a major flaw in his rhetoric:  his persistent, professorial attempts to move from the particulars of a problem to more general themes:

In the race speech, invited to address specific points about his pastor’s two-decade pattern of ugly anti-American rhetoric and his opportunist peddling of paranoid conspiracies to his gullible congregants about AIDS being invented by the U.S. government to wipe them out, Mr. Obama preferred to talk about race in general – you know, blacks, whites, that sort of thing. The media loved it. This time around, invited to address specific points about an unstoppable spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Obama retreated to more generalities – the environment, land, air, that sort of thing. “President Obama said he is going to use the Gulf disaster to push a new energy bill through Congress,” observed Jay Leno. “How about using the Gulf disaster to fix the Gulf disaster?”

This is the abstract, distant, and bloodless quality that has been at once an asset and liability for Obama.  Back in the campaign–the emotional excesses of which seem like ancient history–this showed the appearance of intellectual seriousness and calm in contrast to the more visceral Bush.  But imagine a President Obama the day after 9/11.  In a million years, could you imagine him with a bullhorn rallying Americans on the rubble of the Twin Towers?  He is simply uncomfortable with concrete problems and particular situations.  He is uncomfortable with the fact that he is an American President today and not simply a world historical figure  without portfolio.  Obama’s life experience suggests part of the reason for his style; he barely litigated particular cases for particular litigants and soon went on to politics and a very undemanding law professor gig at the University of Chicago.  Obama has never connected with real people and real problems.  Even his dissatisfaction with community organizing stemmed from his boredom with fixing housing projects and getting streets paved in contrast to changing the whole system.  He is only comfortable at the apex, but he has forgotten that he is not the president of the “twenty year plan” but the president of today who must address problems as they appear, whether he wants to or not.  Instead, he always wants to channel these things into preconceived ideas about what is needed long term.

Setting aside the rhetorical problems that may be his undoing, Obama’s concern for the “long term” has an air of farce about it, because the longest term and most real problem we have is the impending bankruptcy of the federal government because of entitlement spending, and Obama has done absolutely nothing to address this and instead made the problem worse by adding a new entitlement in the form of government financed health care.

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Obama has repeatedly reached for one of the lowest and most insulting rhetorical tricks in the book:  begging the question. In his inaugural address, for instance, he labeled all criticis of government spending as “cynics” who “fail to understand . . . that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”  In other words, I’m right and the only question now is the details.   He just wants “common sense” on gun control and other areas.  Any high principled reason for avoiding the big government fad of the moment  is cynicism and never accepted as a stand for high principle or constitutionalism, nor even as reasonable disagreement.

Consider his defense of the pork-laden “stimulus bill” authored by his fellow Democrats in the Congress:

In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis — the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can meet our enormous tests with half-steps and piecemeal measures; that we can ignore fundamental challenges such as energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

I reject these theories, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. They know that we have tried it those ways for too long. And because we have, our health-care costs still rise faster than inflation. Our dependence on foreign oil still threatens our economy and our security. Our children still study in schools that put them at a disadvantage. We’ve seen the tragic consequences when our bridges crumble and our levees fail.

In spite of indefensible pork, a dubious theory of government spending increasingly discredited by economic historians, and a growing national debt that has more than a little to do with why we are here, Obama assumes his mandate is whatever he happens to want at the moment, regardless of how it deviates from his campaign themes.  He did not run, after all, on big deficit stimuli but instead on “middle class tax cuts” and a return to sanity on foreign policy.  In fact, he spent a lot of time criticizing Bush’s pork and fiscal irresponsibility.

One thing every elected official must understand is that his mandate is more often pretty weak; it’s not a license to do whatever he wants whenever he wants without regard to public opinion.  People will turn against policies that were never explained earlier or seem extravagant and wrong-headed.

Obama’s own sense of incorruptibility may be his political Achilles’ Heal.  Obama’s appointment of the tax cheat and former healthcare lobbyist Tom Daschle for HHS, the tax cheat Tim Geithner to the Treasury, and the occasional military lobbyist, William Lynn–it’s all just corruption with a human face, in this case the reassuring face of Obama.  “Don’t worry kids, I know what I’m doing.  I’m incorruptible, and me breaking my own promises for a ‘new tone’ and a ‘new ethical climate’ is not breaking promises.  I know when to follow the rules and when to make exceptions.”

At times like these, we should not forget that he is a South Side of Chicago politician, a man formed in a a onepartytown of ethnic spoils and big government.  Chicago is a place where no one, including the opposition, respects limited government and fiscal responsibility.  It’s winner take all.  Obama’s arrogance, his roots, and his free pass by the media are leaving him vulnerable to his tin ear for the apolitical sense by many Americans that a government spending spree during a recession may not be the best idea on earth. But, I guess all those people are just devoid of common sense and cynical.

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Bush’s defense of his more controversial stands in the war on terror has been Clintonian. First, he denies that something is taking place. Then, when that something–in this case, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is exposed–he simply denies without explanation a reasonable characterization by critics: these techniques constitute torture. Now, I do not support torture. And, more precisely, I do not support official policies that sanction torture. There may be times to forgive ultra vires actions after the fact; this is different from allowing them in advance. These techniques and policies may be defensible. But Bush does not show respect to his critics or the citizens who elected him by providing such a defense. He never says, for instance, these are regrettable incidents of war, truly dirty deeds that are absolutely necessary. Instead, he just repeats: this is necessary, and also this is not torture. No one is fooled, not even his supporters. This kind of rhetoric has been his hallmark in other contexts; for example, he denied that his nation-destroying amnesty proposal was in fact amnesty.

Framing policies is important. There is nothing wrong with describing them in a manner that reasonably describes them in a way that is favorable. But simply denying reality and ignoring critics and proffering labels instead of reasoned arguments is a sign of decline. It’s a sign of decline in the Presidency and also in the citizens who accept this descent into unreason. Reagan, in describing his various controversial policies–the arms race or cutting taxes and spending, for example–did not deny reality, but instead explained how these policies were necessary and likely to work towards the common good. He acknowledged their essence and did not, for lack of a better word, lie.

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Noah Sweat in the Mississippi legislature giving perhaps the most skilled “political” speech in history:

My friends,

I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey.

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.


If when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

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Notice how much more coherent, articulate, and balanced his rhetoric is compared to our current crop of “conservatives.” In particular, notice that he recognizes our country’s earlier failings without rejecting these failings as something that wipe away all moral legitimacy to our past, as Bush and Rice have done repeatedly, comparing the savage atrocities of Iraq’s savage insurgents with the brave soldiers on both sides of America’s War for Independence and Civil War. Finally, he is far more steeped in the traditions of Western Civilization, quoting Tocqueville, C.S. Lewis, Whittaker Chambers,  Isaiah, Tom Paine, and Jesus Himself.

How far the quality of our political life has declined in my own lifetime.  Transcript here.

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