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JHan's Journal
JHan's Journal
December 8, 2017

On the Demise of Our Public Language

You dislike the revolution in party-political communications ushered in by New Labour in the 1990s – though you may console yourself with the fact that it prompted Armando Iannucci to produce his best work. You are sick to death with the unrelenting abuse of language in public life. You nervously watch the fortunes of European nativist politicians and you appreciate the significance of the election of Trump. You look to media and news and current affairs to help you to make sense of public language, replete as it is with instances of hocus-pocus, weasel words, sleight of hand, euphemisms, bare-faced lying, and a battery of other techniques which debase public life. You shake your fist at the radio and television when you feel that broadcasters are falling down on the job – such is the importance of their role. You know that Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language is a classic study of the nexus between the two, but you are aware of how the world has changed so much since Orwell wrote it, and that, alas, it doesn’t cut the mustard now. You wish someone would write an accessible and insightful study of language and politics today. Mark Thompson’s Enough Said might well be the book you have been waiting for.

Thompson’s ur-text is The Art of Rhetoric, in which Aristotle discusses the constituent features of rhetoric before proceeding to discuss three types. For Aristotle, rhetoric consists of logos (dialectic or pure argument), pathos (the speaker’s ability to sense the audience’s mood and “work it”, in Thompson’s description), and ethos (the power of the character and integrity of the speaker), and he advocates a balance between these elements in public language. Of the three kinds of rhetoric, deliberative rhetoric is the language suited to politics – forensic and demonstrative rhetoric are for other occasions.

Against the backdrop of disillusionment with mainstream politicians, the rise of the ‘anti-politician,’ the burgeoning of ‘communications,’ and a media eco-system that is more competitive than ever, Thompson does justice to a number of dilemmas currently faced by politicians and broadcasters. But, more interestingly, he also examines unmistakable trends in politics and media which represent causes for concern. Four striking contentions, shaped by Aristotle’s thinking, emerge over the course of the book’s remarkable main chapters.

First, Thompson characterizes today’s rhetoric as speech in which logos is sacrificed at the altars of ethos and pathos. Today’s ‘anti-politicians’ are guilty of this, but this tendency already has an extended history: New Labour and ‘spin’ are discussed in terms of these conceptions, and in one section, Thompson traces it back to Reagan, although balance still inheres in Reagan’s rhetoric. Second, he argues that political parties, whether they are in power or in opposition, often use the language of campaigning throughout terms of office. Third, many of today’s politicians are ‘authenticists.’ It is authenticism that separates, say, Tony Blair from Donald Trump: although both place a premium on pathos and ethos, the anti-politician discards focus groups and aims for a less mediated authentic effect – though that may of course may be the result of just as much micro-management of communications (it’s all smoke-and-mirrors). And fourth, rather than conducting our affairs in deliberative rhetoric, the invasion of ‘marketing-speak’ into political rhetoric means that, more and more often, we hear a form of demonstrative rhetoric when a politician orates.

It goes without saying that the media should somehow help us to process political acts of persuasion: politicians speak to us through the media, but news and current affairs programmes have the power to filter, reject, refine and so on. But Thompson alerts us to a number of dangers in this domain as well. Across a number of chapters, he provides us with a history of the process whereby sources of news have been denatured. That history begins in his account with television news coverage in the United States in the 1980s, when news was “shortened and simplified.” The age of digital journalism only exacerbates a decline in such programmes. ‘Legacy publishers’ need to compete with all manner of alternate news sources against a background of far greater choice, and as a result they have been unable to stick fully to the old somewhat paternalistic practice of generating ‘serious-minded’ content. Across the board, “Headlines, brief summaries, lists, and other formats which can be absorbed in seconds” is the new norm. Stories are “maximal.” Logos gives way to ethos. And what dialectic remains is more doxa (opinion) than episteme (knowledge), especially on Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere, “a limitless marketplace for doxa.”

December 4, 2017

Redneck Revolt Says Deal With Racism First, Then Economics

Addressing our systems of White supremacy cannot be dismissed as “identity politics.”

“Our entire capitalist system is built on a bedrock of White supremacy.”

Moved by the need for control, for an unchallenged top tier, the power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences where possible.

—Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

There is no shortage of media commentary discrediting “identity politics,” particularly the focus on Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities calling for justice and equity. Economics is our real problem, a counter argument goes, not race, sex, gender, citizenship. But as author Nancy Isenberg points out in White Trash, “identity has always been a part of politics.”

Laws have been written to oppress and exploit particular identities—Native Americans, Black Americans, Asians, homosexuals, transgender, and women—in a successful effort to maintain a system of White supremacy. Yet, members of these communities have worked for the rights and equality of everyone. In turn, White allies have joined in these anti-racism fights.

The Redneck Revolt is one such organization. The self-described anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-fascist group challenges working-class White people to stand against White supremacy.

I recently talked to Brett, one of the members who heads up the network’s Southeast Michigan Chapter. (Because of hostilities toward the organization, Redneck Revolt members use only their first names publicly.) There are about 40 chapters nationwide. He explained why the group focuses on anti-racism rather than economics even though it seeks out white working-class and poor people in economically struggling rural areas.

Jeffries: Can you give an example of what you mean by “changing hearts and minds.” What does that look like?

Brett: A really great example would be back in June. The ACT for America folks did an anti-sharia law march. Redneck Revolt was there. We were on one side of the barricades along with a slew of other leftist organizations. On the other side of the barricades were Proud Boys, Vanguard America, and a hodgepodge of other alt-right groups. But one of the most prominent was the Michigan Liberty Militia, which is famously racist and famously exclusionary.

Toward the end of the demonstration, this one older gentleman—he was an older White man up at the barricade with all the gear on, and armed—had his rifle. One of my members and I went up to this guy and were like, “I understand mixing state and religion is not good. Nobody here wants to mix state and religion, nobody is protesting that. it’s clearly anti-Muslim. This protest is against Muslims.

“Furthermore, it’s against all people of color because this neighborhood [is] first-generation Somali, first-generation people form sub-Saharan Africa who are fleeing abject poverty and warfare, starvation, disease. So how can you be in this neighborhood and be like, ‘This is what America stands for’?

“Not only that, if you look to your left and right, those kids with the sun wheel on their shields, and the eagle on their shirts, those guys are self-described, literal Nazis. We fought a war about this. I thought we were all in unanimous agreement that Nazis are bad.”
And this guy he kind of started tearing up, and he was like, “You know, I’ll tell you, my dad died in World War II in Europe fighting Nazis.” And he goes, “This really has given me [something to think about]. You know I may not agree with everything you say. But associating myself like this has really given me pause, and has really made me think about what I’m doing here.”

I get that economics in an important factor. I did not share this to start another economics vs identity debate, but to share a story of activists in the field, working on making the world a little better, doing the difficult task of persuading hearts and minds and the reasoning behind their approach and strategy.

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About JHan

Be true, be brave, stand. All the rest is darkness.
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