Saturday, June 27, 2015

Rhetorical Tricks & Tics: It's Always About America

President Obama recently employed a rhetorical trick he, and others, often utilize. When speaking of America’s ills, ignore the broader global context, so the audience remains focused on America’s sins but when confronted with the ills of another country, always be sure to refer to what you characterize as similar ills in America. That way, no matter what, the focus remains America’s ills. THC  also consider it a tic, since the President and the others who deploy it appear to believe what they are saying and instinctively resort to it whenever there is an opportunity.

Let’s see how it works taking two recent examples by the President:

Earlier this week the New York Times reported that President Obama made the following remarks during what it refers to as Mark Maron’s “WTF” podcast (THC has resisted the urge to insert several jokes here) :
The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.
Reading the remainder of the Times article reveals no reference by the President to the rest of the world. Since my purpose is not to debate the accuracy of the President’s assertion (THC agrees the U.S. has a continuing legacy but disagrees with much of his analysis) but to discuss context, it would seem that in fairness, as well as enhancing our understanding, he should be mentioning the legacy of slavery that all of us carry.

Every country in the Western Hemisphere imported African slaves (imports into the colonies that became the U.S. and into the U.S. until 1808 are less than 4% of the total), Spain, Portugal, France and Britain prospered from the slave trade, the Arab world imported millions of African slaves and African rulers sold fellow Africans for that purpose.  For a more nuanced and sophisticated view we recommend reading The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and Law In The American Hemisphere by Robert J Cottrol (2013), a fascinating comparative study and here's a recent speech by someone else who's spoken more thoughtfully about the subject.  In other words, America does have problems in this area, but they are problems we share with much of the global community.  As Cottrol points out, in some instances we've dealt with them more successfully than others but in some respects have not, but it would seem that, in the President's phrase it's "still part of" much of the world's DNA.

[On a side note, THC has been given to understand in recent years that race is a social construct, not a biological one so he is confused by the President's remark which implies that race is not biological but racism is; perhaps he is a Lamarckian evolutionist.]

Now, let’s look at the flip side; the interview the President gave last month to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic on the nuclear deal with Iran. Goldberg, who is very sympathetic to the President, presses him on the Iranian regime’s anti-semitism because to Goldberg it indicates they are irrational in their decision making. To expand on Goldberg's point - he is saying that when a regime's leaders are fixated not just on the destruction of the State of Israel, but go around leading chants of "Death to the Jews!"; alternatively deny the Holocaust and then say that Hitler gave the Jews what they deserved; and seriously believe in a global Jewish conspiracy to rule the world they tend not to confine their irrational thought processes to that one issue; more importantly it may mean they just don't think using the same calculus about risk that we do.

The President airily rejects this, saying “Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival” and then goes on to point out that, after all:
"there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country"
In that remark the President equates the Iranian regime, with its bizarre core beliefs about Jews, with his own country which provided a refuge for more than 2 million Russian Jews fleeing Czarist oppression, including THC's paternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents (my grandfather immediately after arriving enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving in the Philippines), and whose first President wrote the magnificent letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island.

It is very cleverly done. As with all these types of statements there is an element of truth. There was, and still is, some anti-semitism in America but to equate it with Iran you have to be incapable of making the type of distinctions that thoughtful individuals who know history and are capable of self-reflection do all the time.  THC doesn't think there is a deep calculation behind the President's statement to Goldberg; it's just an automatic reflex based on his natural thought process and the ideology in which he was marinated.

Whether you call it a trick or a tic what it does is turn the argument inward, always forcing examination of America and, for those who object, bogging them down in time-consuming arguments about why those employing the trick are wrong and diverting them from discussing the core proposition.

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