Pointless Metaphor and Facial Stitches: A Confession

A confession:

I still laugh when I remember asking my mom if she would consider giving me credit for thinking of some inappropriate act and not doing it or starting to utter some offensive statement and not saying it.

Of course, my mom being my mom – and having lived through so many of my inappropriate acts and statements — was quick to congratulate me on the “thank goodness I won’t have to get called to school again” thing I didn’t do or the “it better not have been your sister who you heard using that word” thing I didn’t say.

That’s why I wanted to share something that I just chose not to do. It reminded me of a particularly trite and unimaginative corner of the world of news and commentary.

Today, President Obama was playing basketball in a gym at Fort McNair in Washington DC, and ended up needing 12 stitches on his lip. It’s beyond a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first heard about the president’s injury, I immediately slipped into metaphor mode, imagining that 12 stitches on the president’s face could either immediately begin or neatly end a commentary of some sort. And before I knew it I was captured by the writer’s demon – you know, the lazy and simplistic and trite demon – the one who whispers in your ear:

“Okay, look what you’ve got. A president struggling to persuade citizens to do difficult things, an opposition elbowing him and trying to make sure that he doesn’t do those things, and 12 stitches on his face from an elbow in a basketball game. Go for it. Connect them all, use the stitches as some sort of metaphor, and you’ll end up with a…..”

End up with what, Steve? Exactly what even minimally significant thing did you think you would end up with?

I knew.

The result would be a pointless piece intended to show off a metaphor (and a trite and sophomoric one at that) rather than words or ideas that ever needed to be said, whispered, muttered or even imagined.

How many words are written and columns composed that begin, not with a compelling idea, but with some cuteness or gimmick in search of an idea? I know that I have written more than a few of them. So here’s what I promise: Whenever an unusual event like a president getting stitches presents itself, along with the inevitable temptation to draw some lame comparison or write some probably unfunny opening sentence, I will immediately turn off my computer and permanently delete anything that somehow made it on to the page. Cuteness arriving unaccompanied by any even minimally important idea will be presumed pointless.

So here I am, nervy enough to ask you to be grateful that I didn’t write something that, at best, would’ve wasted your time and the time of anyone who read it.

Obviously, you’re smart enough not to feel any gratitude, and are probably feeling no small amount of resentment that you even had to read this blog post.

My wonderful mom, on the other hand, will almost certainly congratulate me for the metaphor I didn’t use, the piece I didn’t write, and the facile and pointless connection I didn’t make between 12 stitches and the complexities of presidential politics.

Rhetorical Combat Fought at the Highest Level: The President and the House Republicans

My personal political beliefs are not a big secret. They are firmly and passionately held.

As a Professor, though,  I have always done my best to create a classroom in which students are comfortable expressing diverse views.  I am not sure I have always succeeded. Talking about fairness is one thing, but body language and tone of voice can tell quite a different story. I try.

Media and Mayhem, though, is not primarily a political blog. That does not mean it does not deal frequently with politics. It is that imparting my political views is not its main purpose.  It  has always been primarily for my students and other students of media and culture. But I am fully aware that nothing can really be extricated from the political. 

All of this is to say, in a much too windy way, that when I watch an event like today’s face-off between President Obama and House Republicans, it would be a little dishonest  for me to claim neutrality. I am a Democrat, probably left of President  Obama, who admires the president enormously.  Having worked in politics, though, and having thought a lot about political and communications strategy, I can generally watch a politician appear before an   audience and give a pretty fair evaluation of who won a particular skirmish. I am more than willing to concede that a politician I admire may have performed horrendously.   And I have often had the uneasy experience of watching debates in which people with whom I disagree perform infinitely better than those representing my point of view.

Having said that, and with full awareness that that the president faces close to impossible challenges, I would like to suggest that this week’s State of the Union address by President Obama, followed by today’s face-off with the group of hostile House Republicans, was as good as political communications gets.

Yes,  I know that success is usually measured by how many minds you are able to change. Sadly, this does not seem to be an era in which any minds are changed very easily, regardless of argument or evidence. But simply as a strategic attempt to increase his advantage in the battle for public opinion, and as an attempt to speak to a larger audience of citizens whose  support he will continue to need,  these were two memorable days in the history of the presidency. They also illustrate many principles of persuasion and argument that we should all keep in mind as we make our cases for how we wish the world would work.

The president was neither apologetic nor defensive about his views. At the same time, though, he used words and tone and body language to make clear that he was clearly aware of, and had been chastened by, his failure to enact some of his key initiatives. He conveyed a sense of urgency, but did it without the kind of intensity that suggested fear or panic.  He seemed to say: “I’m here. You’re going to have to deal with me. I have deeply held principles that guide my actions. But we are all in this together and I’m not going to be a jerk about it.”

He also used what appeared to be spontaneous humor to disarm opponents who  looked more than a little strange when, at first straining to keep poker faces,  they sat on their hands and almost refused  to acknowledge that the president was in the room. I respect their right to disagree and to employ whatever political strategy they think is best, but I’m not sure they realized  how strange it looked to be stubbornly refusing to acknowledge anything positive about the president.

The president saw those poker faces, but looked them straight in the eye,  suggesting that he had just made a proposal that they certainly should be able to applaud.

Come on, he seemed to ask, you can give me a little bit of applause, can’t you?  

One of the House leaders did applaud, and then laughed. This is rhetorical combat fought at its highest level, and at that moment the president at least temporarily snatched their weapons away, as if in an old Errol Flynn sword fight.

Then, even more shrewdly, he proceeded to list a series of proposals that the House Republicans simply could not have afforded to ignore. They had to applaud. Even when he proposed something for which there is a reasonable counter argument, he stated it in a way that virtually forced the audience to register at least some enthusiasm.

These events, even at their best, are more combat than careful discussion. Each side’s views are inevitably caricatured by the other side, and impressions  matter more than intellect.

But even judged this way, I think it’s fair to say that the State of the Union was a tour de force, and that the president resuscitated and revitalized his presidency as well as any political leader I have ever seen. Of course, in our current frenzied news cycle, this will probably be quickly forgotten. This, though, was a night when many were watching to see whether his recent defeats would make him a little more defensive and a little less bold. He wasn’t.  

It is one thing to be tough and unwavering. It is quite another to be warm and humorous.  I have known politicians who were superb doing one or the other. But to do both at the same time,  and to do it when the stakes are high and when millions of people are watching, is an extraordinary accomplishment.

What is BREAKING News?

This morning, I received the following news bulletin from Fox News. I subscribe to the breaking news alerts of every major network. Fox was the only network that sent this alert:

obama-hiv

Now, take a look at this story from today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s not that the Fox bulletin was blatantly inaccurate,   but it certainly was very  misleading.  Shouldn’t the term “breaking news” be reserved for urgent events that are in the process of taking place?

A Brilliant Linguist Parses Obama’s Rhetorical Strategies

lakoff1

Last night in a graduate seminar, our topic was the key role that language plays as both a process and product  which we use to make sense of the world.   

Our readings came from cultural theorist Raymond Williams, but something incredible was published today on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com website that brilliantly illustrates how language —  including the words we choose, the ideas implicit in our rhetoric,  and the deep structure of our arguments —  is so important in understanding how politicians craft public messages. 

Check out this piece by George Lakoff, one of the greatest living scholars of linguistics and someone who frequently analyzes the explicit and implicit meanings in political rhetoric. 

In anticipation of tonight’s address by Pres. Obama to the Congress, Lakoff  looks closely at what he calls the   “Obama Code.”

Quick, Someone Call Sean Penn’s Agent. Get Gus Van Sant On The Line. They’re Casting the New Rod Blagojevich Bio-Pic

 

rod2

I have never been someone who easily finds pleasure in other people’s travails. It’s probably superstition as much as anything, and I am all too aware that human fallibility both goes around and comes around.

But today’s events in Illinois, in which Governor Rod R. Blagojevich  was  arrested on corruption charges for the attempted sale of Barack Obama’s senate seat, are simply too bizarre and too entertaining to ignore.

Entertaining?

I am privileged to teach in a department with students and faculty in various stages of writing and developing film scripts.  Several of my faculty colleagues are accomplished and produced writers for film. A whole lot of film talk goes on. Sometimes just listening is like being in a master class.

So I have read some fine work.  But I don’t recall anything that anticipated some of the cool stuff that federal prosecutors attributed to Governor Blagojevich in today’s complaint.

This was a tough guy who meant business.  We’re talking Scarface or Goodfellas quality. Apparently you did not mess with Rod Blagojevich. Check out these excerpts from the complaint:

·        ROD BLAGOJEVICH said that the consultants  (Advisor B and another consultant are believed to be on the call at that time)  are telling him that he has to “suck it up” for two years and do nothing and give this “motherf___er   [the President-elect]   his senator. F___  him.  For nothing?  F___  him.” ROD BLAGOJEVICH states that he will put “[Senate Candidate 4]” in the Senate “before I just give f___ing  [Senate Candidate 1]  a f___ing Senate seat and I don’t get anything.”

 

·        Later in the conversation, ROD BLAGOJEVICH said he knows that the President-elect wants Senate Candidate 1 for the Senate seat but “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. F___  them.”

 

·        Later on November 12, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH talked with JOHN HARRIS. ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that his decision about the open Senate seat will be based on three criteria in the following order of importance: “our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation. This decision, like every other one, needs to be based upon on that. Legal. Personal. Political.” HARRIS said, “legal is the hardest one to satisfy.” ROD BLAGOJEVICH said that his legal problems could be solved by naming himself to the Senate seat.

 

If you are interested, read the whole federal complaint.  I am sure that, at this very moment, scripts about corrupt politicians – previously rejected as implausible or as caricatures of venality — are being rescued from slag-heaps across the country and being given a second look.

 Think of it: One week to the day after the election, when many of us were imagining what it would be like to call Barack Obama Mr. President, Governor Blagojevich was practicing his own term for referring to the President-elect:

 

“ This mother___er.”

 

 

“They’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation.  F___   them.”

 

Governor Rod R. Blagojevich, State of Illinois,

November 11, 2008

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo: My Nightmare. Our Nightmare.

emmett_till

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go,

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

I have spent over a week trying to find the words to tell this story. It is 3:00 a.m.  I am in a strange hotel bed with lousy pillows. I can’t sleep. Maybe a nightmare is best told at 3:00 am.

When Barack Obama was elected President, the social and cultural earthquake I wanted so badly became possible. Certainly not an earthquake that would magically provide a final resolution to hundreds of years of shame, but one that might rip open the racial fault line with a vengeance.

And then came the rhyme.  The damn rhyme.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go,

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

My ten year-old daughter, trying to make some choice about lunch or a friend, was employing the old “eeny meeny miny moe” test.  I think she and the tiger ended up picking the tuna sandwich. Yet I almost immediately recalled the countless times in 1950s schoolyards when kids used the same rhyme with a word other than tiger. It was the version that Rudyard Kipling published in 1923 as “A Counting-Out Song” in “Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides:”

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers let him go!

Eenee, Meenee. Mainee, Mo!

You-are-It!

 This would now be the time to confess that I also said that word out on the playground.  But I didn’t. I do remember how it was often used to settle marble-trading disputes. I also remember kids feeling a perverse thrill that they could vicariously participate in the larger, social ugliness.

 But this was a word that could not have been more forbidden in our house, a word I never uttered after the day — at the age of six – that my wonderful Dad heard me say it and placed a bar of Ivory Soap in my mouth and twisted it around a few times.

 But I am stuck. The rhyme echoes and echoes.  A nightmare.   A rhyme. I want to fully celebrate that Barack Obama will be my President. I will. But the intruder is a rhyme; an echo of an ugliness that was part of what delayed this day for so long.

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

And that is where I am right now at 3 a.m.

Knowing that at virtually the very moment that Emmett Till faced his final horror, at the very moment that his mother Mamie first heard the news, kids in my neighborhood were probably out in a park – shooting marbles or playing tag – and reciting:

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers let him go!

Eenee, Meenee. Mainee, Mo!

You-are-It!

 A rhyme. A nightmare.  Our nightmare.

 

Dumb and Inappropriate Spontaneous Remarks by Politicians #1

 

There is one thing I find absolutely delicious about the otherwise suffocating 24 hour cable news beast. 

  

Politicians can be relentless in trying to fill the bottomless news hole with every last ounce of bloviation. But every minute they  spend on stage increases the chance that we will get a rare peak at the unexpected places his or her mind wanders when – heaven forbid – he or she momentarily sets the script aside. In a political world in which off-message spontaneity has become virtually extinct, we desperately need these moments to see what’s really inside.

 

I’ll never forget when Barack Obama was stunned by the second wave of Reverend Wright’s comments. Caught off guard, he uttered something almost never heard from a candidate for national office. He was hurt. Hurt. Later we got the more carefully crafted statement, but this brief moment of hurt revealed the extraordinary possibility that we may yet get a president willing to shatter political orthodoxy and — could it really happen? –admit to emotions.

 

But perhaps the mother of all unguarded moments in this election year came yesterday when Mike Huckabee lamely tried to be spontaneous and make a joke when his speech to the NRA was interrupted by some sort of loud noise.

 

I for one am perversely grateful that we now know what astounding stupidity was lurking just below the surface as Huckabee read from his canned script. I have heard dumb and I have heard dumber.

 

And this was monumental dumbness at its dumbest.