Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Rage-peddling click farmers paraphrasing what they skimmed in retired editions of history books

I shared this photo of a mural I found here in Pamplona a few days ago.

It expresses, with exceptional concision, a view I have been trying to articulate for years now. 

I don't see it as necessarily anti-capitalist. I see it as a statement of fact. 

Unchecked capitalism paired with imperialist governments led to the installation of unstable governments in the developing world that allow for the exploitation of resources. This has, in turn, led to failed states, wars, warlords, corruption, and eventually to a migrant crisis. 

It was not an accident. It was the intent of powerful people to obtain resources from people with less power. And I benefit from it. The comfort I enjoy as a westerner in a developed economy comes, at least in part, from the exploitation of people I am unlikely to ever meet. 

My comfort and the knowledge of its source make me uncomfortable. I see that as a good thing. I would like more people to experience that discomfort because discomfort moves people to act.  

The problem is that people will resist any effort to disrupt their comfort.

For example, this morning I woke up to find this response to my photo in the comments:  

That you would post that message....shows your astounding lack of understanding of history in any way, shape or context. Your done [Sic].

It was tempting to ignore this. After all, there is no way I am going to reach this person. No way I am going to change their mind. They have already dismissed me. 

But I decided to write up a response anyway. The comment gave me an opportunity to put into words my thoughts about the current state of political discourse. Here's what I wrote:

I really appreciate this comment. I appreciate it because it so perfectly encapsulates the rhetorical approach of today’s conservative movement – if you can even categorize what today’s conservatives are doing as a movement.

It’s a perfect expression of the knee-jerk outrage that has defined the right since 2010. And your empty insistence that expressing a contrary political point of view somehow disqualifies me from the conversation… that was the cherry on top. Just the little reminder that #CancelCulture has its roots in 1980s conservativism (Heavy Metal, Hip Hop, Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, etc. etc.)

I don’t envy you or other people trying to keep progressives at bay. You all had such a good run, and your comment harkens back to a time when conservatives actually had counterarguments. I remember how good William F. Buckley Jr. was at making progressive values look foolish. You had Friedman and Stigler – Nobel laureates. You had thought leaders who would have provided you with an actual example of history that countered the point made by the leftist mural I shared.

The thought leaders who could have helped, however, have all left: Brooks, Kristol, Noonan, Krauthammer. You’ve lost all your conservative thinkers. All you have left are rage-peddling click farmers paraphrasing what they skimmed in retired editions of history books while they dive down comment-thread rabbit holes on poorly moderated discussion boards.

If you wanted people to take you seriously, you would have something more specific than the word “history” to counter this mural’s claim that migrants in Europe are fleeing wars that are the result of thoughtless borders drawn by empires that have since retreated from the developing world. Or that migrants in the US are fleeing failing states that are descendants of puppet governments installed so Western interests could exploit resources without having to worry about regulations or, you know, the people who actually live in those nations.

You would cite historical events that counter that clear and well-supported telling of modern history if you had a leg to stand on. But instead, you shake your fist and insist that you know something you won’t share because… because what? I’m supposed to know it already? Is that how you would defend your absent argument?

Well, in the words of my generation: Whatever…

I guess I’m done.

That's what I wrote, but to be clear: I'm not done. I'm just getting started.  

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Getting back on the bike

Some of you may know I'm on sabbatical leave from Sacramento State this spring. 

It's nice. Eligibility for sabbatical is an incredible job benefit.

There are, of course, expectations associated with the leave.

To earn this time, I had to propose a project. I proposed a series of papers on my work coordinating the writing assessment of juniors at Sac State. 

The project is progressing, but I'm learning (or relearning) a lot of not-so-obvious things about writing along the way.  

I'm getting close to finishing the first paper and that one feeds into the others. Overall I feel good about things. But it was not easy getting here. I'm working on these scholarly papers, and it took until last week for me to rediscover my flow - a.k.a. that focused mental state conducive to productivity described by the Hungarian-American scholar Csíkszentmihályi.

I think most of us know it's frustrating when you have a lot to say but have a hard time putting it into words. But I like writing. A lot. I've got that 'mediocre white guy confidence' that lets me enjoy reading my own words back to myself (see 15 years of self-indulgent blogging). 

The thing is, writing scholarship requires a lot of different types of mental activity to sync up. And I was out of practice. 

Which is hard to imagine when you think about what I do. I teach writing and 'how-to-teach-writing.' But that work is not the same as writing scholarship. 

Don't get me wrong. I really like my job. Working at a comprehensive regional university is aligned with my life goals and ethics. But that kind of setting asks me to do a lot of teaching and administrative service. I plan classes, assess student work, advise students, chair some meetings, attend other meetings, and coordinate a large-scale assessment program. 

There isn't much time for scholarly writing. And that shit ain't like riding a bike. I couldn't just hop back on and get back at it. I had to rediscover a lot.

It's a good reminder of what I'm asking my students to do (especially the grad students). It's also an excellent argument for sabbatical leave and protected writing time... and, yes, it probably also a good argument for being disciplined about my scholarly writing goals even when things are busy.   

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Argument Conservatives Must Concede

It’s not enough to hear conservatives disavow those who violently stormed the Capitol. We need conservatives to acknowledge that the Former President did immeasurable harm to the nation. We need to hear conservatives acknowledge that the brand of “America First” populism they bought into is dangerous and must be rejected. 

Here’s why we need such an explicit rejection: When we told you this was coming, you dismissed us as dupes or pawns. 

For years, at family reunions and backyard bull sessions, on heated phone calls, in comment threads, during the animated back-and-forths that followed every protest – for all these years, you have been telling us that our worst fears were a figment of the mainstream media's imagination – a propaganda campaign led by the political class – a plot conceived to get your guy out of office by any means necessary. You've yelled at us, called us hateful, and said we were foolish to suggest that the Former President was abusing his power or undermining democratic norms. 

When we presented proof, you told us the proof was a lie. You told us we were suckers to fall for the lie.

And now it's settled. He is the monster we were warning you about. 

  • He gathered a crowd of his followers on the day Congress was set to certify the election results.
  • He assembled the crowd near the Capitol.
  • He told them they had been robbed.
  • He told them they had to fight.
  • He told his followers their country was being destroyed by the people in the Capitol.
  • He said they had to stop that from happening.
  • He told them they could never win if they showed weakness.
  • And then he sent them marching to the Capitol as the legislators and his vice president were in the middle of the certification process.

The crowd beat a cop as they sang the National Anthem. They waved flags emblazoned with their leader’s name. They stopped a session of Congress. They killed a man. And they did it because the Former President told them to do it. 

He used his power as our nation's leader to make that happen.

Allow me to repeat this: You don’t get to act surprised. We told you it was going to happen. You just wouldn’t listen.

You said we were wrong. You told us we had been lied to by the media and the “faux-experts” we were so foolish to heed. You said you were wiser and smarter than us. 

But you weren’t. We were right. And now you're angry because we are going to require you to acknowledge that. 

Everything we've been saying about the Former President since he declared his candidacy was proven true last month. He cultivated a basket of deplorables: Followers who are willing to spread lies, publicly espouse hateful views, call for violence, and yes, willing to kill to hold onto political power. 

If you try to justify, diminish, or dismiss the disgraceful actions of the Former President and his followers, we will reject your anti-democratic ideas. We will shame you and label you unamerican. If you attempt to use force to back your views, we will fight back and we will win. The law and decency are on our side. 

Monday, February 01, 2021

On Reaching Middle Age

I started maintaining this blog back in February of 2006, shortly after turning 30. 

After 15 years of sporadically producing informal writing about the ways we argue, I have reached middle age. At least, I think I have. 

As my 45th birthday approached, I asked, "When does a person become middle-aged?" 

Turns out there's an argument to be had there.

According to the US Census Bureau, I'm already five years in. They claim middle age begins as early as 40. The American Psychiatric Association's DSM, however, pushes the start of middle age up to 55. They're giving me a decade before I have to apply the label. 

When I bump into these kinds of disagreements, I'll often look for a more recent and/or reliable publication to settle things. According to a peer-reviewed article in a 2020 issue of The Lancet, middle age starts at 45. 

The article is less than a year old, and The Lancet is a widely respected medical publication. So I think I'll go with... Of course, it was a 1998 article in The Lancet that gave us the anti-vax movement, and according to an October article in The Lancet, the spreading of that kind of disinformation presents a threat to public safety.  

I suppose someone reading this could use The Lancet's argument to present a strong case against using The Lancet to support my claim. 

And there we have it. Once again, either everything or nothing's settled. It all depends on how we argue.

I've spent these years rolling a question around in the back of my mind, "How should we argue?"

Here in the middle of, or at the threshold of, or on the cusp of middle age, I'm ready to make some recommendations on that front:

  • We should argue less and inquire more.
  • We should ignore unimportant arguments.
  • We should engage the important arguments.
  • We should always ask why we're arguing.
  • We should take arguments only as seriously as they merit.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

More on Text Conventions

Recognizing My Mistake

In 2013, I wrote about chain emails and social media posts from conservatives that used unconventional capitalization, punctuation, and fonts. 

Earlier this year, I was trying to write something self-congratulatory about how that seven-year-old observation now seems like an impressive prediction. Aside from a nod to certain Twitter feeds, I was also planning to use a collection of advertising images to show how those conventions have seeped into other venues. 

As I was composing this exercise in self-back-patting, however, I realized that my old post had missed the mark. 

You see, back in 2013, I wasn't very familiar with the way some feminist scholars intentionally use unconventional spellings, symbols, or grammar to highlight/undermine widely accepted symbols of the patriarchy in language. 

I recognize that all might sound overly academic, but it's really not. The impact of this kind of feminist rhetoric can be seen all over the place - for example, in young people's growing acceptance of terms like Latinx or in the use of they/them as singular pronouns

How My Teaching Reflects the Recognition 

I now fully embrace writers challenging ideas about "correctness" as they seek a place for authentic language in academic and professional writing. 

I teach code-meshing as an intentional way for students to push back against the racism embedded in the concept of Standard Written English

In an exercise intended to demonstrate how the written word belongs to every member of our society, I ask students to compare A) the way social movements have all but ended the use of "he/him/his" as generic pronouns to B) the way technology has eliminated the convention of two spaces after a period

So my old post about how some conservatives will manipulate text to make it feel more authentically their own was not nearly as revelatory as I once thought. 

After all, the unusual formatting choices in those old chain emails successfully signaled a rejection of stuffy academic writing conventions. It's a pretty slick move, one clearly borrowed from feminist rhetoric.

The Messy Problems that Remain

But now I'm faced with a new dilemma because these advertising images still haunt my social media feeds, and they are awful. It's mostly cozy blankets that have been emblazoned with saccharine clichés dedicated to a loved one. And while we could spend time analyzing the meaning(lessness) of the words, that's not what caught my attention.  

I believe these blankets are the textual descendants of the chain emails I used to get from conservative relatives back in the early 2010s. Take a look at an old chain email together with one of these blankets:

The switches into and out of all caps. The font changes. The bolding and italicizing of words. 
The complete rejection of visual design, readability, and formatting norms. These two texts clearly share a set of conventions.  

So, how does a rhetorician address the way conventions are broken on these cozy blankets alongside the brilliant ways Geneva Smitherman broke conventions in her seminal article God Don't Never Change? 

I'm not really comfortable with where that question is taking me, but I can't ignore it.

A few years ago, I would have ignored it. I would have dismissed the emails from people who don't write the way I do, but since then textual tools used to push back against the status quo have become more important to me. Who uses those tools and how is not something I can control - or would seek to control. 

But I want to find a way to critique those choices, to assess their effectiveness. If my students and my peers are going to use these kinds of techniques more in the future, I need a way to demonstrate the difference between skillful execution and hamfisted slapdashery. 

With that in mind, comparing Smitherman's work to the blankets might serve as a starting point. I also believe my time studying fiction writing will be informative. Fiction writing was a place where breaking conventions was encouraged but also critiqued, often harshly. 
I may finally have some time to write something more serious about this, and I am happy to have found that it is connected to a larger conversation in feminist rhetoric. I also think it has pedagogical implications. I look forward to seeing where it takes me. 

Unfortunately, my decision to stop and screengrab images of these blankets means that I will also be seeing more of them in the future - at least until the algorithms find something better to try and sell me. 

And yes, the pun in the title is intentional. It isn't very nice, but I hate these blankets with a fury that burns deep inside me.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

The Rhetoric of a Scam

Online game advertisements on social media often show clips of people failing to complete an easy puzzle. It's a common trick from Three Card Monte scams, and a ploy worth understanding.

Three Card Monte is that game where someone shows you a card and then asks you to follow that card while they move three cards around the table. 

It looks really easy. But more importantly, almost every time a person first encounters the game, they will see someone beating the dealer - often for an outrageous sum of money. That "winner," however, is working with the dealer. They make the game look easy and/or the dealer look inept.

The person who believes the game they saw was legitimate is the mark.

They see how easy the game is and think, "I can do that." 

And it feels good to think "I can do that." So good, in fact, that many people step up to play when the "winner" walks away counting their money.

And that's the scam.

Seeing the dealer fail at a task that looks easy makes you want to attempt the game yourself. 

And that's all the scammer wants. They want you to make the attempt.

  • At a Three Card Monte table, they want you to think the dealer doesn't have the sleight of hand skills that they actually have. 
  • On social media, the gaming company wants you to click through to their game that's loaded with advertisements. 
In both cases, once a mark joins, they are invested because the hook appealed to their sense of competence and/or superiority. 

So, yeah, if you're about to engage in something that makes you feel smart because you just watched someone fail, there's a good chance that you are the mark. 

Saturday, June 06, 2020

"LookUpHere! LookUpHere!"

I do not block or unfriend people I disagree with on social media, and today I was rewarded for my tolerance.

An old friend, someone who sees things a little differently than I do, shared another Facebook user's post today:

I love this post for so many reasons.
This is a perfect post.
This is the most perfect perfection social media could hope to produce.

Across the nation there are protests. A number of the protests have included violence - sometimes protesters lashing out at police and businesses, sometimes police lashing out at protesters and the media.

The protests are a reaction to a number of high profile incidents of racial violence and a collective understanding that these incidents demonstrate the deep inequities woven into our nation's culture.

All of that is happening in the shadow of a pandemic that has killed over 100k Americans, halted the global economy, and left many without a job for months.

And this social media warrior took to the internet to tell their friends in no uncertain terms: That's all a distraction from a court ruling about emails from before 2016.

Without this post, I could never hope to better understand the problems we are having in our national discourse.

This person wants others to believe everything is a distraction from what happened in 2016 and the media is complicit in the creation of those distractions.

This is the voice of all the people who cannot see past their one pet interest. So for them, when people are paying attention to anything else, that serves as confirmation that the rest of the world has been duped. They are the only ones with sharp enough focus to see what's actually happening in this country.

And that is what's wrong with how we argue right now. Most everyone is looking at the world through the lens of their tiny little concern. How do these riots impact the Russia Investigation? How does Black Lives Matter affect the president's approval ratings? How does police brutality change the way I read Twitter?

These are the absurd questions people pose in our corrupted discourse.

I enjoyed reading that post today because it reminded me to ignore these questions because they are the distraction.

Monday, April 06, 2020

We Voted For Inaction

Many have claimed the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been inept due to a collapse of leadership. Critics write about this collapse as though it were a failure.

The problem with that view, however, is that it ignores how, for years, Americans have been supporting leaders who've promised to hobble the Federal government.

A lack of Federal leadership is what many Americans have been demanding, and during this crisis, Trump's decision to leave all the difficult decisions to the states is a victory for those voters.

There is a large block of Americans who believe the following:

  • Most government services are inefficient
  • Most government spending is wasteful
  • Most government workers are incompetent
  • Most elected officials are corrupt
  • The government stands in the way of freedom
  • The smaller our government gets the better our nation will become

Voters who hold those beliefs fueled the rise of Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, the Tea Party, debt ceiling shutdowns, the House Freedom Caucus, and President Trump - among others.

These voters have a core belief that informs their choices: The only acceptable role for our government is to support the growth of private industry - the real power in America.

Because these voters do not believe the government is able to effectively respond to anything, they will seek to strip it of the power to respond to everything. Trump has been happy to contribute to that effort, branding any of his policy critics from within the government as "deep state operatives." 

So, to cite one example, no one should be surprised that in 2018 this administration disbanded a National Security Unit focused on pandemic response despite repeated warnings of the risk a pandemic posed. After all, the administration was acting on its promise to streamline the government. When this move resulted in the departure of Thomas P. Bossert and Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, leading experts in pandemic response, this was more evidence that the administration was shrinking the government. The departure of pandemic experts was a victory.

To provide another example, people should not be baffled that the Administration has still not enacted the Defense Production Act despite A) the clear need for increased production of ventilators and B) the need for a powerful purchaser capable of ending bidding wars that result in an unnecessary spike in prices for care during a crisis.

This Administration does not believe in wielding the power of our government for anything other than supporting the growth of private industry. This belief gives them the right to deny responsibility for the American people. 
Voters sought out leaders who do not believe the government is responsible for the safety and security of its people. We found those people and put them in charge. 

So, we need to stop acting surprised at the non-response we're getting from the White House, and we have got to start discussing what the role of government should be as we prepare for new leadership.  

The group behind Trump's rise does not value public education, publicly-funded scientific research, environmental protections, consumer protection programs, privacy protections, publicly-funded efforts to empower marginalized groups, safety regulations, advancements in infrastructure, or publicly-funded arts.

Attempts to appeal to them on any of these issues will go nowhere.
Those policies either directly impede efforts to support the growth of private industry or they compete for the resources required for such support.

The good news is most Americans don't share the beliefs that inform this Administration. As we struggle through this crisis without a leader, let's use this time to reexamine what we expect from our government when the opportunity to select real leader arises.

What do you expect from our government?