Posts Tagged ‘Political Rhetoric’

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Political humor is a wonderful and necessary rhetorical tool in shaping our perceptions about politics and politicians.

Growing up in the 80s/90s, I was shaped in part by the many hilarious impersonations of politicians by one of America’s most notable comedic institutions: Saturday Night Live. A number of SNL’s most famous impersonations have become more ingrained in our culture than the actual politicians.

Still today, when I hear George H.W. Bush I first think of SNL’s Dana Carvey:

And Carvey again for Ross Perot:

Ross Perot

“Can. I. Finish?”

And Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis:


These days, it seems nearly impossible to separate Sarah Palin from Tina Fey’s brilliant impersonation of her:

Sarah Palin

When done well, political humor reveals critical truths about politicians, policies, laws, and societal injustices, all in a way that makes us laugh and makes topics a bit more palatable and approachable. Even scorching criticism can be made to seem charming in the right hands; Fey’s Palin is a good example. In some ways, so is Jimmy Fallon’s Trump impersonations, like when he played Trump with the cast of Full House.


Or back in the 90s when Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton stopped in McDonald’s to sneak food off of customers’ plates:


In this way, humor invites a larger audience into important discussions. Upon taking over The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon was advised by his predecessor Jay Leno to lengthen his monologue because it isn’t just a source of laughter, but also as a way to inform people about the news of the day. And the same can be said for other famous sources of political humor like The Daily Show and The Onion.

However, I wonder if our round-the-clock access to social media, communication, and information has created a detrimental excess of political humor.

This week provided one possible example.

On Monday night, Donald Trump’s wife Melania spoke at the Republican National Convention. By the time I woke up early Tuesday morning, reports were posted everywhere that she had plagiarized a portion of her speech from a Michelle Obama speech. By the time I arrived at work, I had already seen countless posts across social media making fun of Melania and the situation. When I checked social media at lunch, the flood of jokes had not even slowed, nor had they when I checked social media again in the early evening. The jokes were coming from all levels: from regular folks to major publications and shows.

Not even 24 hours removed from Melania’s speech, I already thought, “Okay, the jokes have been absolutely beaten to death.”

Just to be clear, I have no allegiance or affiliation to either political party or candidate, and my example is not a veiled defense of Melania or the situation. I am all for anyone and everyone calling out any politician or any of their associates who do or say anything wrong, and I want people to be able to have productive dialogue about important issues. And that’s really a major part of my concern with the excess of humor.

Political humor, when done well and delivered in the right doses, inspires productive dialogue. But the well done doses are now surrounded by floods of other material, much of which is unfunny, and some of which can even be insulting and inflammatory, which just serves to shut down dialogue, not inspire it.

Partly, the poor material is a product of the “writers”; there is obviously a world of difference between John Q. Facebook trying to be witty and the professional writers developing material on shows like SNL, The Tonight Show, and The Daily Show.

Plus, on social media, many of the posts are just playing to the lowest common denominator to get attention and more ‘Likes’ while having zero concern for promoting thoughtfulness and dialogue.

Ultimately, the comedic congestion can turn important issues into white noise, meaning the inspired political humor that is aiming to be informative and transformative is getting partially (or completely) lost in the buzz. And if the flood of voices “kill the joke” so quickly, are people burning out on subjects before ever taking time to give the subject some proper thought and conversation?


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

As a student of history, I am usually pretty dubious about claims to novelty.  When someone says ‘There has never been a time/event/thought/argument like this before!!’, my first thought is usually ‘You sure about that?’ But, there are times when professions of originality are justified. No matter what the cliches claim, history doesn’t simply repeat itself ad infinitum.

This political season has had a number of ‘never-befores’.  Just because it is a ‘never before’ though, doesn’t mean that it will be a ‘never again’. The most revolutionary aspect of this election cycle, and the one that will be with us for the foreseeable future is the role social media is playing in our political culture.  This blog post will be the first in a number that will explore the sometimes exciting, sometimes troubling innovations in the quickly developing realm of social media politics.

To label social media politics as revolutionary is not hyperbole, nor is it surprising. Social media has revolutionized so many parts of our lives, why not mainstream electoral politics?  However, what is shocking is the transformative figure at the forefront twitter-social-network-icon-vector_652139of this revolution. It is not some youthful radical Congressional candidate from Berkeley or Brooklyn. No, this revolutionary figure is a 70 year-old angry dude who, prior to last year was best known for a reality television series and a combover.  Of course, I refer to Donald Trump.

Since he entered the race for the Republican nomination last June, Trump has continually been underestimated.  Over and over, political prognosticators have made two incorrect, though related projections.  One group of media fortune-tellers simply believed Trump would inevitably lose because of his ‘lack dailynewstrumpof a filter’.  According to this mainstream assumption, Trump would say too many offensive and/or ridiculous things, and the inherently moderate American voter would surely turn away in disgust.  That did not happen in the Republican primary, and these prognosticators were forced to reassess their beliefs….but only slightly. The Nostradamus crowd predicted that once Trump had to deal with the larger American general electorate, he would either veer to the center. The assumption was that Trump would batten down the hatches, go middle of the road, or inevitably face defeat. If the latest polls are any indication, these ‘expert’ opinions may be proven wrong as well.  What the nation’s political commentators never grasped was one of the  reasons Trumpists love Trump: The man never does what most rational observers would expect.

Nothing has displayed Trumpian ‘irrationality’ more than the candidate’s Twitter account. Like all social media, Twitter allows the user to instantaneously respond to external events, or share individual thoughts and personal desires. Trump tweets have allowed America to see the ‘realDonaldTrump’.  But Trump’s Twitter has become much more than simply a tool for his personal attacks, or a display of his psyche. Trump has  transformed the social media tool into a personal permanent propaganda platform. In this, he seems to eerily understand our media saturated environment better than any major political figure in recent memory. Here is how it all works:

  1. In 140 characters, Trump shoots off 3 or 4 controversial messages a week, knowing full well the media echo-chamber will spread his message to the masses.
  2. His twitter followers see his tweet, and adopt his political lexicon.
  3. However, many of these ‘followers’ are not Trumpians. Some are social media watchdogs who wait for the candidate to write something outrage.
  4. These people then retweet the original tweet with criticism attached, sending it to a whole new audience.
  5. Eventually, social media news platforms of both political stripes pick up the tweet, share it, and pass it on to an even more diverse audience.
  6. Lastly, once these platforms are all writing similar articles, the largest outlets get involved.  When Trump’s tweets get enough traction, it gets splayed in the MSM (Main Stream Media) of major Newspapers, TV and radio. And just like that….billions upon billions of humans can’t stop analyzing Trump’s latest statement.

This methodology of political propaganda is obviously cunning.  But, there is a very strange paradox wrapped into this method as well. Trump’s social media campaign speaks to his voters and, perhaps even more importantly, he speaks in the voice of his voters. Trump provides quick-hitters in black trump-twitterand white absolutes. After all, there can truly only be absolutes in the Twitter-verse; in 140 characters nuance is all but impossible. For a very large portion of humanity living in a confusing time of change, this absolutism is obviously reassuring. However, for many of the people Trump is speaking to and for, the original medium he is using for his message is one of the most troubling symbols of our rapidly changing world. For a great number of Americans who wish to ‘make America Great Again,’ social media is an enemy. It is understood by wide swathes of Americans as THE vehicle feeding our nation’s already intense narcissistic tendencies. Even more mysterious is that one of Trump’s most important demographics has no experience with using social media at all. Last year, when Trump was still fighting for the Republican nomination, almost 40% of his supporters were over 65 years old.  These same 65 year-olds are generally the ones who, at the very least, don’t have a strong connection to social media.  According to Pew Research, only 9% of Twitter users are over 60 years old. 91% of Twitter users are ‘kids these days.’

So, what is happening?  That is a much more difficult question to answer.

I think part of the answer can be found in the duel nature of social media in our political culture. It is both a source of enlightenment, and also a source of paranoia.  Perhaps investigating this duality in my next blog will shed light on this paradox.



By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Evidently I am on both a biography, and a leftist revolutionary kick.  Immediately after finishing Service’s Lenin biography, I picked up Jonathon Sperber’s new biography of Karl Marx. Was this just a natural evolutionary 20130707_inq_bk1marx07-areading choice; finished with Leninism, now go for Marxism? Perhaps. Or, perhaps I decided to look into Marx for another, more convoluted reason.

Jump back to last Thursday. It was the second day of my American History course, and I offered up a quick and easy classroom assignment to get my students thinking about important cultural and ideological trends in American life. I asked the class to get into groups, and think about words and phrases that come to mind when they hear the word ‘America’.  After a couple minutes, I had them shout out to me what words they thought of, and as they did, I made a list of their responses on the board.  The words were predictably recognizable, with both negative and positive connotations, which was exactly what I wanted and expected.   On the negative side, students provided such terms as “oppressive”, “arrogant”, “greedy” and “lazy.”  On the positive side, they came up with words like “opportunity”, “industrious”, “freedom” and “equality”.  These descriptors led to classroom discussion about the complexity of American history, culture, ideology, etc.

But, this Thursday I had one quite surprising response from an unknown student.  As I wrote down the terms, I heard from the back of the classroom a descriptor that I had never gotten before doing this exercise: ‘Socialist’.  I was a little taken aback, but, I said “okay” and wrote it on the board. I had my back turned to the class, so I didn’t catch who said it, and hence, I didn’t look for clarification, and instead, I just kept writing as the other terms were shouted at me. Once we started to investigate some of the responses, I focused upon the words and ideas that have been central to American History from our national origins, and still form most of our idealistic portraits of America: Liberty, equality, opportunity, merit, hard work, immigration, etc.  Then, we also examined words that pointed to the negativity and hypocrisy of the American past: Racism, nativism, prejudice, injustice, etc.  I really didn’t even ask about the ‘socialism’ comment because it seemed so out of place.

As the class ended, and I started to clear the board, I paused at the scribbled word ‘socialism’.  It made me ponder.  After giving it some thought, I came to the assumption that the student who yelled out the word meant it as a ‘negative’ and not a ‘positive’ aspect of America, simply because today the term socialism is generally utilized by the right-wing as a political attack.  A socialist would not say America is socialist.   Those on the left generally see the nation and the economic story of America as the antithesis of socialism, and unfortunately so.  If anything, an outspoken socialist would say the problem with America is that we have never had enough socialism, not that America is analogical to socialism. In our political situation, when someone shouts that America is socialistic he/she means that the country has moved away from it’s roots; it’s true essence.  Hence, the far right wing, and the Tea Party especially, attacks President Obama by calling him a socialist; or a Marxist; or a communist. Such language is intended to smear him as an outsider; as not a true American.

socialist-leagueUsing ‘socialist’ as attack rhetoric seemed to have a rebirth during the 2008 presidential election. At that point, it struck me as odd and outdated.  Calling someone a socialist was a political slur of the 195o’s or 1980’s, not the early 21st century.  But, after starting Sperber’s Marx biography, and with the help of this nameless student’s usage of the term ‘socialist’ , I had a realization.  We are stuck in a social and political lexicographic timewarp that we can’t, or don’t want to escape.  We live in the 21st century, but we think in 19th century parameters.  After all, ‘socialist’ actually isn’t a 1950’s term; it is an 1850’s term. Sperber’s biography makes this clear.  He points out in his introduction that he wants to study Marx as a nineteenth-century man, with nineteenth-century ideas, in contrast to how later hagiographers and smear artists depicted him as a man who foresaw and intentionally created the tragic 20th century Soviet and Maoist future.  Sperber hopes we are far enough removed from such dark 20th century history to appreciate the 19th century Karl Marx.  Unfortunately, after erasing that board, I don’t think that is the case.  Just look at the list below, and you can see that  19th century social and political concepts still control our discourse, and hence, much of our thought.

  • Socialism: First used as a term in 1832.
  • Capitalism: First used as a term in 1854.
  • Communism: First used as a term in 1843.
  • Liberalism: First used as a term in 1819.
  • Nationalism: First used as a term in 1844.
  • Race: A bit earlier in 1780, but becomes biologically based in the 1870s or 80s.
  • Democrat and Republican: Obviously these are older terms, but in American political parlance, both major parties were formed in the mid-1800s.
  • Liberal: First used as a political identifying term in 1820
  • Conservative and Conservatism: First used as a term in the 1830s.
  • Progressive:  First used as a term sometime between 1840 to 1880.
  • Radical (political sense): First used as a term in 1802.

Our political world is still carrying the weight of 19th century mentalities.  Our political identity, and our political attacks are often 150 or 200 years old. I wonder what our politics would look like if we were just a little more original?

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Yesterday was Bastille Day.  I changed my Facebook profile picture for the occasion. Very few people noticed, and even fewer cared.  This is not surprising since most Americans pay little attention to their own history, much less French History.  Nonetheless, every July 14th, the anniversary of the day in 1789 when the people of Paris stormed and overtook the medieval prison known as the Bastille, I quietly commemorate the Tricolour.220px-LibertyEqualityorDeath

The French Revolution is fascinating. Everyone, including notoriously Franco-phobe Americans, should take at least a cursory notice every July 14th and maybe even sing a few bars of the La Marseillaise. Here are a couple reasons why:

  •  The litany of incredible personalities that changed the world.  Robespierre, Danton, Saint-Just, Marat, Jacques-Louis David, Olympe de Gouges, Condorcet, Lafayette, Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Thomas Paine, and of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. Paris was a political soap-opera.
  • The French Revolutionaries understood the importance of words and symbols.  From ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, to “The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, the Revolutionaries attempted control of language foreshadows our postmodern world, and our obsession with discourse.
  • The Revolutionaries did not just want to tweak a couple things; they wanted to create their world anew.  There is no denying such apocalyptic hopes led to terror and state-induced murder (see Louis and Antoinette, 220px-Heads_on_pikesand the guillotine,) but it is less remembered that they also produced idiosyncratically mundane social transformations. The Revolutionaries truly did ‘sweat the small stuff.’  They revolutionized places (Notre Dame became the Temple of Reason), people (name your kid Brutus, not Louis), measurements (Metric system), time (New months, days, and holidays), fashion (Hair down, no more wigs) and objects (Get rid of the Kings and Queens in chess, playing cards, etc).
  • The French Revolution, in all its gruesome violence, causes  a ‘gaper’s delay’.  Like a car crash on I-94, I just can’t look away from all those heads on pikes, Revolutionary wars, and mob killings.  Disgusting, but horrifyingly fascinating.
  • Lastly, in much of the world today, being for or against the Revolution still illustrates your political worldview. The events of 1789 are still contentious, and for many since that July day, the hope has been to put the revolutionary genie back in the bottle.  Though this hope is inevitably fruitless, as a historian, I love that events that took place over two hundred years ago can still cause heated arguments in every corner of the world.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Saturday mornings in my house mean listening to Weekend Edition on National Public Radio.  This Saturday, my wife and I were preparing breakfast, having our coffee, when the host of the show, Scott Simon, had a quick one minute aside about the French trying to control the English language’s dominance of social media terms.  Evidently, many of the French don’t enjoy all this English terminology within their lexicon and the term ‘hashtag’ is the latest concern.  This seemed like a light little story, until Simon reported a darker twist: One group called  Avenir de la langue française (Future of the French language) ratcheted the discourse up a couple notches by recently proclaiming that this ‘English invasion’ threatens the “French language more than the Nazis did.”  I was in awe of this hyperbole.  This crap makes me really angry.

In one sense, this story makes me feel better about American culture since I was under the delusion that this type of rhetoric was exclusively a province of American politics.  On the other hand, it frustrates me to no end when anyone plays the compare-this or that-to-Nazism game, and unfortunately, it seems this practice is becoming close to the norm in the Imagepublic arena.  The most noticeable example is in the realm of political rallies. The Tea Party has taken this to an extreme in their gatherings, especially when it comes to their disdain for President Obama.  Google ‘Tea Party Rally Obama Hitler sign’ and you will see some quite radical examples of this rhetoric.  However, this attack method is not the exclusive province of the right-wing Tea Party.  On the left, anti-war protestors had a field day making Imagesigns and posters that equated President George W. Bush to Hitler.  Hitler is an equal opportunity bogey-man in America.

If this was just the work of a couple crazies that take to the streets, that would be one thing; but, of course, it’s not. The shout of “Nazi” has also been used by our politicians in Washington on the floor of the House of Representatives.  On the satirical Daily Show, John Stewart has attacked such tactics.  Stewart has also humorously illustrated that smearing the other side with the ‘Nazi’ moniker is an everyday occurrence in the world of the 24 hour news cycle programs and talk radio.  Perhaps the most disturbingly absurd media example came in 2009, when Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and President Obama were lambasted for Imagearguing that empathy was an important trait for a Supreme Court Justice. Glenn Beck, the most infamous ‘boy who cried Nazi’, somehow found a connection between Sotomayor’s and Obama’s belief in judicial empathy and Adolf Hitler’s supposed use of empathy to justify ‘putting down’ the sick and mentally challenged using the T4 euthanasia program.  Yikes!

It seems the rise of such name-calling goes hand-in-hand with the growing power of the internet.  Cyberspace is a sanctuary for all sorts of wackos to have their ideas heard, and not surprisingly, many Neo-Nazis find the internet as an indispensible tool for spewing their race hatred or strange conspiracy phobias.  Of course, such people are self-proclaimed Nazis, and hence, the term is not used as one of abuse in such forums. The obnoxious use of Nazi as an attack method is more common within purportedly rational discussion boards, blog posts, and social media. The description of others as Nazis, Gestapo, and/or modern day Hitlers is such a frequent occurrence in internet locales that twenty years ago a man named Mike Godwin formulated it into a ‘scientific law’. ‘Godwin’s Law’ states “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving  Nazis or Hitler approaches… In other words…given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

So, are internet users simply using logical fallacies?  Has Avenir de la langue française overstated their case?  Is Glenn Beck drawing historical corollaries to simply smear his political opponents?  Well, yes, and that is disturbing enough. But, using the Nazi affront has even more treacherous consequences. Those who equate their political, social or cultural enemies with Nazis believe that they can clearly see the present, because they have an understanding of the past.  Beck and his ilk feel their vigilance of Nazism reborn is based upon the old cliché that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  They repeatedly proclaim that their stark grasp of history repeating itself must be appreciated.  Those who follow ‘Godwin’s Law’ are the prophets; the solitary voices in the wilderness.


Justice Sotomayor


Reinhard Heydrich

Ironically though, the hyperbolic commentators are doing the opposite. They do more than simply FORGET history; they expunge it.  If a radio talk-show host equates Sonya Sotomayor’s or Barack Obama’s ideals of empathy with Reinhard Heydrich’s ideals, this is more than a horrible insult to Justice Sotomayor or Obama (which, of course, it is).  This is an insult to the millions who died in the Operation Reinhard camps (Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec); the hundreds of thousands who were worked as slave laborers by Heydrich’s SS; the millions whose homes and lives were destroyed by the Nazi war machine.  These millions of people erased from history truly experienced Nazi ‘empathy’. Beck’s particular equation of Sotomayor’s empathy to this type of ‘empathy’ should make us take serious pause in regards to his ethics, if not his sanity.

As with all clichés, there is a good bit of truth in the statement that if we forget our past, we are doomed to repeat it.  The problem is the ridiculous usage of Nazi as an attack term makes us forget what really happened in the past.  And so, a reminder: President Obama is not Hitler; President Bush is not Himmler; and the use of ‘hashtag’ in France is not the same as the creation of the Vichy puppet government.  To make such a hyperbolic analogy is a slap in the face to us all.