Thursday, November 24, 2005

Language Does Not an Argument Make

As I alluded to earlier in this blog, language does not an argument make. Take for example the foolish words of the first year Republican Congresswoman from Ohio last week, who impugned the character of decorated Korean and Vietnam war Marine veteran, Rep. John Murtha, because he put aside his hawkish ways and called for a “redeployment” of our troops from Iraq.

Rather than engaging Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, on the merits of his well-spelled out ideas or on the basis of the actual facts on the ground in Iraq, Rep. Jean Schmidt resorted to the oldest and lowest and most ignorant form of argument, name-calling. Even more craven, she used another traditional and ignoble ploy, the old “straw man” routine, in which the arguer sets someone else up to take the fall if the argument fails.

Standing on the floor of Congress last Friday night, she told her fellow Congressmen and women that she had just gotten a phone call from a “Marine” who wanted her to tell the gathering, in response to Murtha’s unexpected renunciation of the war, that “"cowards cut and run, Marines never do." Following the outcry both on the floor that night and in the press since then, both Schmidt and the so-called Marine have improbably said that’s not what they said (repetition intended), but the implication was clear: Murtha was being labeled in a negative fashion by his opponents, who were unwilling otherwise to engage the strength of his argument.

Now, since this blog is about research and not about politics, lets do a little research. Checking my own favorite blogs first, it didn’t’ take too long to determine that the blogosphere had quickly discovered this so-called Marine was actually a reservist who has never seen combat, and as far as anyone call tell, has never served overseas. It’s not even clear if he has any active duty time; but it is clear that he pulls these kinds of “patriotic” stunts routinely as a low level political operative campaigning with GOP candidates across Ohio. Hardly the qualifications, one might note, to call another Marine a coward. However, this is not my point. My point, also made in an earlier blog, is that in any kind of argument it is necessary to understand the background and the motive of the person at the point of the argument. We can write off Rep. Schmidt as someone whose inexperience caught up with her, but it turns out that this so-called Marine make a career of these kinds of moves.

Moving on, and digging even more deeply into the research, it’s also useful to look at the words used in this argument and to trace their own history and relevance to the argument at hand. With my own recent master’s degree in American Literature, it was easy for me to remember that Ernest Hemingway had a lot to say about this topic. Obsessed himself with a life-long quest in pursuit of “masculinity,” Hemingway nonetheless wrote eloquently and simply (as was proudly his style) about “cowardice” and its inverse, “courage.” A quick google search for “hemingway courage” revealed that the Nobel Prize winning author had this to say about these twin topics: on “cowardice,” he wrote, “Cowardice... is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend functioning of the imagination.” Note, please, that these words are not just simply eloquent, they also are an argument in themselves.

And here are the breathtaking words Hemingway had to say about courage: “Courage is grace under pressure.” Talking about the power of language, I often tell my composition students that less is more in writing, and Hemingway, for all his faults, is certainly the master of knocking you out with the softest of punches.

So, after this preliminary little bit of research, ask yourself in this case, who had the most grace under pressure, Rep. Jean Schmidt and her so-called Marine friend or Rep John Murtha? As I like to tell my students, the facts will set you free.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

On Poetry and Pundits

Sometime in the late 60s I had the wonderful and life altering experience of hearing James Dickey read poetry at Duke University. What I most remember on that romantic undergraduate evening on Durham’s cloistered and magnolia shrouded “East Campus” is his lyrical recounting of a news story in which an airline stewardess fell from the inadvertently opened door of an Allegheny Airlines airplane flying over the expansive cornfields of the Midwest. The experience was life altering because Dickey, along with Duke University writer in residence Reynolds Price, taught me my own love of, and respect for, words and language.

Hence it is with great pleasure that I read this week of his son, Newsweek writer Chris Dickey (only fathers can know of the incredible karmic mystery of a son following in his own footsteps), who described the media recently in light of the unfolding imbroglios connecting the culpability of the press to Patrick Fitzgerald’s federal grand jury investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plane, as a “marketplace that long ago concluded having access to power is more important than speaking truth to it.” For a moment just pause, and look at the language, surely a gift from his father: “truth to power.” Gives me shivers – the power of words.

Lovely, you say, but what is my argument? Ah, my argument is about the quest for truth, and how language can illuminate or obscure this quest, depending on the motives of the speakers and writers.

Over coffee not to long ago, one of my students in my ENG W140 class (“Everything is an Argument”) asked me about the nature of postmodernism and what this still-controversial literary theory had to say about “truth.” His own assumption was that postmodernism holds there is no truth. Quite the contrary, I reported. Postmodernism is simply literary, political and economic theory that challenges the prevailing wisdom. Far from maintaining truth is not discernible, as some of my students seem to want to believe, or that truth is merely in the eyes of the beholder (see my previous post about Jane Tompkins), postmodernism postulates that we must ascertain motives before we can ascertain truth. That’s all.

This is nothing more than good research practice.

Take for example, J.M. Coetzee's literary masterpiece, Waiting for the Barbarians. A breathtaking portrait of history told, for a change, from the point of view of the conquered, this short novel challenges the basic foundational assumptions of a Western reader. Which exactly what postmodernism is about: a challenge to critical thinkers to re-examine their own points of view. Not necessarily to discard them, but to attempt the research into the historical and political archives that may indeed shed new light, let alone a rather brighter light, on cherished assumptions.

Another example: let’s all too briefly examine the rather amusing, new and very marketable “theory” about “Intelligent Design.” Widely understood to be a clever euphemism for the less politically correct word, “Creationism,” this new debate assumes that the great unwashed public simply has no understanding of science, let alone research. Insulting at best, and deceiving at worst, “Intelligent Design” postulates that words, rather than scientific research, can sway a debate. Why look at the facts, why examine the historical, geological, biological and zoological record, when one can just shout the loudest and use the cleverest language in the marketplace (back to Christopher Dickey) of ideas?

This of course is the challenge for my students, and for all good citizens of this great but ever more fragile democracy: how exactly does one look beyond the rhetoric?

Fortunately, thanks to the great libraries of the world, the answer is not that difficult. And the answer is exactly why the right wing media pundits like to accuse university professors of having a liberal bias: we teach students research, We teach them how to go to Ebscohost, LexisNexis and other academic databases to find their own answers to the great questions of these times. Truth is available. We just have to know how to formulate the questions (filtering for motives, qualifications, points of view) and where to look for the answers. And, of course, we have to be open to being pleasantly surprised when the answers don’t fit our own prevailing world view.

After all, as it was once said of Vice President and fellow Hoosier Dan Quayle, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Not All Arguments Are Equal

We’ve had our first Iraq War death this week in our usually sleepy little town in the middle of the corn and soybean fields of northcentral Indiana. A young marine, recently graduated from Manchester High School and recently married to his high school sweetheart, was riding in a vehicle when it hit a mine near Fallujah. The news spread quickly and widely before church early Sunday morning, as the two local families devasted by the explosion were both large and active in a wide variety of ways here. There will be a funeral, probably an overflowing one, with flags and an honor guard, and the entire town will mourn.

Arguments will be put aside during this time of mourning, and I do not intend to argue here. But, (oh yes, there is always a “but,” as my students well know), I needed a little solace of my own, being the father of three draft-aged children and a Veteran of a Foreign War myself (as are all veterans who served overseas in a time of war). Playing around with Google as I did a little research to see what others far wiser than I have said about war and death, I found this breathtaking quote from President Jimmy Carter: ”War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children.”

President Carter knows a few things about war. A Navy veteran himself, he oversaw some pretty nasty stuff in Iran during his presidency. So when he makes an argument about war and peace, when he vividly implies that sending our children to die in neighboring Iraq is not a guarantor of peace, either at home or in the Middle East, he’s not just shooting off his mouth, unlike the Chickenhawks who dominate today’s punditocracy. (A Chickenhawk, briefly put, is a journalist or a politician who urges other parents to send their sons and daughters to war but passed on the chance for him or herself. Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh are two of this country’s most famous.)

I pointed out by e-mail to uber-pundit Jonah Goldberg several weeks ago that I found his arguments for the war in Iraq a little perturbing, in fact, without merit, because I didn’t see him as a qualified source. Of the right age to have happily served in the first Iraq war, and still much younger than the many fathers and grandfathers currently serving over there, his arguments for bringing democracy to the troubled Middle East at the point of a bayonet (the right metaphor escapes me today, maybe I mean in the bombsite of an F16 fighter jet) seem hypocritical at best and cowardly at worst, I told him. Naturally I didn’t receive a reply, but I was amused and pleasantly surprised several weeks hence when he wrote a tortuous column explaining why even though he never donned a uniform or trained with an M16, he was nonetheless quite qualified to write of the necessity to spill the blood of other peoples’ sons and daughters in pursuit of his own pet projects. I wasn’t asking him if he were qualified, however, I was simply pointing out that because his arguments are both morally and ethically bankrupt, as evidenced by his own avoidance of any direct suffering in so-called support of the troops, they are likely to be intellectually bankrupt too. (And yes, I know, President Bill Clinton was a “draft dodger,” but he openly protested the Vietnam War on behalf of ALL draft-aged men and women and then as President was very reluctant to send troops into harms way without a clear and compelling need. I do not see any disconnect there whatsoever.)

My own point here though, is not that Goldberg and others like him are or are not qualified to opine about the war. Rather, as I tell my students, whenever reading and contemplating what someone else is arguing, it is necessary to do your own research on that writer, to try to learn for what reasons that writer may see things as they do. The fox, for example, may argue quite convincingly that he has the right qualifications to guard the hen house (sharp teeth, keen sense of smell, superior night vision, etc.). But unless you find out ahead of time that his favorite meal is chicken, I’d advise you not to be a chicken farmer!

Back to a more academic tone, this is the problem that faces all researchers: at what point does an author’s own bias become part of the research trail. Jane Tompkins has written brilliantly on this very conundrum, in her scholarly article titled “’Indians’: Textuality, Morality, and the Problems of History.” I assign this article the first week of class for all my ENG W233 students, as it brilliantly examines the conflicting accounts of the early contacts between the Native Americans and the first settlers through the eyes of those who recorded such contacts. Rather than trying to determine the veracity of those accounts, rather than hoping to sort out the conflicts, she instead studies the backgrounds and interests of those who recorded those accounts, coming up with a fascinating analysis of the prisms through which they saw those encounters. Understanding those prisms, the glasses so to speak through which these recorders viewed their world, leads to an understanding of the encounters themselves, she argues.

It is Tompkins’ prisms which bring us back to the combat death of a 20 year old North Manchester man and to the title of this post, “Not all arguments are equal.” I’m hoping of course that there will be no arguments this week in North Manchester. This is a time of deep mourning, and acrimony and pomposity have no place. But when these arguments do erupt, as surely they will in time, it is not the rhetoric or even the facts that will determine the thrust of those proffered opinions, but rather the prisms through which these opinions are developed. To be honest, in this particular case, I think the only prism that matters is that of Scott Zubowski, and he’s dead. Everything else, for now at least, is hot air.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Substituting Rhetoric for Argument

One issue that students commonly have trouble grasping when they are asked to write an argumentative research paper is the difference between what they commonly refer to as their “opinion” and what makes a good argument. Too often they want to substitute rhetoric for research, possibly under the assumption they glean from today’s news pundits that the louder you shout and the harder you hammer home your opinion, the better your argument is.

As I was casting about today for a way to put down on “paper” the disquieting thoughts I was having about this issue, I tried plugging “rhetoric” and “patriotism”” into google, and imagine my delight when a lovely article about George Orwell surfaced. Long a fan of his underground cult classic, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” I was also pleased to see an article in this week’s New Yorker that mentioned his Spanish Civil War experiences, which led him to write beautifully and eloquently about the subject of patriotism not from the jingoistic approach of today’s Fox News but rather from a linguistic as well as a realistic approach as he saw it first hand both as a literary scholar and as a front line soldier and reporter (much like today’s so-called embedded reporters, only with a rifle too).

Ever since I was a soldier during the Vietnam War years, I’ve been amazed at the way the word “patriotism” has been usurped and distorted for political ends. Although I was a “cold warrior”, helping stare down the Russians across the tactical nuclear battlefield of the divided Germanies, I was also a college graduate, with a minor in English literature from Duke University under my belt, so I knew a few things about language and how words weave a tale and take on meaning larger or other than their original intentions. Having lived through the tumultuous campus days of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement, I understood firsthand the inherent conflict at the time between long hair and a so-called “patriotic” attitude that shouted, “America, love it or leave it.”

This “patriotic” admonition begs its own question: do we really mean this? Should the Founding Fathers have left America because they weren’t satisfied with the way the lawful government at the time was being run, instead of holding to their initially unpopular beliefs and remaining here to write the Declaration of Independence?

This is the danger, of course, of not understanding the power of rhetoric – we may get what we ask for.