Thursday, April 15, 2010

Of Rhetoric, Tea Parties, and Morality: Discussions of Kairos in the Writing Classroom

Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
                       -- George W. Bush (20 Sept 2001)

What a great week for amazing class discussions, provocative questions, and inquisitive students. In my Advanced Rhetoric course this week, we talked about kairos and, on a related note, situational ethics. These were not, by any means, new subjects for the class. What made this week's end-of-the-semester in-class discussion so stimulating was that we began, in a very specific way, to talk about all the classical rhetoric we've learned in terms of the political conversations currently swirling around in the social ether. We considered the social implications of rhetoric that moves to action -- most particularly when that rhetoric is driven by hate, fear, anger, and the assumption that the speaker/writer is justified in using whatever strategies or tactics s/he deems necessary -- all because s/he has decided that s/he is on the side of moral "rightness."

Though the graduate-level Theories of Writing course began with two 40-minute student presentations, the topics (including Chaim Perelman and Martin Heidegger) led us to similar discussions about power, morality, and the importance of recognizing kairos. The end result was that I promised to share the paper (and Powerpoint) that my colleague, Kevin Van Winkle, and I presented at the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference the first week of April 2010. Our title was "The Rise of the Moral Empire: Christianism, Terrorism, and the Rhetoric of Power in the Post-9/11 'Anti' Campaigns."

We had a very interactive presentation, but because we presented (and created) together, we did write up a paper -- of sorts. The content of this "paper," complete with "CLICK" in each place we forwarded to the next Powerpoint slide and designations of who read what section, is below...


CLICK. In 1821, John Quincy Adams, in his historic Foreign Policy speech, reminded the American people that the strength of America lay not in her military or diplomatic might, but in her refusal to “ interfere[nce] in the concerns of others... Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart… and her prayers... But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”  Less than 200 years later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, echoed these inveterate American sentiments when he publically proclaimed to Al-Jazeera, CLICK “We don’t ‘do’ empire.” While Adams and Rumsfeld could hardly be accused of having similar political ideologies, both men insisted that America did not have imperialistic aspirations – based on their shared belief that dominance over others is, in some way, immoral. And yet, American colonialism stems from what historian Ian Tyrell calls CLICK the “missionary impulse” – a Christian-centered control over those who are incapable of controlling themselves. In this way, the control becomes a moral imperative – one that justifies military intervention, economic sanctions, and a foreign acceptance of American defined democratic ideals. And though most Americans would be loathe to describe the American dream as embodied within an “evil empire,” in his article “Empire of Denial: American Empire Past, Present, and Future,” Tyrell goes on to ask the American public to consider this CLICK. – he writes, “if it walks like an empire, if it quacks like an empire, then it probably is.”

CLICK. Of course, Tyrell’s observation comes post-9/11, in a world where, as Bush declared “freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other” were now perceived as being threatened by outside forces. He continued, “Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” (“Address to the Nation,” 20 Sept 2001). CLICK. And yet it was not the rhetoric of fear or power that ultimately justified (and continues to justify) America’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq – it was the rhetoric of morality. Indeed, before the smoke had fully cleared at the World Trade Center, the political rhetoric had begun to shift. CLICK. Over time, political pundits and national leaders morphed from proponents of retribution into bringers of democracy, freedom for the Middle East, and global equality.  And though the language had changed, the methodologies had not. Violence, it should come as no surprise, provided America’s necessary shock and awe. CLICK.  From the scandals at Abu Ghraib to the continuing secrets of torture and water-boarding at Guantanamo Bay, America had embraced the tactics of her enemies. CLICK.


Early in the war on terror, Bush’s administration created a bipartisan culture that, ironically, was embraced across political parties. CLICK.He claimed, “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” (Bush 2001). While some on the extreme left have made the argument that we were as guilty as our enemies, it is important to note that American tactics were deemed – by most Americans --  to be more just than the identified Muslim “extremists”; our violent, terroristic strategies were not just situationally warranted – they were moral and good. Western ideas of morality and “goodness” are wrapped up in complex social systems steeped in Judeo-Christian dogma – dogma that even in John Quincy Adams’ time, manifested itself in specific, action-driven political agendas. In fact, CLICK noted conservative author and daily contributor to The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan, created his term “Christianism” as a counterpoint to the negative, anti-Islamist rhetoric that emerged from the Christian right in the years post-9/11.  He argues, “The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque.” Moreover, while, like Sullivan, we do not seek to draw a parallel between Christianity and the advocacy of violence, we do see a connection between Christian ideals of goodness and the acceptance of  violence  -- as long as it’s in the name of a just and moral cause.

According to Gerard Genette’s seminal 1962 article “Structuralism and Literary Criticism,” all relationships are "systems of latent relations, conceived rather than perceived, which analysis constructs as it uncovers them, and which it runs the risk of inventing while believing that it is discovering them" (86). CLICK. Our suggestion is that if what Genette observes is true, then anti-terrorism, and its relationship to “Christianism,” is actually a socially constructed relationship – a latent relationship that was constructed by the government and perpetuated by the public – rather than inherently interrelated in the years post-9/11, as the American government used “Christian” ideologies and language in its campaign against terror. In this way, we argue that Americans have created an extreme relationship among disparate ideologies CLICK (in this case, terrorism and Christianity). It is one that remains apparent in the extreme bi-partisan, polarized rhetoric of the 21st-century – and one that has bled over into movies, television, and even public service styled ad campaigns.

The Montana Meth Project: History

In 2005, Montana experienced an extreme outbreak of drug usage. By 2006, the rural state ranked fifth in the nation for methamphetamine addiction despite the fact that in the years previous, they remained virtually untouched by the drug epidemics that plagued the rest of the nation. Half of Montana’s prison population was incarcerated because of meth-related crimes. Additionally, the foster care system also experienced a high number of new admissions related to meth. The instant “popularity” and accessibility of the dangerous and highly addictive drug confounded authorities. The devastation meth had on the state was noticed by billionaire business man, philanthropist, and part-time Montana resident, Tom Siebel. CLICK.

In 1996, Siebel created The Siebel Foundation, which, according to their own PR materials, helped grant educational scholarships to the underprivileged, assisted the homeless, and searched for alternative energy solutions. Confronted with the meth epidemic in Montana, Siebel broadened the Siebel Foundation’s scope in January 2005 to include the prevention of meth use. With the help of the advertising agency, Venables Bell and Partners, The Siebel Foundation created The Montana Meth Project (MMP). CLICK. The MMP’s primary goal, unlike “anti-ads” created in the 20 years previous, was no longer rehabilitation through education but prevention through fear – reflected in their slogan “Not Even Once.” The target audience was teenagers, and to reach them, the MMP orchestrated a statewide advertising campaign that included television, radio, billboard, newspaper, and internet advertisements. So saturated was the state’s media channels by these advertisements that the MMP reported that an estimated 70 to 90% percent of Montana teens saw one of these ads three to five times per week. Besides ubiquity, what all these advertisements had in common was a shocking, graphic, and often times frightening depiction of the possible consequences of trying meth.  The stark and unrelenting depictions of moral depravity, psychosis, and physical deterioration brought about by meth use made previous anti-drug campaigns look tame by comparison.  It was this shocking yet seemingly realistic portrayal of the consequences of meth use that made the ads memorable and, supposedly, effective. As a result, other “waves” of advertisements followed. These successive advertisements had different directors and actors in different vignettes, but the horrific depictions of the aftermath of meth use remained the same.

For example, in this clip, we see a “Hollywood-esque” commercial that presents normal teen angst and peer pressure alongside horrific imagery and references to prostitution.

This new breed of anti-campaign – like so much else is our world today, offers proof of the new acceptance Americans have for terrorism – if, as we suggest, this pejorative rhetoric is deemed morally justified by the American public. Indeed, America has inadvertently “Stockholm-syndromed” its way into a believing this increasingly terroristic rhetoric as a necessary step in “educating” our youth about the dangers of drinking, smoking, and doing drugs. And, in fact, these shocking campaigns offer evidence that Americans – in all aspects of our lives – have increasingly begun to embrace the very actions that we once claimed to abhor - violence, torture, and even rape - in the name of a “just” ideology.

And, though the moving imagery of the Meth commercials are shocking, the billboards that dot our own Colorado landscape are equally dramatic and terroristic in nature.

DONNA --- CLICK. CLICK. [Description]

KEVIN --- CLICK. CLICK. [Description]


The MMP claims direct responsibility for lowered rates of meth use among teens and adults, a decrease in meth-related crimes, and a drop from fifth in the nation to 39th in the nation for meth use. Currently, Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Wyoming, Hawaii, and Colorado have all purchased and implemented an augmented form of the advertising campaign. The name of the project changes to reflect the state, but the ads remain the same: grim and terrifying. And, like torture, the efficacy remains debatable.

DONNA [Unplanned open-discussion for this section]

Reality TV increases post-9/11… real life has become so HD that TV has to match it – commercials push these aesthetic boundaries too… the Meth ads build on existing anti-campaign structures and employ the violence and fear that have become so much a part of American life in the last decade.

So what? Where does it end??? Where does this lead next? Fear that turns to action against homosexuality? Race? Gender? All wrapped in warped Christianism? In the flag? Indeed, regardless of your politics, fear and hate-mongering is an issue that affects us all. So, at what point do we draw a line? At what point are these tactics too invasive? Are we paving the way for actions to take the place of rhetoric? It’s already happened in terms of terrorism and right-wing extremism. Sarah Palin’s statements about “picking up arms” – targets on congresspersons…CLICK.

What does all this mean for the future of education?
Future of freedom?
Future of America?


I hope you enjoy this, and perhaps you'll have an opinion or two you'd like to share along the way. In the meantime, use your rhetoric for good and never evil. --DR. DONNA