Texts for analysis in principles of rhetoric class

I know that folks like to know what other people are assigning as objects of analysis, and so I thought I’d post mine. This is a sophomore/junior level course. Ones I’ve used before have an explanation as to why they’re weird–I may not have time to write that explanation for the rest (and may not need it).

  • Theodore Bilbo’s Take Your Choice (this is available on-line, but off of a really nasty white supremacist site—if you’d rather not use a site like that, then you can photocopy sections from my copy). I teach this book in another class, and it’s always mentioned as the most offensive reading of the semester (and that’s a class in which we read Mein Kampf). It’s awful. Although written in 1948, Bilbo shamelessly uses the same texts that were so influential on the Nazis in order to defend segregation and argue for sending African Americans “back” to Africa. You’ll hate the book (as you should). It’s impossible to tell how much impact (if any) the book had in its time, but Bilbo’s message was generally well-received in his home state of Mississippi. It’s a contradictory and incoherent text (drawing on strict creationism and evolution), but many parts of his argument were very common (you’ll see bits of the same argument in the lower court decisions on anti-miscegenation statutes). I don’t know what to make of this book.
  • James Arthur Ray’s Harmonic Wealth (this one is harder than it might look at first, as you are fairly close to the audience). Ray bills himself as a “motivational speaker” (he’s featured in The Secret), and was charging a lot of money for day- and weekend-long workshops on success (which is more than a little ironic, as being a motivational speaker is the only thing at which he’s succeeded—he actually has a history of failing badly at making money any other way). He’s now famous for having been held responsible for the deaths of people during his sweat lodge ceremony.

    During the trial, it came out that Ray’s syncretic workshops consisted of things he’d lifted from other motivational speakers, all of whom themselves were borrowing randomly from various traditions. And, of course, except for being a motivational speaker, he wasn’t a particular successful person. How does he persuade people to overlook the very serious and obvious problems with his message? Students have found it helpful to look at his use of “science”—those of you with some knowledge of physics will find this a bizarre but kind of fun book (it’s very bad science). Why invoke science at all?

  • A similar puzzle is presented by the success of David Lereah’s book Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust—And How You Can Profit from It, which was rereleased in 2008 (immediately prior to the housing market crash). Lereah had already published a book with a similar argument—that this booming economy is not a bubble, although every reasonable assessment says it is—in regard to the dotcom bubble (The Rules for Growing Rich: Making Money in the New Information Economy) immediately prior to that bubble popping. Despite that track record, Lereah’s book was tremendously popular. Is Lereah’s success explained rhetorically? (This is a particularly good choice for students who are strong in economics.)
  • Also in the realm of self-help: a terrible (and misogynist) website about how to date younger women. This page is especially interesting (and offensive) http://steelballs.com/understand_her_chapter-2/
  • The 1931 ACLU Report on the Scottsboro Trial. http://famous-trials.com/scottsboroboys/2344-firsttrial-2
  • Opening statements from one of the two trials of the West Memphis Three. http://famous-trials.com/westmemphis/2243-transcripts
  • Frederick Douglass’ 1847 “The Right to Criticize American Institutions” http://www.frederick-douglass-heritage.org/the-right-to-criticize-american-institutions/
  • NSC-68 (https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsc-hst/nsc-68.htm) , “The report was a group effort, created with input from the Defense Department, the State Department, the CIA, and other interested agencies; NSC-68 formed the basis for America’s Cold War policy for the next two decades.” http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-truman-receives-nsc-68
  • An anti-fascist movie from 1947 warning against us v. them rhetoric. https://archive.org/details/DontBeaS1947
  • Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony regarding Clarence Thomas http://www.emersonkent.com/speeches/testimony_hill.htm
  • An exchange with McCarthy during the hearings about communists in the military. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/welch-mccarthy.html
  • Jeff Hoover’s resignation speech after payoff rumors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bUKLsS2R0s
  • Roy Moore’s speech about the accusations against him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuEqyQC7ne4
  • William Tam’s testimony in the Proposition 8 trial. (I’d suggest starting around 1914, and going at least as far as 1968)  http://kenjiyoshino.com/KY/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Perry_Volume_8_1742_2008.pdf
  • Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 Ted Talk “The Danger of the Single Story” https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story or her 2012 TedexEuston talk “We Should All Be Feminists” https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists
  • Weather Underground’s 1974 Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism (sds-1960s.org/PrairieFire-reprint.pdf) Here’s a fairly sympathetic explanation of the pamphlet: https://www.counterpunch.org/2004/07/24/the-weather-underground-s-prairie-fire-statement-thirty-years-on/. Most students aren’t very sympathetic (and I’m not convinced it was well-received by “the Left” as Jacbos says)—it’s pretty boring. This pamphlet is easier to write about if you don’t like it.
  • Do a rhetorical analysis of David Duke’s My Awakening. (Yes, you’ll have to read—or at least skim–the book, and it’s long and tedious and really, really offensive.) If you’d like, you can focus on the reviews of it on amazon. The book is awful, yet is ranked an average of 4.5 stars. (If you want to experiment, try writing a negative review of the book and then see what happens.) How do the reviews violate what one might expect them to be? What can one infer about their own understanding of their audience? To what extent are the reviews rhetorically savvy?
  • The debate over either the 1935 (Costigan-Wagner) or 1938 (Wagner-Van Nuys) antilynching bills. Pick at least one rhetor in favor of the legislation and at least two that are opposed to it. You should pick at least two figures who have long speeches, or several figures with short speeches but similar rhetorical strategies.
  • The “Haymarket Trial” http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/haymarket/haymarket.html. In Chicago in 1886, police charged a pro-labor rally, and started a riot in which several police officers were shot (probably by other police officers). Yet, labor leaders were charged with the killing of a police officer, and were convicted. Do rhetorical concepts explain the success of the prosecution case? You’ll need to keep in mind that you have to assess the case on the basis of what was known at the time, not what we know now. What defense claims does the prosecution refute? What claims does the prosecution ignore?
  • Rod Blagojevich and Richard Nixon (“Checker’s speech”) both found themselves in strikingly similar positions—having used their political power to get money out of people. Both engaged in apologia; but Nixon’s worked and Blagojevich’s didn’t. Does rhetorical analysis enable you to explain those different outcomes? Was it a question of Nixon having used savvier rhetorical strategies? Or was the audience different?
  • The opening statements from the trial of Dan White. http://www.famous-trials.com/danwhite


Excerpts from William Shirer’s This is Berlin (1999)

William Shirer was a correspondent in Germany in 1939 and 1940. Below are some excerpts from his broadcasts.

9/19/38. “Isn’t it wonderful,” I’ve been told a hundred times today by scores of people who did not hide their sense of relief. “Isn’t it wonderful. There’s to be no war. We’re going to have peace.”

[….] Not only National Socialist Party members, but others. They all felt that Chancellor Hitler had brought them undoubtedly the greatest victory of his career. “And mind you,” a German newspaperman said to me tonight. “It’s a bloodless victory.”

[….] “Like the occupation of the Rhine. Like the Anschluss with Austria. Done peacefully, without war.” I’ve heard these phrases a dozen times today. (15)

4/23/39.  [His perception of what the majority of Germans believe]

First, that Great Britain, backed by Daladier, Stalin and Roosevelt, is forging an encirclement of German designed to crush the Reich.

Secondly, that Hitler is right if, profiting by the lessons of 1914, he desires to break that encirclement before it is successfully completed.

Thirdly, that eastern and south-eastern Europe is a natural part of Germany’s Lebensraum—or space necessary for its existence—and that neither Britain nor anyone else, including America, has any right to interfere with Germany’s action there.

Fourthly, that Hitler, whether they like him or not, will get what he wants in eastern Europe, and get it—as he got Czechoslovakia at Munich—without a war.

Fifthly, that there will therefore be no war, and that they—the German people at any rate—do not want war. And that war can only come if the “encirclement powers”, jealous of Germany’s success, attack the Reich, in which case they will gladly fight, and this time, they say, Germany will win.

And sixthly, the mass of the German people, whatever they thought of Hitler before, or even though they still do not like many aspects of the regime, do feel that he has outsmarted the “foreign tyrants”, as they call them, who were trying to keep Germany down, and that he has restored it to its proper place in the world. And that without a single shot being fired, nor the life of one German soldier sacrificed. (42)

10/6/39. At a press conference in the Wilhelmstrasse tonight, one skeptical newspaperman asked how the Western Powers would be assured that Herr Hitler had no further demands, since that had been said before. The answer was that only now are the real foundations for a lasting peace in the interests of all there. (107)

10/8/39. Germany waits—and I must say waits hopefully—for the answer of Paris and London to what the Nazis consider was a very generous peace offer from Herr Hitler. (108)

11/19/39. [T]he papers keep repeating what Great Britain would do to Germany and Germans in case of victory. In a front-page editorial this morning the Volkischer Beobachter, official Nazi organ, tells its readers that England’s aim is not only the destruction of Germany, but the enslavement of the German people. (139)

12/30/39. Herr Hitler tells people in this New Year’s proclamation that what he terms “the Jewish international capitalism in league with the reactionaries” is really responsible for this war. Says he, and I quote, “The German people did not want this war. I tried up to the last minute to keep peace with England…But the Jewish and reactionary warmongers waited for this minute to carry out their plans to destroy Germany. These war-gentlemen wanted the war, and now they’ll get it.” (173)

1/9/40. Dr. Robert Ley, one of the most important members of the Nazi regime, states it clearly in the Angriff tonight. Says he: “We know that this war is an ideological struggle against world Jewry. England is allied with the Jews against Germany. How low must the English people have fallen to have had as war ministers a parasitical and profiteering Jew of the worst kind… England is spiritually, politically and economically at one with the Jews…For us, England and the Jews remain the common foe…Germany has won the first battle. Hore-Belisha has fallen.” (181-2)

2/25-26/40. The Montag, for instance, headlines the speech GERMANY WILL BREAK THE TERROR OF THE WORLD PLUTOCRACY. A struggle of Germany to free itself from the terror of Britain and France. A struggle against world-plutocracy and the world-Jews for freedom. That’s the way this war is being presented to the people of Germany. (204)

4/9/40. The German government, to use the term of an official proclamation issued in Berlin, has “taken over the protection and Denmark and Norway for the duration of the war.” (237) [The official propaganda was that England was about to invade them.]

The German occupation of Norway and Denmark, which the German newspapers tell us was done to safeguard their freedom and security…(239)

4/10/40. To give you an idea of the state of mind in Berlin today, let me cite the German press. Its front-pages glorify today’s achievements of the German army and tell the readers that Germany today, as the Nachtausgabe says, has merely taken steps “to safeguard the freedom and security of Norway and Denmark”. The same paper blames England and France for what happened. The Borsen Zeitung says, “England goes cold-bloodedly over the dead bodies of the small peoples. Germany protects the weak states from the English highway robbers.” And the same paper concludes, “Norway ought to see the righteousness of Germany’s action which was taken to ensure the freedom of the Norwegian people.” (241)

5/6/40. The German press continues to devote most of its headlines to warning that the British are about to spread war by aggressive action in the Mediterranean, in the Balkans, even in Spain. Observers here still wonder what is back of this press campaign, remembering that we had a very similar one in regard to Scandinavia six weeks ago. (263)

5/10/40. At a hastily convoked press conference at the Foreign Office at 8 a.m., Herr von Ribbentrop read to us the memorandum in which Germany explains why she marched into the two Low Countries. The argument, summed up, is that Britain and France were about to attack Germany through the two little countries, and that Germany therefore deems it necessary to send in its own troops to safeguard the neutrality of Belgium and Holland. The memorandum also blames the two countries for not having maintained a really neutral attitude. Belgium, for instance, is blamed for having built its fortifications against Germany, not against France, though it would seem that the Belgians this morning should be glad they did. (268)

5/15/40. Dr. Ley, one of Herr Hitler’s chief lieutenants, writes in the Angriff tonight: “Hitler brought Germany to reason and made us happy. We’re convinced we will now bring Europe to reason and make it happy. That’s his God-given mission.” (277)

6/1/40. Press attacks on France continue. Said a German radio commentator: “There can be no peace in Europe until the Negro-ized and Jew-ized people of the plutocrat Reynaud are taught with a sharp sword that no crime goes unpunished.” (306)

6/2/40. As to the invasion of Holland and Belgium, most Germans you meet believe the justification given by the government and the army—namely, that the Allies would have attacked if the Germans hadn’t beaten them to it. Thus the German move is always referred to in the press as the “counter-thrust”. Exactly the same explanation was given for the Norwegian campaign and, I think, accepted by the great majority of people. One must remember that when Germany went into Poland last September, the official communiques described it as a “counter-attack”. (309)

7/19/40. In other words, Hitler offers peace to Britain. On what terms, he does not say. But one thing is evident. The German people will now follow him as never before, for they will say: He offered England peace and no strings attached to it. He said he saw no reason for going on with the war. If the war goes on, it’s England’s fault. That’s what the German people will say. (355)

8/1/40. Nearly every day now one or the other of the German newspapers gives us a glimpse into the New Europe which the Third Reich is now planning for this continent as soon as the war is over. Today Dr. Ernst Timm, writing in the Borsen Zeitung, gives us a further glimpse.

The last result of nationalism in Europe, he says, was the union of all Germans in one nation. The next phase in Europe will be known by what he terms “European Responsibility”, a responsibility, he adds, which has been taken over by Germany. He finds three points in his new conception of Europe.

  1. Only a nation in Europe which is conscious of its European responsibility has a right to take part in the new reconstruction. A people like the French, which he says has become mixed with Negroes and Jews, has no right to European leadership.
  2. Only peoples who through their greatness and their life-force are capable of European contributions have the right to self-responsible action.
  3. The European leader-peoples, as he puts it, carry the responsibility not only for their own national fate, but also for that of the smaller peoples who are placed in their Lebensraum—or living space. (367)




What it means when someone says “Calling something racist is anti-white”

Every once in a while, someone will claim that condemning racism is anti-white. That’s racist. By its own logic.

But it’s a kind of normalized racism, a racism so deep in the structures of thought that a person saying it wouldn’t feel what they think of as racist (that is, hostility to all other races). They think that condemning racism is itself racist because they think that racism is “hostility to another race.” Since condemning racism is condemning whites (see below), and condemnation is hostile, then condemning racism is being hostiles to whites. Q fucking ED.

In addition, the underlying assumption is that, if you’re white, you should be entirely “loyal” to your in-group. For authoritarians, in-group loyalty means refusing to criticize the in-group in any way. If you are condemning racism, you are condemning whites (an interesting admission that whites engage in actions that look pretty racist to people), and so you are disloyal to whites.

So, that argument is assuming 1) there are races; 2) the races are in a zero-sum relationship (concern for a non-white race is hostility to whites); 3) whites engage in racist actions; 4) you shouldn’t draw attention to those actions because that helps non-white racists; 5) helping non-white races hurts whites.

In other words, that “criticism” assumes that people should be hostile to all other races, and it defines racism as hostility to other races.

It’s a bad definition, but that doesn’t really matter here—what matters is that, by its own logic, it’s racist.





The Principled Position on Pussy-Grabbing

I crawl around the internet and argue with people. And there is a recurrent argument that, for me, is what’s wrong with our current political deliberation in a nutshell.

A person (often a woman) says she couldn’t vote for Hillary (note that Clinton is identified by her first name) because Clinton called the women her husband assaulted sluts and whores. So they voted for a man who bragged that he assaulted women, or they voted in a way that enabled a self-proclaimed sexual predator to become President because they wouldn’t vote for a woman who might have enabled a sexual predator. They wouldn’t vote for someone who did what they are doing by how they are voting. That’s interesting.

It’s interesting that the serious logical problems of that argument don’t occur to them. So, why don’t they?

It’s interesting that they’re trying to argue that their opposition to Clinton is principled, when the principle (don’t vote for someone who supports sexual predation) is violated by their arguing for a self-confessed (not just possibly an enabler) of sexual predation. Why vote for a self-confessed sexual predator (and thereby enable sexual predation) on the grounds that the other candidate might have enabled sexual predation? It’s also interesting how often these women claim that their stance is Christian, while they are cognitively reconciling voting for a self-confessed sexual predator, whose wife had porno photos (which conservative Christians claims to abhor, and yet neither he nor his wife has said they think those photos were a bad choice), who has a history of adultery, and whose “Christianity” only occurred when it was useful with believing they are promoting Christianity.

Okay, let’s take their argument at face value. They are saying that their position is not sheer factionalism—it isn’t that they would vote for roadkill were it the Republican nominee—they have principles for voting this way. Let’s call this argument the “sexual predation principle” argument.

And, obviously, it’s an argument that trips over its own tongue. Voting for a self-confessed sexual predator because you can’t vote for someone who is doing what you’re doing by voting for Trump (enabling a sexual predator) isn’t an argument from principle about abhorrence of sexual predation.

It’s something else entirely. So, what is it?

And here is something that makes it all more interesting. We have, on tape, Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. There is no good evidence that Clinton said the accusers were whores or sluts. The sites that claim Clinton did that (and you can google it, because I don’t want to give them the clicks—they’re clickbaity sites) refer to an unsourced anonymous claim that someone said to someone that she had said it to them. There are no sites that quote Clinton directly, let alone show video or her calling the accusers sluts or whores.

I’ve argued with people who claim they saw a video of Clinton saying that. There is no video. There never was. (If there was , you would have seen it through all of 2016). That’s the known phenomenon of people creating an image of a claim they’ve heard over and over (for more on that, see Age of Propaganda). So, why do people have a clear image of a video that never existed?

Because their hatred of Clinton is so visceral as to be visual.

Well, okay, they hate Clinton, and they can list reasons. But are those reasons grounded in principle?

Here’s why that matters. There are, loosely, two ways to reason: one is grounded in ethical principles—that, regardless of who is doing something, you condemn or approve of that thing. Christ endorsed that method of thinking about ethics when he said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s also the good Samaritan story—an act is right or wrong on its own merits, and not on the basis of who does it.

The other method of thinking about whether something is right or wrong is the one Christ continually rejected—that a thing done by this kind of person is right (if you think that kind of person is right) and it’s wrong if it’s done by a kind of person you think is wrong. That kind of reasoning is purely factional (or tribal, if you prefer that term): people like you are good, and people not like you are bad.

It’s hard for people to see when we’re engaged in factional ethics because we can always come up with instances of bad behavior on the part of the other faction, and so we can sincerely believe our perception of our faction as always better is proven by evidence (aka, confirmation bias). But here’s what factional reasoning can’t do: hold all the factions to the same standards.

If Clinton was wrong to enable sexual predation, then Trump was worse.

That conclusion comes from holding principles the same regardless of faction, and people often don’t reason that way about ethics. People think that they’re behaving in a principled way when they’re reasoning on the basis, not of a logical principle, but a generalization about their group versus the other group–it seems like reasoning from a principle, but the logical principle is that “my group is good.”

And too much American political discourse is on those grounds, and that people reason factionally is shown most obviously when people point out the inconsistency. For instance, if you say to me, “Well, you say that Your Candidate is good because she cares about the environment, but she took $10 million dollars from an oil company to hide their oil spill,” a factional (and not principled) response is for me to say, “Well, Your Candidate did it too.” It doesn’t matter if Your Candidate did–that doesn’t mean mine didn’t.

Where that argument should go, if it’s a good one, is an acknowledgement on the part of everyone that both candidates did it, and then we can argue about which is worse

If you believe that your faction is always right, you might mistake reasoning from that premise (My faction is right; this person is a member of my faction; therefore, this person is right) as operating from a principle because you believe your faction to be more principled than any other.

Unhappily, a lot of the people who voted for a sexual predator did so because they believe that only the Republicans support Christ’s political agenda.

Let’s set aside the most obvious problems with that (Christ didn’t say “except for these people”), and just try to understand that these are people who believe that their political agenda is so Christian that they are justified in treating their political opponents in ways that violate what Christ said about how we should treat others.

What that means is that their political agenda is more important than a pretty clear commandment from Christ.

That’s political factionalism. Whether their political agenda is the same as what Christ would want is up for argument. Whether they’re violating what Christ said about doing unto others is not. They are, and they’re trying to come up with reasons as to why it’s okay.

So, it’s taking a particular and factional political agenda and insisting that only that agenda is good. That’s anti-democratic.

And here’s another way that it’s what’s wrong with American political discourse in a nutshell. It’s ignorant of history. American Christians have a long list of sins on our plate (especially conservative Christians)—policies that were, actually, sheer factionalism, in-group preference, or sheer prejudice. Advocating slavery, defending segregation, opposing unions or any protection for workers’ safety, refusing to allow Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to come here—all of those things were presented by conservative Christians as the obvious political agenda of Jesus. Oddly enough, a lot of conservative Christians now want to claim those political stances as proof that they are right, but they’re evidence they’re probably wrong. Those positions were all progressive and liberal Christian movements, demonized by conservative Christianity. [1] Conservative, even moderate, Christians were opposed to Martin Luther King, Jr., and condemned him.

There is a second problem with trying to cite those movements as proof that what politically conservative Christians are doing now: all of those movements insisted on the “do unto others” test, the very one rejected by conservative Christians now

Support of Trump fails that test.

So, let’s stop pretending that “I voted for Trump because Clinton supported her husband” is some sort of principled stance. It isn’t. Let’s stop pretending that people who make that claim are feminists, or allies, or anything other than people who wanted Trump to get elected, and needed a reason that made them feel comfortable.

It’s what’s wrong with American political discourse in a nutshell because it looks as though the person is taking a principled stance, when, in fact, there is neither a logical nor ethical principle consistently applied. It’s a rabidly factional defense of a logically indefensible position. It’s just a way of managing the cognitive dissonance of voting for Trump only because he’s in their faction. But, let’s admit it isn’t principled, and it violates what Christ said about doing unto others.


[1] The appalling crime on the part of progressive Christianity, eugenics, (also supported by many conservative Christians) also violated the “do unto others” rule.


The Holocaust and Christianity

“Hitler attracted Christians by criticizing the liberalism of democratic government and by advocating a tougher, law-and-order approach to German society. He opposed pornography, prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, and the ‘obscenity’ of modern art, and he awarded bronze, silver, and gold medals to women who produced four, six, and eight children, thus encouraging them to remain in their traditional role in the home. This appeal to traditional values, coupled with the militaristic nationalism that Hitler offered in response to the national humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, made National Socialism an attractive option to many, even most Christians in Germany.” (11, _Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust_)

The alt-rechts, or, in English, the old right

The old right, I mean alt-right, is clear what they’re doing.

Here’s what’s interesting to me about the current old-right. I am a huge fan of Ralph Ezekiel’s ethnographic study of neo-Nazis (The Racist Mind). But I’ve often wondered the internet changed the dynamics. Years after the book came out, he wrote an article, “The Racist Mind Revisited” that I found really useful. I’ve been reminded of it this weekend, and I’m thinking that the internet changed how the message is disseminated, but not what the message is, nor why it’s persuasive.

These quotes are from this article: “An Ethnographer Looks at Neo-Nazi and Klan Groups: The Racist Mind Revisited.” American Behavioral Scientist, 09/2002, Volume 46, Issue 1.

I’ll mention that he also talks about the macho ideology and the marginalized participation of women.

“Americans today often learn about Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan through television clips of rallies or marches by men uniformed in camouflage garb with swastika armbands or in robes. These images often carry commentary implying that the racist people are particularly dangerous because they are so different from the viewer, being consumed by irrationality. The racists and their leaders are driven by hatred, it is suggested, and one can scarcely imagine where they come from or how to impede them.” (51)

“The movement’s ideology emerged as one interviewed leaders, listened to their speeches, and read movement newspapers and pamphlets. Two thoughts are the core of this movement: That “race” is real, and those in the movement are God’s elect. Race is seen in 19th-century terms: race as a biological category with absolute boundaries, each race having a different essence—just as a rock is a rock and a tree is a tree, a White is a White and a Black is a Black. ” (53, he’s avoiding the first person.)

“At the ideological level—in the writings and speeches of leaders—the contemporary Klan has joined the neo-Nazis in identifying the Jews as the prime source of evil. Leadership speeches throughout the movement present “the Jew” as the central enemy, with African Americans, Latinos, and Asians as the rather dumb members of “the mud races” who are pawns of the Jews, as are many brainwashed Whites. The leadership ranks gay men and lesbian women with Jews in the enemies list.

“Among the rank and file, the picture is more traditional. Most followers whom I have met exhibited intense prejudice against African Americans that tended to reflect the general prejudice of their families and neighborhoods. Followers could repeat the party line about the Jews, but my strong impression from interviews and from watching socialization into the Detroit group was that new members arrived with strong antipathy toward Blacks but little interest in Jews. They came in hating Blacks and liking the idea that the movement represented Whites in a struggle against Blacks; after entry, they had to be taught who the Jews are and why they should hate them.” (55)

“The youths I met had first become involved in racist activity in junior high school. Their prior (and subsequent) schooling had not led them to harbor a concept of community. The classroom had seldom been shaped as a community in which class members had felt mutual responsibility for one another. On the contrary, the classroom probably had reflected the desperation and the atomization of the society outside the school.

“Equally, the schools had left no feel for democracy. The youths had no positive association to the word, which seemed to them a meaningless term used by adults for hypocritical purposes. School had afforded little chance for real impact on decisions that mattered, opportunities to learn in action the meaning of the word democracy. Both community and democracy can be taught through experience in the classroom, when schools consider these goals part of the curriculum and invest energy in building related skills.

“For the neo-Nazi youths, the teaching in school of multiculturalism had been another adult exercise in hypocrisy. Black History Month was an annual annoyance. It is easy for an adult-led discussion to seem like sermonizing.” (65)

When giving a reason isn’t reasonable: Associational and logical reasoning

If I tell you that you should do something that you pretty much already want to do anyway, and my reason is something you think is true, you might sincerely believe that I’ve given you a logical and reasonable argument, even if there is no logical relationship between my conclusion and my reason.

I might say, “You should vote for [the candidate of the party you always support] because [the candidate of the party you hate] did/said this bad thing,” you might feel you’ve been given a logical and reasonable argument. But that isn’t a logical argument at all—it’s just an appeal to rabid factionalism. It feels logical because you’re likely to believe that your commitment to your party is rational, and that supporting the other party is irrational.

But, whether you feel your position is rational or not isn’t actually a good measure. Is there a major premise that you would accept in the abstract, even if it didn’t get the conclusion want? And this statement doesn’t do that. This bad thing the other candidate did—is it something that would cause you to refuse to vote for your party’s candidate? If not, then you don’t have a logical argument; you have rabid factionalism.

If I told you, “You should clean my litterboxes because 2+2 = 4” you would probably catch the logical problem. But it’s no less logical than “You should vote for [the candidate of the party you always support] because [the candidate of the party you hate] did/said this bad thing.” Neither has a defensible major premise.

We don’t tend to catch the logical problems (unless we deliberately work at it) when we like the conclusion and the minor premise. If my evidence is associationally related to my conclusion (if you believe my evidence and you’re sorta open to my conclusion) you won’t notice that problem. If you’re feeling a little guilty about not doing enough around the house, or you feel you owe me a huge favor, then, suddenly, “You should clean my litterboxes because 2 + 2 =4” might seem like a “good” argument to you. It’s only good insofar as it seems to give you the justification to do something you were pretty open to do anyway. But it’s no more logical than it was when you didn’t want to do it.

Associational rhetoric works particularly well when we’re talking about an outgroup. Since we generally consider an outgroup icky, then an argument that says, essentially, “My policies are good because the outgroup is icky,” will genuinely seem to be a logical or reasonable argument, but it’s all association. (The outgroup might actually be icky and the policies disastrous.)

If you really like Chester Burnette as a candidate, and you loathe squirrels, and I say, “Chester Burnette is a great candidate because squirrels are evil!” the argument might seem “logical” to you. I’ve given you a claim, and I’ve given you a reason. I would probably follow up with lots of evidence about evil things squirrels have done. So, you could easily believe that your attitude about Burnette was totally logical.

But, what if Hubert Sumlin also advocated policies that would restrict squirrels? In logical terms, the “major premise” of the “Chester Burnette is a great candidate because squirrels are evil” enthymeme is… well, what is it? An enthymeme is supposed to be a compressed syllogism.

A compressed syllogism would have the major premise of “Everyone who hates squirrels is a great candidate,” a minor premise (the evidence) of “Chester hates squirrels,” and the conclusion that “Chester is a great candidate.”

Look at it this way. Imagine that I said, “Hubert Sumlin is a Nazi because he wears a brown shirt,” and you really don’t like Sumlin. You might notice he really does sometimes wear a brown shirt, and, of course Nazis did too! That’s associational thinking, because it ignores the major premise. That’s only a logical argument if you are willing to say that everyone who wears a brown shirt is a Nazi. You aren’t (or shouldn’t be, anyway), and you also either need to say that Hubert is just as good a candidate as Chester or else your argument isn’t logical.[1]

Associational reasoning isn’t necessarily bad. I happen to think it’s really helpful when you’re brainstorming, and it’s clear from the history of science that associational reasoning has had some tremendous benefits. But, like arguments from identity, it’s just one data-point. It is useful, but not sufficient, for democratic deliberation. It isn’t policy argumentation.

What’s useful about thinking in terms of logic and not association is that it helps us step back from what social psychologists call motivated reasoning. We can always find a reason to do something we want to do anyway—we are motivated to find reasons to support our ingroup, justify what we want to do, rationalize away something awful we’ve done. But being able to attach a reason to a belief doesn’t make a belief reasonable.

[1] Sometimes when I make this argument, people will say, “I don’t care if it’s logical to support Chester because he hates squirrels”—I just do. Well, that’s fine, but you don’t support Chester because he hates squirrels; you just support Chester. And just admit that your opposition to Chester’s critics is just ingroup loyalty–you don’t value fairness across groups.



Reagan and Trump


A few years ago, I was talking to one of those young people raised to believe that Reagan was pretty nearly God, and he said to me, “At first I was mad when people said Reagan has Alzheimer’s but then I decided that it didn’t matter.”

I thought that was interesting. He wasn’t mad because it was false; he was mad because it seemed mean. He didn’t change his mind about it because he went from thinking it was false to thinking it was true; he changed his mind because he found a way to explain it as non-trivial.

This was in 2005 or so, but it perfectly reproduced my experience of arguing with Reagan supporters in 1980. Reagan said a lot of things about himself and his record that were untrue. He might have sincerely believed them or not–I think he did–but if you pointed out he was saying things that were untrue, his fans said you were mean. He declared his candidacy literally on the site of one of the most appalling pro-segregation murders of the 1960s, and said he was in favor of states’ rights, and his supporters were apoplectic if you said he was appealing to racism. “He isn’t racist,” they’d say. “He’s a good man.”

If you tried to point out that the economic model on which he was going to base US policy was thoroughly irrational in that it was completely unfalsifiable, you were rejected as some kind of egghead.

When I asked a few more questions (such as, if your policies are best advocated by a person with Alzheimer’s, maybe there are problems with the policies), it became clear that he saw Reagan’s failure to be able to grasp complicated things as a virtue. That’s what made Reagan go for simple solutions, he thought, and he thought that meant that Reagan cut through the bullshit.

That, too, was my experience of Reagan supporters in the 80s (except the Marxists I knew who voted for them because they said he would bring about the people’s revolution faster, and the Dems who voted for him as a protest vote against Carter and then Mondale). They liked that he didn’t seem to understand the complexities of political situations. They sincerely believed that political issues aren’t really complicated, but are made so by professional politicians and eggheads just trying to keep their jobs, and so a person who looked at things in black and white terms would get ‘er done.

I think we have the same situation now. Clearly, the WH is made up of people who don’t understand the law about any of the things they’re trying to enact or the things they’re doing (whose defense is that they don’t and never did), who never had clear plans for any of the things they said they would achieve, who don’t understand how government actually works, who don’t understand what it means to be President, who are mad that they’re being treated the way they treated the previous President, and who are just engaged in rabid infighting.

People with even a moderate understanding of history are worried because this never works out well (for anyone, including his own party). People with a cherrypicked version of history don’t think it matters because they think he’ll enact the GOP agenda (and they think that’s great). And his base thinks it’s great because they think that a person who doesn’t think anything is complicated and isn’t deeply informed is exactly what we need.

What happens in an era of a rabidly factionalized media

In May, where I work, a young man with mental health issues stabbed several people (including a person of color). He was immediately subdued by some police officers who arrived quickly because they were on bikes. The politically useful narratives of this event arrived just about as fast as the police officers.

In July of 1835, some gamblers were lynched in Vicksburg, Mississippi, after a typical pre-lynching “trial.” An early account says it was because they behaved badly at a fourth of July celebration. There were later other versions.

The incident at my university quickly became a datapoint about the victimization of white males, the inherent violence of black males, and the failure of the liberal media to be sufficiently alarmist about the black/liberal conspiracy to exterminate white males. That it was such a datapoint was proven by several other claims that turned out to be false (the attacker went after “Greek” white males, there was another stabbing of a “Greek” white male at the same time—the attacker stabbed a non-white, wasn’t targeting “Greeks,” and the other attack never happened). The incident of the gamblers involved gamblers morphing into abolitionists, and then getting glommed onto a non-existent conspiracy of a guy called Murrell.

These two incidents seem to me extremely similar, and the similarity between them is why I’ve been worried for some time about American political discourse—the way the public “knows” things is worryingly similar to the rhetoric that got us into a war.

That’s obviously a strange argument, but not deliberately perverse. I mean it.

The short version is that how both incidents were quickly renarrated and used signifies larger problems with the normal political discourse of the day. I could have picked another pair—the Charleston pamphlet mailing and Benghazi, for instance—and the similarity would remain. The similarity isn’t about the incidents, but about how they were transformed into an entirely and obviously false narrative that resisted all attempts at refutation. It’s about the easy demagoguery of everyday politics.

This is a sort of complicated argument in that there is so much demagoguery about demagoguery that I have to do a lot of clearing before I can make the argument I want to make. And I worry about starting with a statement of my argument, since my whole point is that what caused the Civil War was that a large number of people refused to listen to anything that might contradict their central beliefs. The Civil War is, unhappily, a great example of how the narration of historical events gets glued on to current issues of ingroup identification (so that whether a particular narration is “true” is determined by whether it is loyal to the ingroup).

In a culture of demagoguery, all issues are reduced to a competition between the ingroup and outgroup. A claim is “true” if it shows that the ingroup is better than the outgroup.

Popular understandings of the Civil War (really, a failed revolution) are dominated by ingroup/outgroup thinking. For many people, admitting that secession and the firing on Fort Sumter were bad ideas would entangle admitting that ingroup members behaved badly. There isn’t a way to look clearly at primary documents about slavery, the declarations of secession, the proslavery provocation of war, segregation, and “the South” that doesn’t involve acknowledging that “the South” (an instance of strategic misnaming, explained below) judged things badly.

The South—that is, the entirety of people in the southern regions of the US–never supported the fairly bizarre system that was US slavery. While Native American tribes in the southern regions had slaves, the system was nothing like the dominant version (which was primarily lucrative because of selling slaves); it’s reasonable to think the large number of slaves didn’t support slavery; Quakers and others were sometimes opposed to slavery, and often opposed to the dominant system (which, by the 1830s, largely prohibited teaching slaves to read the Bible, and which violated property rights by the amount of state control over what slaveholders could do with what law said was their property). The equation of “the South” and “proslavery” is an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, in which disconfirming examples are simply not counted.

[This is NOT to say that the large number of white politicians who criticized slavery opposed it, by the way, since many of the were making either the “necessary evil” or “wolf by the ears” argument. The first of those was that slavery was bad, but it was necessary for some vague greater good, and the second (most famously promoted by Jefferson) was that slavery was a crime against Africans, and they were so justified in being angry about slavery that we couldn’t free them. Slavery enabled us to hold them down, and any release of that hold would result in their killing whites in an act of justified rage. So, we must maintain slavery.]

When we talk about “the South” we generally mean the white proslavery political leaders, and their motives in secession were absolutely clear: they were protecting and promoting slavery. And that is what they said, over and over, every time the issue came up. Speeches in Congress, speeches for secession, declarations of secession, speeches at fourth of July celebrations, sermons, judicial decisions—the South was about slavery.

So, anyone who wants to argue that the Civil War was about “states rights” and not slavery has to argue that the people who wrote the declarations of secession and the people arguing in favor of secession were lying. [They also have to explain how the Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Laws respected the principle of states’ rights—I’ve always found it entertaining how a CSA apologist will, when presented with that argument, either go silent or threaten violence—both responses are admissions that they have no rational response.]

There is a more complicated argument about secession not really being about slavery per se, but about how Southern political and intellectual leaders wove slavery into Southern culture. That argument is that proslavery rhetoric had become a staple of American politics, with oneupsmanship about loyalty to slavery requiring that Southern politicians (and their non-Southern allies, called “doughfaces” because proslavery politicians bragged they could make them have any emotion they wanted) get increasingly extreme in arguments about what should be done to ensure the expansion of slavery. So, it wasn’t slavery, but rhetoric about slavery that caused many slave states to engage in the extraordinarily unwise and unnecessary act of secession.

What people often don’t realize is that slavery was safe, even under Lincoln. Slavery was well-ensconced in US politics, with a majority of the Supreme Court, Congress, and the Presidency. Lincoln’s election was a glitch, in that he was only able to win the Presidency because the proslavery forces split. And he was willing to support a constitutional amendment to protect slavery in the existing slave states. The rational choice on the part of slave states would have been to sit tight until the next election, resolve their internal divisions, and elect another proslavery President.

Thus, were the secession really about slavery as an economic institution, it wouldn’t have happened—slavery as an economic institution was safe, unless you believe the evidence (which is pretty compelling) that slavery was not an economically efficient way to grow sugar or cotton. There are some who argue that slavery was deliberately uneconomic in that owning slaves wasn’t about making money, but it was a marker of success. So, just as driving an unnecessarily large car with poor gas mileage is a marker of masculine success in our culture, and not a rational economic choice, so owning slaves was a marker of masculine success in the antebellum south. A different argument is that slavery wasn’t profitable as an economic system, but it was profitable as a sales system—the profit in slavery came from selling slaves, so slavery was only profitable as an economic institution if there were expanding markets for slaves. If you put both these arguments together, then the otherwise irrational behavior of proslavery rhetors makes more sense, in that, while Lincoln was willing to allow slavery to exist eternally in slave states, he wouldn’t let it expand. Certainly, a lot of primary documents of the era insist on the importance of opening new markets to slavery. (If you want to see a longer review of scholarship on this argument, and my own take, see Fanatical Schemes.)

Whatever the motivations—and perhaps all three arguments are right about some set of people—from the 1820s until the Civil War, proslavery rhetoric was consistent: every single political issue was about ingroup (proslavery) and outgroup (not proslavery), and any success on the part of the outgroup meant the extermination of the ingroup. And that is our situation now. And while all parties engage in it too much, not all sides do so to the same degree.

And, no “both sides” aren’t equally guilty because saying there are two sides is part of the problem.

I’m saying that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, per se, but the consequence of proslavery rhetoric. Slavery can’t cause a war, but how people value it, what they connect it to, what it means to them, how central it is to their sense of identity, how they think they would look if they were seen as not supporting slavery—all those things can cause people to go to war because those things cause people to believe that their identity is threatened with extermination if this policy passes. And that’s what pro-secession rhetoric said (which went back into the 1820s): if we don’t get this policy passed, then the Federal Government will send troops into the South and force abolition on us and then we’ll have race war (it’s disturbingly similar to NRA rhetoric about the Federal Government knocking down doors, taking guns, and then the riot of criminals that will ensue).

In a world in which you’re hearing the same claims and same kind of claims repeated everywhere, the fact that none of the are true doesn’t matter as far as the kind of impact that those rumors can have. There is a Chesterton story in which Father Brown says that people think that 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 equals more than 0, and I’ve always thought it’s a sweet description of how antebellum proslavery rhetoric worked (and how much rhetoric works now): a long series of non-events is taken as proof of something for many people simply because the series is so long, and they forget it’s a series of false predictions. If the media we’re consuming is repeatedly wrong, the rational choice is to abandon it as unreliable. But, if the media keeps making predictions we want to be true, then the fact that those predictions are always false doesn’t make us mistrust the media—we trust them more because we perceive them as media that want the same things we do. [I’ll mention two examples: Charles and Camilla breaking up, the world ending this year. The fact that those predictions are always wrong doesn’t destroy the credibility of the predicting media for many people because those media keep making the prediction—that the media is always wrong triggers the cognitive bias of no smoke without fire.]

Tremendous numbers of people who didn’t financially benefit from slavery personally identified with slavery, and so they sincerely believed that an end to slavery meant an extermination of their identity.

And none of that was true: Lincoln wouldn’t end slavery; the end of slavery wouldn’t mean race war; as was demonstrated in the non-slave states, it was quite easy to maintain white supremacy without slavery. But the proslavery claim that it was either support slavery in the most extreme ways possible or there will be race war would have seemed true to someone reading southern newspapers because those papers were full of reports of events that never happened. And that argument signified what was, to me, the most striking characteristic of antebellum Southern newspaper rhetoric—it was rabidly factional.

It wasn’t a binary. In the 1830s (the era in which I dredged deep), there were multiple parties. And each party had its newspaper system, and each system reprinted articles from others in the system. Some reports were shared (fabricated reports about abolitionist conspiracies would be reported in all the factions hoping to benefit from anti-abolitionist fear-mongering, for instance), and some weren’t, but an article was printed or not on the basis of whether it helped the faction. And all those papers had mottos like “free of faction.”

In rhetoric, that’s called strategic misnaming. You simply declare that you’re doing the opposite of what you’re doing. It works to a disturbing degree, mostly with people who make political decisions on the basis of political faction (or ingroup favoritism).

Someone reading southern newspapers could list all sorts of times that abolitionists engaged in conspiracies of extermination against them. The very real incidents of mass killings of “them”—Native Americans, African Americans, anyone accused of abolitionism—were not mentioned, or were not framed as incidents of ingroup violence. They were self-defense, even if the incidents that supposedly justified the revenge hadn’t actually happened (and that was common). Consumers of that media couldn’t have a reasonably accurate understanding of who was committing violence against whom. There were in the antebellum era (and in the postbellum) communally insane acts of violence against the bodies of Others (mostly African or Native American, but with other kinds of Other thrown in), all of which were rhetorically rationalized as self-defense, and none of which were. Some, like the gambler incident, had nothing to do with politics, and some were political only in the sense that the people enacting the rhetorically-framed “revenge” violence were motivated by a politics of racist or pro-slavery politics. So, in the antebellum era, everything was politicized. And even, as in the case of the gamblers, the correct version of the incident was available to the media, the false version lumbered around the public sphere, crushing any accurate version.

And here we return to the tragedy of my campus. The incident on my campus was not racially motivated, and it was not part of some massive conspiracy against privileged white males. The notion that it was part of a May Day revolution, that an antiracist group had anything to do with it, or that there were other attacks has been thoroughly and completely refuted in any media open to reason. But we live in a world so rabidly factionalized that many of the media that promoted the false version either continue to repeat the false one, or have never repudiated the false one. And so the fear-mongering one lumbers around the internet confirming people in that informational cave that black people and liberals are conspiring against them, that whites are the real victims here, and that the “liberal media” won’t report the truth about the war on whites. And so, as in the antebellum public sphere, there are people roused to violent levels of self-defense over incidents that never actually happened.

In other words, those two incidents worry me because they indicate eras with similar ways of arguing about politics. Then, as now, many people believe that you should get all your information from people who are like you, who share your values, and who remain in a state of permanently charged outrage about them. You only trust people who, like you, insist that we are inherently and essentially good and they are inherently and essentially bad.

Since the dominant method of political argument didn’t play out well in the antebellum era—it ended in a war that was unnecessary–maybe we should rethink that we’re doing it now.


The easy demagoguery of explaining their violence

When James Hodgkinson engaged in both eliminationist and terroristic violence against Republicans, factionalized media outlets blamed his radicalizing on their outgroup (“liberals”). In 2008, when James Adkisson committed eliminationist and terroristic violence against liberals, actually citing in his manifesto things said by “conservative” talk show hosts (namechecking some of the ones who blamed liberals for Hodgkinson), those media outlets and pundits neither acknowledged responsibility nor altered their rhetoric.[1]

That’s fairly typical of rabidly factional media: if the violence is on the part of someone who can be characterized as them (the outgroup), then outgroup rhetoric obviously and necessarily led to that violence. That individual can be taken as typical of them. If, however, the assailant was ingroup, then factionalized media either simply claimed that the person was outgroup (as when various media tried to claim that a neo-Nazi was a socialist and therefore lefty), or they insisted this person be treated as an exception.

That’s how ingroup/outgroup thinking works. The example I always use with my classes is what happens if you get cut off by a car with bumper stickers on a particularly nasty highway in Austin (you can’t drive it without getting cut off by someone). If the bumper stickers show ingroup membership, you might think to yourself that the driver didn’t see you, or was in a rush, or is new to driving. If the bumper stickers show outgroup membership, you’ll think, “Typical.” Bad behavior is proof of the essentially bad nature of the outgroup, and bad behavior on the part of ingroup membership is not. That’s how factionalized media works.

So, it’s the same thing with ingroup/outgroup violence and factionalized media (and not all media is factionalized). For highly factionalized right-wing media, Hodgkinson’s actions were caused by and the responsibility of “liberal” rhetoric, but Adkisson’s were not the responsibility of “conservative” rhetoric. For highly factionalized lefty media, it was reversed.

That factionalizing of responsibility is an unhappy characteristic of our public discourse; it’s part of our culture of demagoguery in which the same actions are praised or condemned not on the basis of the actions, but on whether it’s the ingroup or outgroup that does it. If a white male conservative Christian commits an of terrorism, the conservative media won’t call it terrorism, never mentions his religion or politics, and generally talks about mental illness; if a someone even nominally Muslim does the same act, they call it terrorism and blame Islam. In some media enclaves, the narrative is flipped, and only conservatives are acting on political beliefs. In all factional media outlets, they will condemn the other for “politicizing” the incident.

While I agree that violent rhetoric makes violence more likely, the cause and effect is complicated, and the current calls for a more civil tone in our public discourse is precisely the wrong solution. We are in a situation when public discourse is entirely oriented toward strengthened our ingroup loyalty and our loathing of the outgroup. And that is why there is so much violence now. It isn’t because of tone. It isn’t because of how people are arguing; it’s because of what people are arguing.

To make our world less violent, we need to make different kinds of arguments, not make those arguments in different ways.

Our world is so factionalized that I can’t even make this argument with a real-world example, so I’ll make it with a hypothetical one. Imagine that we are in a world in which some media that insist all of our problems are caused by squirrels. Let’s call them the Anti-Squirrel Propaganda Machine (ASPM).They persistently connect the threat of squirrels to end-times prophecies in religious texts, and both kinds of media relentlessly connect squirrels to every bad thing that happens. Any time a squirrel (or anything that kind of looks like a squirrel to some people, like chipmunks) does something harmful it’s reported in these media, any good action is met with silence. These media never report any time that an anti-squirrel person does anything bad. They declare that the squirrels are engaged in a war on every aspect of their group’s identity. They regularly talk about the squirrels’ war on THIS! and THAT! Trivial incidents (some of which never happened) are piled up so that consumers of that media have the vague impression of being relentlessly victimized by a mass conspiracy of squirrels.

Any anti-squirrel political figure is praised; every political or cultural figure who criticizes the attack on squirrels is characterized as pro-squirrel. After a while, even simply refusing to say that squirrels are the most evil thing in the world and that we must engage in the most extreme policies to cleanse ourselves of them is showing that you are really a pro-squirrel person. So, in these media, there is anti-squirrel (which means the group that endorses the most extreme policies) and pro-squirrel. This situation isn’t just ingroup versus outgroup, because the ingroup must be fanatically ingroup, so the ingroup rhetoric demands constant performance of fanatical commitment to ingroup policy agendas and political candidates.

If you firmly believe that squirrels are evil (and chipmunks are probably part of it too0, but you doubt whether this policy being promoted by the ASPM is really the most effective policy, you will get demonized as someone trying to slow things down, not sufficiently loyal, and basically pro-squirrel. Even trying to question whether the most extreme measures are reasonable gets you marked as pro-squirrel. Trying to engage in policy deliberation makes you pro-squirrel.

We cannot have a reasonable argument about what policy we should adopt in regard to squirrels because even asking for an argument about policy means that you are pro-squirrel. That is profoundly anti-democratic. It is un-American insofar as the very principles of how the constitution is supposed to work show a valuing of disagreement and difference of opinion.

(It’s also easy to show that it’s a disaster, but that’s a different post.)

ASPM media will, in addition, insist on the victimization narrative, and also the “massive conspiracy against us” argument, but that isn’t really all that motivating. As George Orwell noted in 1984, hatred is more motivating when it’s against an individual, and so these narratives end up fixating on a scapegoat. (Right now, for the right it’s George Soros, and for the left it’s Trump.) There can be institutional scapegoats—Adkisson tried to kill everyone in a Unitarian Church because he’d believed demagoguery that said Unitarianism is evil.

Inevitably, the more that someone lives in an informational world in which they are presented as in a war of extermination against us, the more that person will feel justified in using violence against them. If it’s someone who typically uses violence to settle disagreement, and there is easy access to weapons, it will end in violence against whatever institution, group, or individual that person has been persuaded is the evil incubus behind all of our problems.

At this point, I’m sure most readers are thinking that my squirrel example was unnecessarily coy, and that it’s painfully clear that I’m not talking about some hypothetical example about squirrels but the very real examples of the antebellum argument for slavery and the Stalinist defenses of mass killings of kulaks, most of the military officer class, and people who got on the wrong side of someone slightly more powerful.

And, yes, I am.

The extraordinary level of violence used to protect slavery as an institution (or that Stalin used, or Pol Pot, or various other authoritarians) was made to seem ordinary through rhetoric. People were persuaded that violence was not only justified, but necessary, and so this is a question of rhetoric—how people were persuaded. But, notice that none of these defenses of violence have to do with tone. James Henry Hammond, who managed to enact the “gag rule” (that prohibited criticism of slavery in Congress) didn’t have a different “tone” from John Quincy Adams, who resisted slavery. They had different arguments.

Demagoguery—rhetoric that says that all questions should be reduced to us (good) versus them (evil)—if given time, necessarily ends up in purifying this community of them. How else could it end? And it doesn’t end there because of the tone of dominant rhetoric. It ends there because of the logic of the argument. If they are at war with us, and trying to exterminate us, then we shouldn’t reason with them.

It isn’t a tone problem. It’s an argument problem. It doesn’t matter if the argument for exterminating the outgroup is done with compliments toward them (Frank L. Baum’s arguments for exterminating Native Americans), bad numbers and the stance of a scientist (Harry Laughlin’s arguments for racist immigration quotas), or religious bigotry masked as rational argument (Samuel Huntington’s appalling argument that Mexicans don’t get democracy).

In fact, the most effective calls for violence allow the caller plausible deniability—will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Lots of rhetors call for violence in a way that enables them to claim they weren’t literally calling for violence, and I think the question of whether they really mean to call for violence isn’t interesting. People who rise to power are often really good at compartmentalizing their own intentions, or saying things when they have no particular intention other than garnering attention, deflecting criticism, or saying something clever. Sociopaths are very skilled at perfectly authentically saying something they cannot remember having said the next day. Major public figures get a limited number of “that wasn’t my intention” cards for the same kind of rhetoric—after that, it’s the consequences and not the intentions that matter.

What matters is that whether it’s individual or group violence, the people engaged in it feel justified, not because of tone, but because they have been living in a world in which every argument says that they are responsible for all our problems, that we are on the edge of extermination, that they are completely evil, and therefore any compromise with them is evil, that disagreement weakens a community, and that we would be a better and stronger group were we to purify ourselves of them.

It’s about the argument, not the tone.

[A note about the image at the beginning: this is one of the stained glass windows in a major church in Brussels celebrating the massacre of Jews. The entire incident was enabled by deliberately inflammatory us/them rhetoric, but was celebrated until the 1960s as a wonderful event.]

[1] For more on Adkisson’s rhetoric, and its sources, see Neiwert’s Eliminationists (https://www.amazon.com/Eliminationists-Hate-Radicalized-American-Right/dp/0981576982)

For more about demagoguery: https://theexperimentpublishing.com/catalogs/fall-2017/demagoguery-and-democracy/