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


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