Thursday, June 20, 2013

Analysis of and Annotations on an Email I Just Received from The White House

Before we get to the good stuff, let me make one thing clear: I am not agreeing nor disagreeing with what the author below says, and my act of discussing the following email is not meant to promote nor contradict what it says.

All I want to do is reveal what is going in here through language. Both sides (dare I say "all people"?) use strategies such as the ones I'm discussing, so here we go. First the email, then my commentary.

Now it's time for some commentary. I'm going to talk about what the author(s?) are going to do to their audience through language. Let's look at the first bit:

The White House, Washington
Hi, all!
This week, we got some big news about the immigration reform bill. It's a little wonky, but it's so great that I couldn't wait to share it with you.
"Hi, all!"
First of all, the logo at the top gives the email an official and professional feel, yet the casual opening—with the brief and friendly “Hi,” “all,” and perhaps especially the exclamation point—invites the audience to feel at ease and get excited about what will follow. Excitement is contagious, as long as it’s not over the top, and I assume here that by expressing excitement the authors want readers to feel excitement. The authors seem sincere in that they really believe what follows, and who wouldn’t be excited after finding out the facts that follow? This excitement is all over the email and is manifest at the end of the first paragraph with, "it's so great that I couldn't wait to share it with you."

"a little wonky"
Honestly, I had to look the word wonky, but the word does add to the casual feel of the email. As citizens, we like things to be on our level, and politics is often so highly technical that we don’t understand it. By using casual speech and word choice to speak on the same level as readers, authors help readers make the assumption that authors and readers really are on the same level socially, intellectually, etc.

Also, “a little wonky” helps address concerns that audience members might already have about the issue. The phrase “a little wonky” is saying, when read in the context of the entire email, “Sure, the bill isn’t perfect—nothing is—but its merits outweigh its defects.” 

Now let's check out the next paragraph:
The nonpartisan experts who estimate the financial impact of legislation for Congress concluded that because undocumented immigrants will start paying more in taxes for things like education and Social Security, the immigration proposal in the Senate will make the economy fairer for middle class families while cutting the U.S. deficit by almost $1,000,000,000,000 over the next two decades.
"nonpartisan experts"
These are not just “experts,” but “nonpartisan experts.” This is a carefully chosen phrase. We like things to be nonpartisan because we like things to be unbiased. We are more likely to trust the authors when they tell us that they are using “nonpartisan” (read "unbiased") sources. Is "nonpartisan" equivalent with unbiased, however? I don't know. I don't think we have enough information here to answer that question. But it's easy to think they mean the same thing in this context.

"undocumented immigrants"
Note the careful word choice here, too: these are not “illegal” but “undocumented” immigrants. “Illegal” is a negative term, and the authors of this email want to stay positive.

"for things like"
Here we have some simple yet somewhat vague language: “things like” tells us that things are being simplified into terms that we can understand, but there are also things that are unlisted. There is more going on here than we know, but it’s also being translated. If we trust the authors we trust their translation, and if we like the casual and optimistic tone, we may not even question word choices such as this one.

"almost $1,000,000,000,000"
Spelling out the trillion is strategic: to see that many zeros on a page is impressive. It’s not every day that we see a number that big. “1,000,000,000,000” is physically longer (it takes more space on the page) than “a trillion.” Spelling the word out makes the concept seem bigger than if we just had “one trillion.” According to The White House's Google+ page, the number is closer 897,000,000,000. 

Finally, let's take a minute to check out the last two paragraphs:
With every passing day, it’s becoming clear that we can’t afford not to act. Now we know exactly how much is at stake, and it's the kind of news that can help to change the policy conversation in Washington.
So we've put together a graphic that explains exactly how this works, and we need your help to share it. If more people get the facts, it'll be easier to build a nationwide, bipartisan consensus to get this done.
"we know exactly"
This “we” is especially nuanced. Since above we’re told “almost $1,000,000,000,000,”  and since we’re also given simplified examples such as “things like,” as discussed above, can “we” really say that “we know exactly how much is at stake”? This particular “we” does not seem to include readers of the email but only the authors of the email, the “nonpartisan experts”--unless, of course, the readers of the document already trust and have sided with the authors. Then "we" really do "know exactly how much is at stake." Trust, as Aristotle once said, is the strongest rhetorical appeal. We believe those we trust. Trust is always an issue. Cf. Kenneth Burke's "Responsibilities of National Greatness" for more commentary and discussions about the identifications concerning the word we.

"the facts"

An ultimate term. See this and also this. The assumption here is that the things which the authors have shown readers in this email are the facts.

"bipartisan consensus"

Also an ultimate term. Most of us are sick of the fighting between parties. We want a “bipartisan consensus,” which is the political ideal. We do strive for agreement, and nothing gets done without it. The assumption here is that if we accept, agree with, and share the information contained in this email, we will begin to be less frustrated with partisan politics. 

Thanks for reading. Again, I'm not arguing for or arguing against the content of this email. I'm just discussing what the authors leave implicit.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Farmer and His Chickens, by Kenneth Burke

Once upon a time there was a farmer who had some chickens. Whenever he poured food into the chicken troughs, he would ring a bell and the chickens, hearing it, would come running. At the sound of the bell, the chickens knew it was time to eat, and they were hungry.

Months passed, and it eventually came time for the farmer and his family to eat the chickens. The farmer grabbed his gun and his ax and went out to the chicken coop. He also brought with him the bell. When the farmer got to the chicken coop he loaded his gun and rang the bell. Then the chickens came running.

The chickens were trained to believe that it was time to eat when the bell rang. But when the situation changed, they did not understand that the bell no longer signified that they would receive food--on the contrary, it now signified that they would become food. The chickens had been trained in a way that made them incapable to see things from another perspective.

So the chickens were killed, and the farmer and his family ate.

(This post is a retelling of an idea from Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change 7-10.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ruminations on E.T.

Yes, I know you've seen it, but it's probably been a while. It was the same for me when I'd watched it a few weeks ago. It had been a while.
Original poster found on Wikipedia

You remember it: E.T. gets stranded on earth, is found by a ten-year-old kid, Elliott, who befriends him. For a while, Elliott is the only one who knows about and can see E.T. And while he tries to tell others about E.T., they disbelieve him and are angry with him for making up worthless stories. Eventually, however, his siblings and some other kids start seeing E.T., too. The adults, on the other hand, have a hard time seeing him, either because the kids are trying to hide him from the adults or because the adults are so preoccupied that they don't see the signs that he is there. Sometimes, the adults don't even see E.T. when he is right in front of them, like the scene when Elliott's mother opens Elliott's closet and sees E.T., but mistakes him for a toy since E.T. has frozen in place. Indeed, the boys even say at one point that adults can't see E.T. E.T., however, wants nothing more than to go home.

Eventually, E.T. becomes ill. It's not exactly clear what makes him ill. Sure, he may have caught a cold by staying up all night trying to contact his alien family. Or maybe the Earth food had a negative effect on his immune system. He may also have become physically sick because he was mentally homesick. But this last time I watched it, I wondered about something else. Could it be that E.T. symbolizes an idea and, when that idea gets tampered with, dies? Could we say here that, in Wordsworth's words, "Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:-- / We murder to dissect"?

Eventually, E.T. is discovered by adults, and they start trying to help him, to cure him, of his sickness. But could it be that we're not seeing everything here? Could they also be doing tests on him and otherwise messing around with this new creature that they had never before seen and never would see again? For who can withstand the curious inclination to discover and behold something that no other earthling had ever seen before?

Perhaps it's a long stretch. But whatever happens, E.T.'s body can't handle it, either the sickness, the tests, or both. Perhaps in their trying to help E.T., the doctors actually hurt him. At least, that's what Elliott believes and even screams at one point.

Are there some things that die when they get tampered with? I'm suddenly reminded of two things.

C. S. Lewis, in his first-published Narnia book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, dedicates the book to his goddaughter Lucy Barfield with the following statement:
My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be
your affectionate Godfather, 
C. S. Lewis
What does Lewis mean when he says that "some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again"? Do we get to a point in our lives where we begin to take for granted some of the best things? Best things? What am I saying? J.R.R. Tolkien has written that fairy tales, or fantasy, is "not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent" ("On Fairy Stories," The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays 139). That may sound like quite a surprising statement from an Oxford don and Cambridge professor, a world-renowned philologist and scholar of Anglo Saxon. Why would he say such a thing?

Does this mean that all fairy tales are worth while? Certainly not. For while some stories shouldn't be read at all because they aren't worth our time, "If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults." ("On Fairy Stories" 137).

Yes, E.T. comes back to life when Elliott says through tears that he loves E.T. But after that, both E.T. and Elliott are on the run. The kids are the ones that save E.T. from capture the second time, and the kids are the ones that take him back to the forest where his ship comes to rescue him. The adults, except for Elliott's mother, don't see him up close after that.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Communicating without Words?

Last week, two of my favorite people were married to one another. Here's what the 3 of us looked like at one point:

About halfway through the reception, Ryan and Ju left for a minute. They returned, having changed into traditional Korean wedding robes. Awesome.

Two chairs were then brought in, and Grandpa and Grandma sat down. Ryan stood in front of Grandpa and Ju in front of Grandma. And then, in unison, Ryan and Ju knelt down in front of Grandpa and Grandma and bowed to them three times. The four of them then stood and embraced one another.

Then Mom and Dad sat in the chairs.

Again, Ryan and Ju knelt down and bowed their heads to the floor. They stood, and so did Mom and Dad. Then all four embraced.

Finally, Ju's mother sat in a chair and her uncle sat in the other chair (on this occasion, her uncle took the place of her father). Again, Ju and Ryan knelt and then bowed. And at the same time Ryan and Ju were bowing, Ju's mother and uncle bowed their heads. All 4 bowed in unison. Then all arose and embraced.

Ryan then presented Ju's mother with a gift bag. In Korea, if the mother of the bride receives a wooden goose from the groom's family it means that her daughter will be well-taken care of. Well, Ryan handed Ju's mother a gift bag, and she opened it. Inside was a wooden goose that our mother had painted.

I can't describe the expression on Ju's mom's face. It was one of gratitude, surprise, and joy, and when she saw it she let out an audible gasp. She began to weep, and Mom ran over and embraced her.

Several people that were watching were a bit confused because they didn't understand the symbolism of the gift. But all who watched understood that there was something being communicated between two families that did not speak the same languages.

Human beings can only communicate insofar as a margin of overlap exists between person A's experiences and person B's experiences. But that margin of overlap always exists, even if we do not speak the same language, because we are all human beings. We are all embodied spirits. It seems to me that, no matter where a person is from, tears are universal. Love is universal.

We're all human beings here. And we don't have to completely understand one another in order to treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. Our traditions, though they are different, are good. And human beings have an innate capacity for love and kindness.

Book Review: The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

I've recently received word from Taylor & Frances Online that a book review I wrote was published in the Journal of Religious and Th...