Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Grading President Obama's State of the Union Speech

FOR THE PAST FEW years, I've had great fun "grading" the texts of major political speeches using the same terminology and rubric people like me use to grade undergraduate essays.

Most of the time, the text of the State of the Union gets lost in the visual spectacle of the event and the immediate responses and postmortems after the speech itself. Too often, substantive questions are drowned out by more bombastic questions like, Do sound-byte lines get a lot of applause? Will John Boehner fall asleep? Will Joe Biden figure out a way to say something ridiculous?

But, there are other good questions to pose, like does the speech have a thesis? Does the speaker support his points with specific examples? Does the speaker avoid major fallacies? Does the speaker stay on point? And, my favorite question, on what kind of note does the speech begin?

If you've tried to write an essay, a letter, a poem, or even a blog post, getting the opening just right is tough (I'm no fan of the first line on this column by the way). President Obama makes two bold moves in his opening gambit--calling attention to the shootings in Tucson and the "contentious" debates among legislators. Beginning with two points that most viewers (and readers) don't like--two negatives--could derail the argument, but Obama keeps the train on the track.
His main argument chugs into the station in paragraphs 9 and 10:
At stake right now is not who wins the next election--after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.
We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.
A mistake pundits often make is assuming the state of the union speech is a factual laundry list. These speeches are not informational; they are rhetorical. So, when, in the first 20 paragraphs the president notes twice that "the world has changed," he's not telling us new information, he's setting up his thesis.
And, indeed, not long after, he arrives at his thesis statement:
We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future. And tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there.

Succinct. Clear. Even a bit poetic.

But, like any good rhetor, he goes on to lay out his major points. These are the main points that will enable America to "win the future," the most memorable phrase of the speech, and the foundation for his claims
1. The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.
2. If we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.
3. The third step in winning the future is rebuilding America. To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information--from high-speed rail to high-speed internet.
4. Now, the final step--a critical step--in winning the future is to make sure we aren't buried under a mountain of debt.
These are solid reasonable assertions, and the president does a pretty good job of explaining what he means and providing clear, concrete examples. Each point enumerated above gets about 10-15 paragraphs of clarification.

His most awkward moment of the night, at least in terms of structure and symmetry, is his report on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt, he has to talk about these topics but in a speech about winning the future and looking forward, the reality of these conflicts somehow keeps jerking our heads around and looking back. What he says about the wars is substantive and free of hyperbole or jingoism, but it feels tacked on.

He saves things though with a fine close. In what is now the requisite story of an individual who has persevered, the president finds his incantatory phrase we knew he would need: "We do big things."
Essentially, his main theme is how America can get back to doing big things. "Big things" in this context really means putting people back to work. It means reclaiming America's position as a leader in terms of employment, innovation, and education.

Gone are claims that winning the future means defeating terrorists. For this president, those phrases are replaced by becoming better at what we used to do well. To win the future, we must, according to the president, remember our pasts.

Overall, this was a pragmatic speech. Less soaring oratory than one might have expected and more concrete details. Less poetry; more prose.

To me, the speech succeeds. It holds together. It avoids fallacies. It lays out a map and follows it. The president avoids theorizing, and totally eschews abstractions. He talks less about hope and change and more about things actually working. The speech could have been funnier, but this really isn't a funny moment. In truth, the president's speech hit just the right note.

So, what would his grade be? He wrote his essay on time, there is no evidence he plagiarized, he provides a thesis sentence, he gives examples to support his points, he makes use of transitions, and he blends ethos, pathos, and logos like a pro. Despite a clunky integration of "the war report," the speech is impressive. Therefore, the president gets an A.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Palin, Crosshairs, and Semiotics

CAN ONE DRAW A line between Sarah Palin's Crosshairs map and the shooting of twenty people in Tucson? Can political discourse be a catalyst to murder?

Much has been made of Ms. Palin's map, the fact that she called out Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' district in Arizona, and Ms. Palin's tendency to invoke gun-based metaphors. Pundits have argued that these are pieces in a puzzle that may have motivated a young man to engage in an act of violence that has stunned the nation and even further polarized an already divided electorate.

Many smart people are asking many smart questions about this horrific incident. But, one thing no one is asking is to what degree do symbolic acts--like icons and metaphors--actually affect us?

One way of answering this unanswerable question is to turn to semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of signs--both the actual signs themselves and what signs communicate. In the terminology of semiotics, the sign itself is called the "signifier," and the message it conveys is called "the signified." For example, in the United States, we have come to associate a red octagon with "stop." The red octagon is the signifier and coming to a halt is the signified. Though it may sound overly dramatic, almost everything is a sign, and every sign has at least one signifier. A white picket fence carries a strong signifier, as does a Porsche, as does a swastika, as does an American flag. In the case of, say, a cross or the Confederate flag, there are a whole host of complex signifiers. One signifier can, depending on who you are or what you believe, carry opposite meanings. As our culture becomes more and more visually defined, semiotics plays an increasingly important role since more and more messages are delivered visually.

This is precisely where semiotics enters the "crosshairs" conversation.

It's also where semiotics enters the conversation about violence in America, the conversation about political extremism, and more pointedly, the conversation about culpability in regard to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. Readers who may have arrived at this story only recently may not know that Ms. Palin's political action committee (PAC) has "targeted" Ms. Giffords' Arizona district for conservative activism. To visually denote this, a "crosshairs"--two lines that intersect in the middle to denote aim or the focus of sight--was placed over three congressional districts in Arizona and around the country.

Some critics of the former Alaska governor have made a direct link between the signifier (crosshair) and what is, perhaps, its main signified (shooting). That is, the crosshairs planted the seed to shoot the representative of the district targeted by the bullseye.

Supporters of Ms. Palin defend her use of the crosshairs icon because for them it is not a violent signifier; merely a symbol of "focus." Opponents, and even some supporters, like The View's Elizabeth Hasselbeck, on the other hand, have leveled harsh criticism at Palin for use of a signifier that connotes hunting, shooting, killing. Hasselbeck herself noted the map "looks like an al Qaeda Christmas card."

When we don't know how to interpret a signifier, we often look to past signifers to help us. So, someone uncertain about the signified (or message) Ms. Palin intends, might look to other visual cues to see if there is a consistent message.

It's possible that certain people see what they choose to see, but others may only see what's in front of them. One might, then, draw a line from these images to the crosshairs to advocating violence. Most would not. But some might.

Ms. Palin's aid, Rebecca Mansour, defended the image, and the semiotic associations one might make by redefining them: "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross-hairs like you'd see on maps."

Semiotics also applies to language--especially metaphors. Metaphors use a visual image to make a point. So, when Ms. Palin augments visual cues with linguistic ones, like her now trademark "Don't Retreat! Reload!," hunting and shooting-based interpretations get harder and harder to avoid. Repetition of visual codes tell you how visual codes should be interpreted.

Or, put in the language of semiotics, what emerges is a consistent "signified."

So, what does this mean for political discourse in the U.S.?

Anyone who watched the speeches of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama today witnessed a powerful moment in American public discourse. Palin's video, posted on her Facebook page, and President Obama's, delivered at the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Tucson, both attempted to address the countries wounds--which still seem to be hemmorhaging--as a result of the shocking events on Saturday and the politicization those events engendered.

Political speeches are the height of linguistic symbolic action. They reveal an incredible amount about the speaker. In the case of these speeches, that holds true. One draws a line in the sand, the other advocates unity. One is riddled with anger, one makes a plea for civility. One is a challenge; one is a call for compassion.

These, too, are consistent signifiers.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Two Riveting Articles on Parenting

SUNDAY'S OP-ED PIECE in The Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" by Amy Chua, was a magnet for diverse opinion.  Surprising, given that title . . .

Her thesis is that Chinese parents and Western parents may want similar things for their kids, but they go about it entirely different ways.  Here are two key paragraphs:

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me "garbage" in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn't damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn't actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

As an adult, I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized. One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.

Chua, a professor at the Yale Law School, goes on to argue that Western parents are obsessed with preserving a child's self-esteem and so tend to coddle, whereas Chinese parents believe that self-esteem comes with practice, perseverance, and performance. Obviously, her essay--which is a distillation of a forthcoming book--is grounded in ethnic generalizations, but it does highlight different parenting styles.

But, differing parenting styles not only cut across ethnic lines but extends to economic lines as well.  A disturbing story on National Public Radio's Morning Edition on Monday points to alarming differences between how poor and affluent parents interact with their kids.

In an epic (and seemingly groundbreaking) study that has taken around 27 years to complete, researchers document disturbing traits between how and how often rich and poor parents talk to their children:

But in the end, the finding that most struck people, Hart says, was not about the quality of the speech — how often rich versus poor parents asked questions or positively affirmed their children — but about the quantity. According to their research, the average child in a welfare home heard about 600 words an hour while a child in a professional home heard 2,100.
"Children in professional families are talked to three times as much as the average child in a welfare family," Hart says.

And that adds up. Hart and Risley estimated that by the age of 4, children of professional parents had heard on average 48 million words addressed to them while children in poor welfare families had heard only 13 million. It was no wonder that the underprivileged children they saw at their preschool could not catch up and often lagged behind once they went to school. They simply weren't getting the experience with language provided to their peers.
 Again, politics and parenting merge.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The N-Word, Huck Finn, and You

From my City Brights column of January 5, 2011

"Nigger" appears 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A new version of the book aims to reduce that number by 219. That's right. Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition has replaced the word "nigger" with the word "slave." The expurgated version comes to your local bookstore in a month or so.

Who is leading the charge to de-slur the most controversial "classic" of American literature? Some school board in South Carolina? Sarah Palin? Christine O'Donnell? William Bennett? Liberty University's English department? The ACLU?

Not hardly.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, which splices both books into one, is the brainchild of Auburn University professor Alan Gribben, a perfectly respectable Twain scholar. His motivation? Years of teaching the novel to students from the South and personal experiences with the book in his new home state of Alabama. "My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl," says Gribben. "She loathed the book, could barely read it."

That got to him, but what really pushed him to recast Twain's book was his involvement with Big Read Alabama, when he was asked both to write an introduction to the version that Alabamans would be reading and to travel around the state giving talks about the novel itself. He was shocked to discover how many teachers could not teach Huck Finn because of the racial slurs but also how many general readers were turned off by all 219 uses of the N-word. Astonishingly, it appears that John H. Wallace's claim that Huck Finn is the "most grotesque example of racist trash ever written" is actually being taken seriously.

So, Gribben decided to help create a version of the book that would make it acceptable to school boards and book clubs. He had elided "nigger," and "Injun" goes the way of the buffalo.

To his credit, Gribben is aware that his scholarly reputation is on the line. Already, some high-profile Twain scholars have decried the book, likening Gribben to Thomas Bowdler, who bleached Shakespeare's dirty scenes for more starchy readers. What Gribben sees as mainstreaming, others see as censorship.

And it does raise some absolutely fascinating questions.

What do Gribben's edits of Twain say about the sanctity of art? For example, if viewers suddenly find the David's penis offensive, would it be okay to deface the sculpture to make it less graphic? Violence against women is also abhorrent. Are we going to start altering rape scenes to make them less disturbing? On the other hand, is the real value of Twain's book found in the repeated uses of the N-word or in the overall message of the book? If Huck Finn is primarily a repudiation of racism, isn't getting more people to read it a good thing? On yet another hand, isn't reading the new version with the N-words removed whitewashing the degrading connotation of slavery? Doesn't it make slavery seem less disgusting, therefore making the book more racist?

In his provocative book Nigger, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy uses Huck Finn as a springboard for his study of the N-word in American culture and why censoring it can be dangerous:

"I am addressing the contention that the presence of nigger alone is sufficient to taint Huckleberry Finn or any other text. I am addressing those who contend that nigger has no proper place in American culture and who thus desire to erase the N-word totally, without qualification, from the cultural landscape. I am addressing parents who, in numerous locales, have demanded the removal of Huckleberry Finn from syllabi solely on the basis of the presence of the N-word--without having read the novel themselves, without having investigated the way in which it is being explored in class, and without considering the possibilities opened up by the close study of a text that confronts so dramatically the ugliness of slavery and racism."

I get what Gribben is trying to do; I've taught Huck Finn. I know it's difficult. Those of us who devote our lives to books want people to experience the liberating power of great literature and courageous ideas. I love the way literature can be malleable, the way it can, as Wallace Stevens might say, "find what will suffice." But, Kennedy is right, and that's why this new book rankles.

Look, we all hate the word. Twain grew to hate the word. Kennedy hates the word. I hate the word. Every time I typed it in this column I deleted it before going back and typing it again, angry I had to type it twice. But, this solution reminds me of treating the most obvious symptom instead of the lurking, chronic disease itself. This "new" book may be more of a feel-good pharmaceutical than an honest confrontation. And we don't even have the list of scary side-effects yet. For me, the Neosporined Huck Finn is not the right remedy for the injuries of slavery and racism; it's a band-aid that doesn't cover the wound.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Work Is Love Made Visible: A Review by Scott Andrews

Our best and most loyal guest poster, Scott Andrews, is back with the inaugural post of 2011.  This time, instead of writing about boobs, teen superheroes, or Obama's children's book, he reviews a new award winning collection of photographs and poetry by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish.  For more of Scott's unique perspectives, check out his cool new blog, Seeing Things.

Work Is Love Made Visible: Collected Family Photographs and Poetry by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish (West End Press)
During the recent holidays, many of us visited the homes of our origins.  “Home” and “family” probably have been on our minds, and for many of people their relationship to those two things can be conflicted.
Sometimes home and family can be things we seek to escape, because of poverty, because of family troubles, because of dreams for broader horizons, because a lot of reasons.  Yet home and family also can be things to which we long to return, or at least things we recall fondly – especially when we recall those people who helped us survive our home, or when we recall with the pride the courage of those who survived with us or recall with envy those who escaped.
This conflicted relationship to home is one of several themes that run through Jeanetta Calhoun Mish’s collection of poetry, Work Is Love Made Visible, which in 2010 won the 50th Annual Western Heritage Award and the Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry.  The poems are more narrative than the lyrical; they have the comfort and utility of a tool worn smooth with use.  Mish’s work goes not for the estranging enjambments,  ironic allusions, or perplexing subjectivity of much recent poetry but for the familiarity of a highway that leads back home, a place that makes one feel both welcome and wary.
In “for my brother,” Mish shares the obituary she wrote for the newspaper upon her brother’s death and also the words she did not publish: “truth is my brother’s life never really got started.  berated, beaten, broken by our stepfather.  escaped to the sanctuary of our grandparents home bewildered and betrayed.”  She describes the many trials hidden behind the list of occupations and travels in the official obituary.   The newspaper obituary hides her real desire: to curse the circumstances of her brother’s life, who died alone in the last of a string of ever-cheaper apartments:
curse the violent stepfather curse the meanness of a small town curse the joke of a healthcare system in this country curse myself for not knowing he hadn’t been well for not knowing he had lain there for so long.
In “My Sister’s Sacrifices,” she describes the sister who escapes and is sighted later in various places, “as if she were a u.f.o.”  Where the sister goes is not the important question, the poet states; why she goes is the issue: “I care why she goes because goes in my stead.”  It concludes:

She goes away because we both know
that it is futile to lock the door at night
when the boogieman is inside;
that there is no reason to stay home
when home is the last place you want to go.

But when “home” refers to Grandma and Grandpa, to the sanctuary mentioned in “for my brother,” there is love and longing.  In “Grandpa’s Bouquet,” Mish recalls being a child spending the day with her grandfather, running errands, sharing the “meaty read heart” of a watermelon with him and the cows who come begging.  She ends the day curled up in his arms, “inhaling [his] essence and the odors of the day.”  Her grandmother is recalled in “Work Is Love Made Visible” sewing the poet’s clothes after working all day: “Her love for me is a green paisley dress with a matching purse” and “Her love for me is a 1970s high fashion three-piece suit.”  Mish praises this “alchemy of love and labor” made manifest in her wardrobe.
In other poems and in photographs of relatives, the collection conveys the difficulties and pleasures of a life spent working for a living, raising families, making ends meet, hitting the road.  That travel was sometimes an escape from trouble or a journey to opportunity.  She describes the relatives who ventured to California and her own journey into academia as a graduate student, teacher, and poet.  All of that comes together in the poem that opens the collection, “Rosasharn Reports from California in the 21st Century.” 
The poem imagines the Joad family daughter from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath taking literature classes at a university in California today.  She is puzzled by some of their discussion of symbolism, especially about her most-famous scene of nursing a grown man during a rainstorm at the end of the novel.  She is dismayed by their remarks that Steinbeck’s “virile, realist style” is not “viable” today.  Rosasharon reacts, “Wouldn’t you just know it?/ Plain talk is out of fashion.”
Channeling Rosasharn, Mish fills her poems with the power of “plain talk” about family, work, love, and home.