Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sophistry & The Greatest Power Point of All Time

In his Oscar winning An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore has presented an impassioned appeal to inform and change public opinion on global warming. The film is essentially a speech given with the assistance of visual slides, or oral rhetoric combined with visual rhetoric. In studying Sophist rhetoric, I find that many ideas that were conceived thousands of years ago are relevant today, and can be illuminated by using a contemporary example: the greatest use of Power Point, ever.

In his essay “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric,” John Poulakos calls rhetoric “the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible” (26). In other words, rhetoric concerns itself with the how, the when, and the what of expression and understands the why of purpose. In the case of
An Inconvenient Truth, the how is a cinematic version of Al Gore’s slide show concerning global warming filmed in front of a live audience. It also concerns the way in which the information, the what, is arranged and presented. The when is now, or more specifically 2006, and the why is obvious to anybody who knows much about Al Gore and/or global warming: to raise awareness of a growing problem and incite viewers to make changes that will help remedy the problem.

Many have argued that there is often an emphasis in Sophist rhetoric on the how over the what, that can signal misplaced values. In other words, style becomes more than substance and therefore sometimes people can be persuaded by smooth rhetoric into doing something that may not be in their best interests. (Thomas Frank wrote a very interesting book on this topic called What’s the Matter With Kansas? in 2004.) In the case of Gore’s movie, it has been argued that he misleadingly presents the facts to promote a conclusion that isn’t based on the evidence.

Poulakos later asserts that if “it is agreed that what is said must be said somehow, and that the how is a matter of the speaker’s choice, then style betrays the speaker’s unique grasp of language and becomes the peculiar expression of his personality” (27). This is obvious when watching the film, seeing Al Gore relaxed and funny as he talks about the defining issue of his career. It is hard to reconcile his previous characterization as a cardboard, monotonous drone with the relaxed, self-confident man who has connected with so many people over this issue. The style of this film, this speech, really does represent the ‘peculiar expression’ of Gore’s personality.

Sophists also felt that the use of rhetoric implied a temporal choice. The fact that a person is speaking now, versus some other time because he has chosen this moment over another, reminds the listener that the situation is “ephemeral, urgent, and, by implication, significant” (28). They felt that the notion of
kairos points out that timeliness can be the crux on whether an argument is good or bad. In the Dissoi Logoi, the author states that “all things are seemly when done at the right moment, but shameful when done at the wrong moment” (50). For An Inconvenient Truth to have been so effective, Al Gore has obviously used timeliness to his advantage. The world is now more aware of the effects of global warming than at any other, and there is an audience already amenable to hearing his message. However, the notion of kairos would also include Gore himself, noticing that he waited six years after the contentious 2000 election to stand at the forefront again. As time had passed, he had done little things to remain in the public consciousness, but he picked the correct moment to give his message on the big stage. Imagine, for instance, the response to this movie had it been made in the summer of 2001. The American public would not have given Gore the time to speak to them, despite the fact that most of his information was available at that time. The message was presented at the right time and the presenter picked the right time to reemerge into the greater public discourse.

In conjunction with
kairos, Sophists also had the concept of prepon, or the appropriate, which meant that what is said must conform to both audience and occasion. While the two are closely related, they are different. Was Gore doing presenting any different information during his time in the Senate when he grilled officials in hearings? Perhaps not, but it wasn’t directed to an audience that was amenable to what he was saying, and it wasn’t at a time when he could be heard by the people who could make a difference. It might seem counterintuitive to think that members of the Senate couldn’t make a difference, but as they were unwilling to hear, they were unable to act. Gore was able to tailor his message to the average person in the movie, creating a discourse that operated on a level that was easily accessible to everyone. The audience was willing to listen, evidenced by the very fact that they spent their money on tickets.

By forcing his audience to see what the world will be like in fifty years if global warming isn’t contained, Gore allows one to imagine what the world could be like if things change. As Poulakos writes, it intensifies in the viewer “the awareness that actuality is hostile to what he wishes and, as such, denies its existence” (30). To envision that a change is possible and preferable is only the first step, Sophists would claim. Good rhetoric would refine the viewer’s wishes and show him how to apply them, what to ask, and whom to reach. This is where there is a weakness in
An Inconvenient Truth. So much time is spent diagnosing the problem and giving credentials to that argument that the call to action is almost an afterthought. Ideas for things a viewer could do to help prevent further global warming are presented in conjunction with the movie’s credits. There is also the obligatory official website that viewers are urged to visit. I believe that Sophists would call his argument less than perfect due to this fact.

However, Gore does succeed, in my opinion, in “asking the audience to discover at least one reason why the conclusion suggested should not be the case” (32). Even if viewers ultimately reject the argument,
An Inconvenient Truth has still forced them to consider the question and ultimately moved them from accepting actuality uncritically. They have been forced to examine the evidence, as Gore presents it.

While this is far from an exhaustive Sophist examination of the movie, using such a case study can be beneficial to understanding the more abstract ideas we are examining. All citations are from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, except for the
Dissoi Logoi, which is contained in The Rhetorical Tradition.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Sports Fan Retires

This week I decided to quit watching sports. Or rather, I’ve decided to quit doing everything that goes along with being a sports fan: reading articles, listening to broadcasts, wearing giant foam fingers, etc.

What brought this on you may ask? Why should I, one of the most devoted of Astros fans, renounce not only watching broadcasts, but never listening to Milo Hamilton call a game again? The answer is because I am tired. I just don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t listen to another moronic comment by a so-called expert color man or another story that would be better off in a tabloid. And aside from baseball, I just don’t care about any other sports all that much.

From years and years of listening to radio broadcasts, I became more and more convinced that the announcers had little idea of what they were talking about. As Michael Lewis detailed so
eloquently in Moneyball, baseball isn’t but pitchers’ wins, ERA, batting average, or RBIs. It’s about On Base Percentage, pitchers’ strikeouts, walks, homeruns allowed, and groundballs. Baseball Prospectus has column after column of evidence on why these old stats are misleading and poor criteria to determine a player’s worth, but try telling that to Joe Morgan or Tim McCarver or, dare I say it, Milo Hamilton. Joe Morgan, the worst color person in the history of sports, won an Emmy for his baseball coverage. This is the sort of thing that intelligent sports fans are battling all the time.

And this doesn't even begin to broach the managers and general managers who make decisions based on this faulty reasoning. Not to be a homer, but why would Astros GM Ed Wade sign Michael Bourn, an unproven but speedy outfielder who should be able to steal a lot of bases, only to later sign Miguel Tejada to join Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and rookie sensation Hunter Pence in the middle of the lineup? You don't want someone standing on first to get thrown out so he can steal a meaningless base when you have four guys coming up who can slug the hell out of the ball. It doesn't make any sense.

I believe the problem is that once you realize that a good portion of the baseball lore and knowledge is ridiculous hokum, you move away from the sport. Baseball’s explanations for things begin to look childish, and many respond by pushing the sport into childhood and moving on. And as much as I love baseball, I think I am at this point.

I still love the game, and I wouldn’t want to give back any knowledge that I have acquired, even if it would mean I could enjoy baseball like a sixteen-year-old again, head full of baseball knowledge not plagued with cynicism and doubt. But I just have to separate myself from the idiots who parrot imbecilic lore. So I’m done. Maybe I’ll watch a baseball game on mute, and I’ll still read box scores, but I just can’t do it anymore.

As for the tabloid issue: Tony Romo’s superstar singer girlfriend is something for Access Hollywood to cover, not You want to print tabloid trash, I’ll treat you like someone who prints tabloid trash.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Environmental Economics & the Average American

While on vacation this summer, I saw signs in various hotel rooms that I’d never seen before. Each bathroom, in both nice and moderate hotels spanning two different cities, had a sign urging me, for environmental reasons, to save water and reuse towels as much as possible. Use that hand towel for your whole stay, the sign asked, we’ll only pick up the towels you leave on the floor.

Cynically, I immediately thought that this was merely an attempt by the hotel industry to save money under the guise of environmentalism. But later I realized that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. It was both.

The problem with environmentalism isn’t awareness. More and more companies
are going green, both as an ethical and commercial shift. The environment continues to be a issue of substance in the presidential election. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar and landed him a Nobel Prize.

The problem isn’t irresponsible citizens either. The average American probably does care about the environment and doesn’t set out to harm it in any way. Here in our neighborhood, the houses’ recycling bins are full every week. Austin is full of people with canvas shopping bags hooked to the handlebars of their bicycles. We water our lawns less and dispose of our motor oil properly. But much of this is not all that difficult to do, and that is why we see it occur with such frequency.

The problem is money. While a person could spend an extra few thousand to buy a hybrid car when it’s time to get a new one, that is a lot of money with an immeasurable effect on the overall environment. Could a person buy credits to make his/her family carbon neutral? Of course they could, for about $21 an American can compensate for a mid range flight, but imagine taking a family of six on vacation. You’d add over $250 to the trip, which is a lot of extra money to fly back to Pittsburgh and see Grandma for Thanksgiving. And that will only keep you neutral for a holiday weekend.

I do understand one should never make the claim of only being one person, and therefore being unable to do anything of significance, but I think that the costs involved cause people to ask themselves this question. It shifts the burden to those who are willing to pay, an ethical problem to be sure, but one that is hard to get around.

As technology advances and one can live green for less and less, there will likely be a mass move in that direction. And as businesses, like those hotels on the eastern seaboard, find ways to save money and benefit the environment at the same time, we’ll see more and more of that, even if it isn’t as easily recognizable or transparent. Eventually, most people will move towards becoming proactive with their actions and spending, but until then the average American will likely care more about the green in his/her wallet.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis

I don’t know that I’ve ever been more excited to read a biography than I was when I first picked up David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts. A detailed examination of the creator of the seminal comic strip of the 20th century, interspersed with dozens of the strips throughout, what could be better? I’ve always felt that the way I looked at Peanuts and the way that others looked at the strip were quite different, as if they were remembering all the things surrounding the strip (like the TV specials and Snoopy dolls), while I was actually remembering the strip itself.

And what I remembered was that Peanuts was a pretty sad little strip. Nothing good ever happened to Good 'Ole Charlie Brown, he never kicked that football, he never really got a kite to stay in the air. Schulz once wrote a lengthy defense of the melancholy in his strip, saying “I’m really fond of Charlie Brown myself, and I don’t like to see him hurt. I am afraid, however, that a happy comic strip is almost impossible to draw and would be as completely unrealistic as a completely happy and carefree life” (494). Happiness, Schulz insisted, was not a source of humor or entertainment.

The same would be true of the story of Schulz’s life, which at times is quite compelling. His early heartbreak when his mother passed four days before he was shipped off into World War II; his disastrous first marriage full of infidelity, betrayal, and emotional abuse. But as Schulz found stability and (almost) happiness with his second marriage, the book begins to get a little tiresome, and Michaelis glosses over the last twenty years of the
Peanuts strip. It would seem that when Schulz wasn't hurt, his life didn't make a very compelling story. However, the prose is good, and the author has done a good job distilling a rambling 1800 page first draft into 566 pages that tell a fascinating story. Michaelis has been criticized for not including enough about Schulz’s life, e.g. who he supported in various elections or what hockey teams he followed, but I think that would have been extraneous. It doesn’t seem that details such as those would have worked in the narrative Michaelis constructs, and he should be commended for being true to his narrative.

The biggest fault with the book is the references, done in such a way that it is often impossible to find where a certain source or quote is drawn from. This has been addressed all over the place, but I still would be remiss if I didn’t point it out. Michaelis said on The Bat Segundo Show that in a previous biography on Andrew Wyeth, he had over a hundred pages of endnotes for a 400 page book. His editors on
Schulz and Peanuts said that if he reduced the space given to the references in this book, he would have more pages to tell the story. Since he was cutting 1200 pages from his original draft, space was at a premium and it is a move that he acknowledges may have been in error. I do wonder how well the book will be able to be used as a scholarly resource though, since many things will have to be cited as “qtd. in Michaelis.”

All this said, I was a little disappointed with the book. I wanted a historical/genetic criticism of the
Peanuts strip and a greater focus on why certain choices were made, e.g. why the late switch from four panels to three and how did that affect the comic timing, or was Franklin’s race of any particular relevance at the time he was introduced into the strip. John Updike would chastise me for criticizing Michaelis for not doing something he wasn’t trying to do, but in an honest personal review of the book, I felt I should add this to the account. I probably would have rather read a book entitled Peanuts and Schulz, but what I got was a very good biography worth the attention of even moderate fans the strip.