Monday, June 19, 2017

Why we needed to hear from Alex Jones

Megyn Kelly's interview with Alex Jones created a lot of controversy. Many people did not think it should have been have been aired. I disagree. The public very much needed to hear from Alex Jones. I do not say this because I support Alex Jones; I think that Alex Jones' radio show is contemptible and the people who take him seriously are fools. His conspiracy theories are not just wrong; they are ridiculous. Still, as Kelly pointed out during her interview, Alex Jones "has millions of listeners and the ear of our current president."

Jones is only one of a group of what Viguerie and Franke might call "under-the-radar" media that spread conservative ideas. (N.B.: I do not say that Viguerie and Franke endorse Alex Jones!) Under-the-radar media might include direct mail and fax networks, as well as media that work in plain sight but that liberals and mainstream media figures routinely ignore, such as Before It's News, Breitbart and World Net Daily. Jones may be the loudest, but he is not alone. Millions of people consume - trust - and treasure reports that appear in sources like these. Millions of people trust these sources more than they trust mainstream sources like CNN or the New York Times.

In conversations and private messages, I have repeatedly heard some of my fellow rhetoric scholars either question whether under-the-radar media outlets even exist, or deny that anyone takes them seriously. Consequently, scholars have given them too little examination. A bad mistake. Contrary to 1984, ignorance is not strength. The first step in refuting people like Alex Jones is to know that they exist and that they are important. Under-the-radar media work because mainstream authorities ignore them.

Falsehoods shine only in the darkness.

Kelly's broadcast put MSM viewers on the alert: conspiracy-mongering media are spreading, and the public needs to know more about them. Thanks, Megyn Kelly. We needed to hear your report.

P.S.: My earlier post - the most viewed on my blog - discusses criteria for evaluating conspiracy rhetoric. Real conspiracies do exist, and we need to distinguish real ones from fake ones.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Anti-Comey? Trump at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference

While James Comey was delivering his powerful testimony about Russian interference in the 2016 election, President Donald Trump addressed his base's concerns at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference. This group combines religious fervor with conservative political action. Trump said nothing about Comey, Russia, or the ongoing investigation headed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, Trump talked about some of the issues that propelled him in the 2016 election: issues that the mainstream media has mostly considered to be bizarre and irrelevant. Doing so, he did a remarkable job of adapting to his audience. This first post talks about Trump's rhetoric of Christianity under siege; in a follow-up post, I will talk about the way Trump integrated Christianity into standard right-wing rhetoric. 

White House photo
The central issue: many evangelical Christians believe that their religion is under attack. They believe that secular forces in the government and Islamic forces across the world threaten the Christian faith. By showing that he cared about the threats that they perceived, Trump showed that he identified with them, that he was of one substance with them (to paraphrase Kenneth Burke). Like many on the Christian Right, Trump connected Christianity to conservative issues that bore little obvious relevance to Christian teachings. And, indeed, White Evangelical Christians were among Trump's most reliable supporters in the 2016 election.

Trump's theme: Christianity was under siege. Really? Christianity obviously is truly under siege in some theocratic countries that persecute Christians or restrict Christian worship. In the United States, however, Christianity is the dominant religious group. How can it be under siege? But let's look at what Trump said: "We will always support our Evangelical community, and defend your right, and the right of all Americans, to follow and to live by the teachings of their faith. And as you know, we're under siege. You understand that. But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever. You watch." Later in the speech, he said: "It is time to put a stop to the attacks on religion. (Applause.)" He promised to resist Muslim extremists.

Trump talked about what he had done protect his audience's rights and relieve the siege. To protect religious liberty, he said he signed an executive order to protect "the rights of groups like yours – the Little Sisters of the Poor." This referred to a controversy about whether the Little Sisters should be required to provide health insurance covering birth control to their employees. Trump also promised to stop the Johnson Amendment, which restricted political advocacy by tax-exempt organizations. He turned this into a matter of freedom: "No federal worker should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors. (Applause.)"

Trump promised to protect their faith, to defend them from the siege: "As long as I'm president, no one is going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what is in your heart and from preaching – and really this is so important – from the bottom of my heart – from preaching from the people that you most want to hear and that you so respect."

This led Trump to talk some more about how he thought religious leaders should guide their flocks in political matters: "So we want our pastors speaking out. We want their voices in our public discourse." Again, although many mainstream figures strongly support the separation of government and religion, Trump joined his audience to advocate religious participation in government. He made quite a move: from relieving the siege, which is one thing, he slipped to advocating Church involvement in politics, which is another issue. The Johnson Amendment gave him his link.

Many of the specific examples he talked about, although very common in conservative talk, were actually quite esoteric. Whether religious organizations should provide the same kind of health insurance as everyone else is interesting, but hardly central to the debate about healthcare in the United States. The absence of public prayer in public schools, although, again, a hot-button issue, is important more because it symbolizes secularism then because it interferes with families' religious teachings. These issues are, however, typical for those who believe that Christianity is under siege. By sharing these perspectives, Trump showed that he identified with his audience, that he shared their concerns, and that he would defend them

Of course, people will band together to resist a siege. When people feel they are under siege, they are likely to support more dramatic actions and policies, which was exactly what Trump wanted.

Now, let's go back to James Comey. Trump talked right through Comey's testimony. He said nothing about Comey or the investigation into Russian election meddling.  How could he not talk about Comey? About Russia? Which were, after all, the day's issues? We can interpret Trump's reticence in two different ways. (1) On the one hand, did the James Comey hearing warn us that American democracy was threatened? Or, (2) instead, was Comey's testimony itself one more threat, one more part of the siege? If Comey's testimony threatens Trump's presidency, could that also make the Faith and Freedom Coalition feel that the anti-Christian siege is making progress? Trump defended Christians from the siege, they felt, and Comey threatened Trump's presidency, and thus endangered their protector. So, Trump could safely ignore Comey, leaving his audience draw their own conclusion.

Many people wonder why conservative Christians continue to support Trump despite his obvious lack of Christian teaching and practice. Trump's June 8, 2017 speech answers that question. The Faith and Freedom Coalition banded together to resist the siege that they felt they believed menaced them. Next: how do you move from Christianity to standard conservative issues? I'll talk about that as I continue my discussion of Trump's speech in my next post.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Comey, Part 3, and Why Research Is Good

Former FBI Director James Comey gave powerful testimony on June 8. But we all interpret speech through our own filters, what Kenneth Burke called a "terministic screen." So, different listeners report greatly different interpretations of what Comey said.

Examples: conservative (but anti-Trump) writer Jennifer Rubin found Comey convincing and wrote that "There’s no unringing the alarm bells Comey sounded over the past two days."

Taking the opposite point, Fox News's Politics home page this morning blared: "Comey Testimony: Trump Responds, Claims 'Total and Complete Vindication."

It is very hard to reconcile those two different interpretations of the same speaking event. Actually, Rubin seemed to draw more impact from the testimony than the general public, while the Fox report obviously skimmed over some important facts.

So - if you want to have your own previous political views reinforced, just get your news from the source you like best. You will then be smug but ignorant. If you want to form a reasoned opinion, get several sources. Keep an open mind. Know that you might be wrong.

The best opinions in this case would come from watching or reading the entire testimony. And remember Ralph Nichols' lesson about listening: understand first, and only then decide whether to agree or disagree.

Or, as my friend and colleage, the late Dr. James Fee used to say, "Persuasion takes place in the receiver. There's nowhere else it can take place." It's not just what Comey said; it's how people interpret it. In a free society, voters need to gather enough information to form a reasoned opinion.

Earlier posts about Comey here and here

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Comey Testimony, Part 2

I'll let the lawyers sort out the political issues in James Comey's testimony today (June 8, 2017). The world wants to know, did Donald Trump commit a crime? Did he behave improperly? Is he the victim of a witch hunt? The only thing I know for sure about those questions is that the truth will come out, sooner or later. It almost always does. Remember Watergate? So, today's topic is a communication issue: making direct, forthright statements.

Instead, in this post, I talk about Comey's precision and brevity, which made his testimony so effective. His testimony made an especially good impression compared with the wordy, evasive answers that government officials gave in testimony to the same committee just yesterday.

James Comey, FBI photo
Here is Comey being brief in the early stages of the hearing, answering questions from Senator Richard Burr:

Burr: Do you have any doubt that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 elections? 
Comey: None

And again:

Burr: Director Comey, did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections?
Comey: Not to my understanding, no.

 When it was necessary for him to explain his actions, Comey used more words but still answered the questions directly. Here he is answering a difficult question from Senator Dianne Feinstein:

Feinstein: . . . Why do you believe you were fired?
Comey: I guess I don't know for sure. I believe, I take the president, at his word, that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt created pressure on them that he wanted to relate. Again I didn't know that at the time. I watched his interview. I read the press accounts of his conversations. I take him at his word there. Look I could be wrong. Maybe he said something that's not true. I take him at his word, at least based on what I know now.

In the above answer, Comey did not try to express certainty about something that he could not prove, but still answered the question directly and precisely. He did mention his source of evidence, which was the President's TV interview with Lester Holt.

When a speaker is wordy and evasive, it sounds as if the speaker is hiding something. When a speaker is direct, willing to take a stand, the audience may feel more confidence that he speaker is telling the truth.

In real life, are truth-tellers wordier than liars, on the average, or are they more concise? Are wordy people less worthy of belief? How about evasive people? The answer is complicated, but an article in the Monitor on Psychology offers some interesting research findings. Are direct answers more believable? Right or wrong, they clearly are.

Here's Part 1 of my Comey comments. 

Comey Testimony, Part 1

Interesting start to the June 8, 2017 Comey hearing. Former FBI Director James Comey appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify. Comey's preliminary statement. Instead of starting with Comey's statement, or with questions that they expected him to answer, the Committee Chair, Richard Burr, began with a series of far-ranging questions that he hoped Comey would answer. He commented, "Today's your opportunity to set the record straight," and "The American people need to hear your side to the story." Ranking minority member Mark Warner then gave a lengthier statement in which, purporting to give a review of the events that led to Comey's testimony. This was a speech in itself, in which Warner took advantage of the chance to express his concerns about the President's behavior. Warner's statement was distinctly more partisan. This disappointed me a bit, but Warner is a politician first and foremost.

James Comey, FBI portrait
Comey did not repeat his very cautious written statement. He did, however, began his testimony with a very sharp oral statement: "The shifting explanations of my firing confused, concerned me." The administration had undertaken to "defame me." He said that much of what the administration had said were "lies." He described and praised the FBI's mission. "The FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is and always be independent."

The hearing then turned toward questions and answers. Comey's answers were as short and to-the-point as possible. This was quite clever: he seemed forthright, and yet he was careful not to amplify. He quite clearly stated that the Russian government had interfered with the United States' 2016 election. Since this has been controversial, especially in the right-wing media, his brevity and clarity seemed persuasive.

All things considered, Comey has made (as of about 10:42 this morning) a clear, persuasive statement of his perspective. He spoke in a clear, confident tone, hesitated briefly when he needed to think about an answer, and, in general, made a strong nonverbal appearance that will make his testimony harder to ignore. More importantly, he answered question clearly, without any obvious attempt to evade or obfuscate. He made a stark contrast with the unclear, carefully parsed testimony of administration officials the day before.

Final comment: Comey's own testimony to this point has been very compelling. Senators Burr and Warner might have been smart to give much briefer opening statements, since (1) Comey overshadowed them and (2) Comey was much clearer and more persuasive.

Who is right and who is wrong? What are the political implications? Has anyone committed a crime? What can be proven and what can't be proven? We still don't really know, but Comey is honing in on the issues. In other words, he's making it clear what needs to be looked into. That, in itself, is useful.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

D-Day Anniversary: The Messages, the Values

Today, June 6, 2017, is the anniversary of the June 6, 1944 invasion of northern France. On that day, an enormous fleet of mostly American and British ships delivered a massive multinational invasion force to the rugged beaches of Normandy. Many men on both sides perished that day. Despite the enormous force that the allies brought to bear, the invasion's success was a very close call.

Eisenhower, DoD photo
Eisenhower: Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D Eisenhower sent a written message with strong religious undertones to the invasion force. A speech was obviously impractical, given the force's huge size and its dispersion across southern England. All the same, his brief message touched all the bases: he set a noble goal, warned that the enemy was powerful, told them what their advantages were, and pray for their success.

He began by telling the soldiers and sailors, "You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months." The word Crusade gave the invasion a religious framework. It is unlikely that he considered how offensive the term might have been to Muslims, but, then, the invasion did not attack a predominantly Muslim nation. More important to most of Eisenhower's readers would be the message that they were fighting for something greater than themselves, and, indeed, greater than ordinary patriotism. He reminded them that, "The eyes of the world are upon you." He continued with the religious theme: "The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. . . . You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world."

Eisenhower warned that the enemy was "well-trained, well-equipped and battle hardened." However, giving hope, he pointed out the great success of Allied air power as well as the industrial might which had provided them with new and powerful weaponry. "The tide has turned!" He told them that he had complete confidence in them and in their devotion. He ended with a prayer: "And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking." All in all, a brilliant message that went to larger values.

Reagan at Pointe du Hoc, DoD photo
Reagan: President Ronald Reagan gave one of his most dramatic speeches, drafted by Peggy Noonan, at the Rangers Memorial at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy on June 6, 1984. A group of surviving Rangers sat in the front row. These men had survived a small but terrible battle, whose purpose was to destroy a German artillery battery. Casualties were over 50%. Reagan gave a classic epideictic speech. He set the scene by picturing the terrible suffering of Europe under Nazi rule: "Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation." He reminded the small crowd that "Here in Normandy the rescue began." He continued: "225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. . . . When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again."

He followed this narrative with other stories of courageous soldiers that day. He then broadened the speech to larger values: "What inspired all the men of the armies that me here? We look at you and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love."

He expressed more values as he extolled the merits of Western civilization: "One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised." He praised arms reduction treaties. He discussed foreign policy: "We've learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent." So different from the "America First" policy of today.
Reagan concluded his speech with a call to action: "Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died."

Never think that ceremonial speeches don't make a difference. War alone can never buy freedom; only ideas can do that. If we forget what we stand for, there is no hope.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Trump versus Merkel: Sort of Not Talking about the Future of NATO

On May 25, 2017, United States President Donald Trump gave an important speech during his first meeting with the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Shortly after, German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered what we must see as a startling rebuke to Trump’s position (or, more accurately, to Trump’s lack of position). NATO has, of course, been the Western democracies' bulwark of peace and stability. The NATO treaty calls for an attack on any one nation to be an attack on all. This provision has only been invoked once, when NATO went to war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Trump's speech was fine, except for what he did not say, and a minor international dispute erupted.

Donald Trump, WH photo
First, Trump's speech. After a brief introduction, Trump observed a moment of silence for victims of the Manchester attack. He remembered the sacrifice of the NATO allies, who "responded swiftly and decisively." In a curious choice of words, Trump termed the terrorists to be "killers and extremists -- and, yes, losers." He reviewed that he objected to terrorism when he met with the Muslim leaders earlier in his trip. He expressed hope that the world could "defeat terrorism, a common threat to all of humanity." He called for increased "focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO's eastern and southern borders." He reminded the leaders that most NATO members were not spending the agreed 2% of GDP on defense, which he sad was "not fair tot he people and taxpayers of the United States." So far, well and good. 

But international attention focused on what he did not say. Unlike the other leaders, he did not reiterate the United States' commitment to  treat an attack on any of them to be an attack on the United States. Conservative opinion write Charles Krauthammer called Trump's speech a "disaster." He explained that "The world was waiting for Trump to say, 'I support Article 5,'" and Trump didn't say it. Article 5 is, of course, NATO's heart.

The important point here is not what Trump said, but what he didn't say. 

Second, European leaders immediately noticed what Trump didn't say.  Speaking at a beer hall rally, which seems to be a German tradition, Merkel, without mentioning Trump by name, said that Europeans "must take our fate into our own hands." She also said thata "We have to know tthat we must fight for our future on our own, for our desitiny as Europeans." This was a clear admission that Europe can no longer count on America.

Two dramatic speeches, that made their points by not saying things that you would expect them to say.

PS: Chapter 7 of my book, From the Front Porch to the Front Page, talks about how McKinley made a point by specifically not talking about something important.