Saturday, August 19, 2017

Rex W. Tillerson's Speech about Hatred

Rex Tillerson, DoS image
In what some people thought was a break from President Trump's remarks about the Charlottesville demonstrations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked on August 18, 2017 about race relations and diversity to the State Department Student Programs and Fellowship participants. After an introduction expressing sympathy for the terrorist attacks in Spain, he addressed racism: "we all know hate is not an American value." He continued that "Racism is evil; it is antithetical to America's values. It's antithetical to the American idea."

In a clever rhetorical move, Tillerson cited a letter that George Washington sent to the Newport, Rhode Island synagogue, in which Washington advocated "a government which to bigotry gives no sanction; to persecution, no assistance." Why was this clever? Right-wing speakers routinely cite the Founding Fathers and say that they want to return to the Founders' values. My experience is that, most of the time, extreme right wingers have no idea what the Founders actually believed, and Tillerson's move - to cite our first president - struck directly at white supremacists' major talking point. What made Tillerson's point even more powerful is that the Charlottesville demonstrators were shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Tillerson contradicted the demonstrators without mentioning them, but everyone knew what he was talking about. He turned the tables on racists with great gentleness.

Tillerson also said that "hate speech" should not be tolerated and that "those who embrace it poison our public discourse and they damage the very country that they claim to love." With a nice flourish - for rhetoric students, he used a tricolon - he said that "Racism is evil; it is antithetical to America's values. It's antithetical to the American idea." 

Continuing, Tillerson discussed steps the State Department was taking to create a more diverse Foreign Service. He insisted that whenever an ambassadorship was open, one of the candidates must be from a minority. He also wanted to recruit from beyond the Ivy League campuses. He reviewed in detail the statistics on the low representation of ethnic minorities and women in the Foreign Service.

Tillerson further emphasized that the future leaders whom he was addressing needed to place personal integrity first. He praised the students and fellows for their accomplishments. He promised that they would be outstanding leaders.

Reactions were mixed. Roger Clegg's column in the conservative National Review called Tillerson's speech "appalling," Clegg opposed "race-based hiring" as "unfair" and "identity politics."  CNN's Nicole Gaouette and Elise Labott called the speech "a powerful condemnation Friday of both hate and those who 'protect or accept hate speech.'"

Tillerson's speech was admirable, but should not have been controversial. He addressed values; he tied his values to the United States' founding values. Given Tillerson's reputation as a conservative, this was no surprise. However, for him to cite George Washington against bigotry was brilliant. He used tradition to advocate change. Also, Tillerson proved that conservatism does not require racism; indeed, he contended the opposite: that conservative values prohibit bigotry.

P.S.: I have read hundreds and hundreds of pages of the Founding Fathers' writings. I enjoy reading what they wrote. They had many good ideas. I recommend their works to all Americans.  It is important to know their real ideas, not the invented interpretations that we hear on talk radio and cable news.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Speakers Need Research, It Happened Again! The Case of Trump and the Parade Permits

In his now-famous impromptu news conference in Trump Tower, President Trump said that the white supremacists had a permit and the counter-protestors did not. It turns out that the counter-protestors did have a permit, and that they could have legally attended without one. Strike one, strike two.


1. Speakers need research, and for two reasons: (a) So the speaker doesn't waste the audience's time with nonsense and (b) So the speaker doesn't lose credibility.

2. Politically-motivated media (talk radio, cable news commentators, political websites, etc.) are not the best places to get accurate information.

Q. E. D.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Rhetoric of Silence, Part 3: The Missing Republicans

Interesting article by Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer. Yes, many Republican leaders have condemned President Trump or, at least, criticized him obliquely, for his remarks about the Nazi and KKK demonstration in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of a counter-demonstrator. But most have said nothing.

John F. Kennedy, WH photo
The obvious explanation for their silence is political. Although, according to a recent poll, Mr. Trump's support among the general public has collapsed, he still, as of the latest poll, retains support from more than three-quarters of Republican voters. Republicans don't want to face primary challenges from candidates who are even more conservative than they are, and they know that Mr. Trump's ideas resonate across large parts of the country. Thus, even when Mr. Trump says something that is appalling, as he did yesterday, they lack the courage to speak out.

I refer readers to John Kennedy's best-selling book, Profiles in Courage, which told the stories of several senators who risked their political careers to do what they thought was the right thing. Do any Republicans in the Senate have that kind of courage today? Or is getting reelected their only goal in life?

Silence always means something. If I asked my students whether they had completed the day's reading assignment, and they sat silently in their desks, their silence meant they had not read the textbook, and they were ashamed of themselves. But they were never sufficiently ashamed of themselves to admit their failures out loud. The same, on a much greater and more important scale, is true of politicians who have not yet condemned President Trump's remarks, which expressed far too much sympathy for the alt-right demonstrators. Silence speaks volumes.

Update: for example, Kennedy praised Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who, although a slaveowner himself, voted against the spread of slavery to new territories. He thought, rightly, that this would divide the union. His vote cost him his career; history has vindicated him.

President Trump: Are Neo-Nazis "Fine People?"

Yesterday, President Donald Trump held a press conference to talk about infrastructure. He seemed surprised that the press instead asked questions about the August 13, 2017 violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. What did he expect? He belligerently responded that the questions were coming from "fake news," as if the events in Charlottesville did not really happen.

Trump News Conference, Aug. 16, 2017
Trump 8/15/17 News Conference, WH
President Trump has employed ambiguous phrases throughout his election campaign and presidency. This time, it did not work. At some point, a speaker needs to take a stand.

Here is my personal bias: my father and father-in-law both served in the military during World War II, and my uncle, Pfc. Peter Feduska, died at the age of 19 during the Battle of the Bulge. I do not think highly of Nazis. With respect to unreformed Confederates, I did grow up in Virginia, and, many, many years ago, two Harpines served in the Confederate Army. I know that they fought on the wrong side.

Neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville chanted Nazi slogans like "blood and soil."  A Neo-Nazi supporter made the Nazi salute while wearing a hat with the emblem of the 82nd Airborne Division, the unit that air-dropped into Normandy to end Nazi tyranny. Members of the Ku Klux Klan marched openly, carrying the Confederate flag.

Right after the demonstration and subsequent violence, President Trump had issued a statement that blamed "both sides." Although there indeed was some violence on both sides, his statement tried to establish a degree of moral equivalence: he compared Nazis and white supremacists with the people who protested them. Yielding to public pressure, he subsequently read a prepared statement denouncing the white nationalists.

At yesterday's press conference, Mr. Trump reverted to moral equivalence. He did, indeed, criticize the White nationalists and Nazis, but defended other members of the same group in a statement that tried to have things both ways:

The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people - neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them.

But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know - I don't know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit.

He reiterated that "I think there's blame on both sides." He said that the marchers included "some very bad people," but also "people that were very fine people on both sides." Seemingly unhappy at the removal of Charlottesville's statue of Robert E. Lee, Trump pointed out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also owned slaves. Was the the country on a slippery slope to take down their statues, he wanted to know. He then evaded a question as to when he would reach out to the Charlottesville victim's mother.

Rhetoric always depends on cultural and historical context. The Nazis, the KKK, and other right-wing extremists have a long, ugly history, and they have never lacked supporters. When speakers talk about them, they must remember the history.

Yes, Trump did condemn the white supremacists and the Nazis, and no, the press did not adequately recognize his condemnation. Yes, some of the counter-protesters became violent, and it was right to criticize them. At the same time, Trump tried to establish moral equivalence between the racist extremists and those who protested them. This, many members of the public and of the press refused to accept. Trump even lost a Fox News analyst. Although Trump has never clearly endorsed white supremacy during his campaign, white supremacists consistently supported him. That is why he has been walking on a rhetorical tightrope and, during yesterday's press conference, he fell off. When you start talking about Nazis in the United States of America, the country that defeated Nazis in the 1940s at great cost in lives and treasure, there can be no middle ground. Mr. Trump tried to find the middle ground anyway, and it wasn't there.

Update: Mr. Trump was in error. The counter-protesters did have a permit

Monday, August 14, 2017

Rhetoric of Silence: What You Don't Say Matters – The Charlottesville Incident, Part 2

I posted a while back that President Trump's silence about the Minnesota mosque bombing meant something: this was an event that could not be ignored, and yet Mr. Trump ignored it.

Donald Trump, WH
Mr. Trump repeats himself – silently. The white supremacist demonstration and anti-white supremacist counter-demonstration in Charlottesville led to violence, and it was an event that could not be ignored. Mr. Trump did not exactly ignore it, but he certainly evaded it. He started with this non-controversial tweet: "We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!" He obviously didn't proofread, but no one is perfect. Then, talking to reporters, Mr. Trump appeared to blame both sides: "We condemn in strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence — on many sides." Republican Senator Lindsey Graham criticized the president, saying that he "missed an opportunity to be very explicit here. These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House."

Lindsey Graham
Mr. Trump truly faces a difficult rhetorical problem. On the one hand, he received strong support from extreme right-wingers and white supremacists. If he offends them, what will happen to his support base? If, on the other hand, he expresses sympathy for them, he loses the great majority of decent Americans. Most of the Republicans who voted for Trump in the 2016 election were not white supremacists. The best solution apparently seemed to him to be to evade the issue. Unfortunately, this was an issue that he could evade. A media firestorm resulted.

The White House did issue an unsigned statement that "of course" President Trump opposed white supremacy. The public has, so far, not heard this from his own lips, much less from his famous Twitter account.

So, as usual, silence becomes a form of speech.

The larger question is this: have Mr. Trump's mainstream Republican supporters come to grips with Mr. Trump's relationship to the Alt-Right white supremacist or white nationalist movement? I suspect that they have not. Take a look at my earlier posts about Richard Spencer's "End of History" speech.

Interestingly, Mr. Trump's non-response to Charlottesville's events cost him the support of Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier.  It seems that silence only gets you so far, and, at some point, speakers need to take a stand.

Update: Two days later, Trump finally condemned white supremacy and the Charlottesville attackers. Late, but welcome.  Still, timing matters.

Richard Spencer's "End of History" Speech: Are Trump Supporters Fooling Themselves? Part 2

Should we listen to the Alt-Right? Or ignore them? Or suppress them?  

I think we need to know what they are saying. I suspect that too few of Mr. Trump's supporters understand what the Alt-Right is really like, because they haven't listened. Liberals don't appreciate the danger that the Alt-Right poses to our republic, because they haven't listened.
The Alt-Right Wants Your Pity
Although Richard Spencer’s “End of History” speech ended with an exaggerated metaphor of doom and hope, it began with the self-pitying complaint that social media hosts were refusing to sponsor Alt-Right information; he complained about "social networks that are suppressing free expression.” This brings up a larger question of free speech. Is our Republic strong enough to tolerate wrong opinions, even opinions that are as mistaken and evil as Spencer’s? In the wake of the Charlottesville demonstrations, which directly resulted death, allegedly at the hands of a neo-Nazi sympathizer, threatened to delete the Daily Stormer’s website. Furthermore, a private agency hacked the Daily Stormer; it is now (speciously) headlined “The World’s Most Genocidal Republican Website.” So, yes, people really are trying to suppress their free expression.

Thomas Jefferson, LOC
Mr. Jefferson’s Opinion
In his First Inaugural Address, President Thomas Jefferson said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” His words are much-needed now. A great many Americans, who now call themselves the Alt-Right, have made it clear that they wish to alter our form of government, an alteration that they justify by specious appeals to the Constitution, but whose real purpose is to subvert Americans’ rights. So, yes, the Nazis, the KKK, Richard Spencer, and any other persons or groups should be allowed to abuse the First Amendment by spewing out falsehood and hate to their hearts’ content. (There is an argument that privately-owned organizations like GoDaddy have a right, subject to their contractual obligations, to decide what they will broadcast. Personally, I want to know what the Alt-Right, the Nazis, and so forth have to say.)

We Need to Hear Both Sides, Even if One Side Is Really Bad
Decent people around the world reject the Alt-Right and its philosophy. Nevertheless, in a larger sense, as I have said before, it is important for people who are learning things to be exposed to both sides of controversial issues. Tens of millions of Americans sympathize with white nationalism. The best way to defeat them, is, following Jefferson’s wisdom, to point out their errors. This can only be done if people recognize what they stand for. The sanitized term "Alt-Right" makes it easy to miss the point. The only way to understand the depth of their wrongness is for us to fully understand their message.

Here's the Proof: The Case of the Southern Baptist Convention
Let us, for example, consider the recent controversy at the Southern Baptist Convention. The Convention’s Resolutions Committee rejected a proposition criticizing the Alt-Right, saying that it was “inflammatory.” This was a difficult question for them, for White Evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Trump in the 2016 election, and the Alt-Right supports Trump.

An attempt to gain reconsideration of the motion failed. The resulting controversy, however, quickly led the convention to consider a revised resolution. One factor is that, according to Pastor Charles Hedman, extremist right-wing groups had been passing out racist information in the convention center’s vicinity. Liberty Baptist University professor Karen Swallow Prior tweeted: “#SBC17: if you don’t think Christians ought to condemn the Alt-Right, then you need to see their disgusting emails that fill my inbox.” Yes, that’s right, one reason that the Southern Baptist Convention finally did the right thing is that the right-wing groups used their First Amendment rights to promulgate their opinions specifically and clearly; this caused the good people at the Convention to wake up and realize the threat that they faced. If the Alt-Right had been suppressed, the Convention might not have understood how evil its philosophy really was. Previously, they had pretended to themselves that the Alt-Right wasn’t so bad. 

When all was said and done, the Southern Baptist Convention ultimately passed an even more inflammatory motion, whose key passage was:

RESOLVED, That we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil.

Be sure to read the full text.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Richard Spencer's "End of History" Speech: An Alt-Right Philosophy, Part 1

Are members of the white race victims because they are white? I am white myself, and I don't think so. Let us look deeply into darkness' cold heart and examine Richard Spencer's June 2017 "End of History" speech: a calm, eloquent, powerful, and philosophical justification for evil.

Why is this speech important? This morning's news reports yesterday's demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, the usually peaceful home of "Mr. Jefferson's University," which resulted in violent confrontations and the death of one demonstrator. A group of white supremacists demonstrated in favor of the town's statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, which the city planned to remove. Their opponents marched against them. Many people of the left and right wing alike condemned the white supremacists, President Trump and Vice President Pence apparently being exceptions.

Lincoln Memorial, NPS photo
The Nazi movement always placed great importance on the spoken word, and let us trace the rise of the alt-right (the new term for the old idea of white supremacy) to the words of a talented writer and speaker, Richard Spencer. At the end of June 2017, Spencer stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, near the spot from which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and delivered a powerful presentation to a few hundred alt-right supporters. He laid out a philosophy of the alt-right movement with power and eloquence. His speech was chilling in its reasonableness. Spencer presented his ideas - which I condemn as unspeakably foul - calmly, with humor, passion, warmth, and confidence.  Many years ago, the great rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke wrote a powerful essay to reveal Hitler's persuasive techniques. Burke's purpose was to ensure that the next time someone spoke or wrote in such a manner, the public would be equipped to recognize the evil and not be fooled. I cannot write like Kenneth Burke, but, still, let us look at Spencer's speech to understand why seemingly decent people would eagerly absorb his wicked message.

More than anything, Spencer gave his audience a sense that they participated in a higher cause, that they were working for something more important and more noble than their own lives. His speech was polarizing: white supremacy was good; the forces against them represented evil. As he began his speech, he said "There's been a change in our hearts and minds." He scapegoated the alt-right's opponents, calling them "losers and freaks," and said that the people opposing the alt-right were "liars." He praised the young people in his audience: "Young people are not caught in the thought prison of their parents." 

Advocating free speech, Spencer talked at length about social media platforms and other platforms that suppress the alt-right's message. But he took this a step further: "Free speech means nothing if one has nothing to say." We all know that President Donald Trump has protested against the doctrine that conservatives call "political correctness," which prohibits them from saying racist things that they believe to be true. Spencer protested political correctness even more explicitly: "We have a black cloud that hangs over us. This sense of guilt. This sense that we cannot be truthful even when we are talking to ourselves." 

Spencer praised whiteness, with the idea that white people had somehow become society's victims: "The most radical thing for anyone to say is, 'I am white. My life has meaning. My life has dignity I am part of a family I will fight for my children’s future.' That is what they want to suppress." Spencer proposed a solution, which was to develop a moral foundation of strength to overcome the victimhood: "We need to find a way out of this sense of helplessness. The alt-right is the first step to believing in ourselves."

Spencer ended his speech by talking about "the end of history." He seemed to mean this in two different senses. First, he seemed to believe that the traditional liberal moral order was facing the end of its history. The liberal order defined itself, he said, by opposing totalitarian dictatorship during the Cold War; with the end of the Cold War, liberals lost their moral focus. He tied this, however, to the need for the alt-right: the "end of history means end of meaning." With the end of history, Spencer warned, "You have no history. You have no future." He explained what the alt-right was fighting for: "We are fighting for freedom. We are fighting for the Constitution." He continued: "We are fundamentally fighting for meaning in our lives." This message appealed to values beyond the individual, beyond the self-centeredness that marks the conventional conservatism of Ayn Rand or Paul Ryan.

He then pointed the audience toward the August 12, 2017 Charlottesville rally that, as we know, ended  in violence: At that rally, he promised, "We are going to start history all over again." Was he right?

Like many modern-day ultra-conservative speakers, Spencer was extremely calm. He did not rant and rave like Adolph Hitler or Rudolph Hess. He smiled. He looked relaxed. He seemed friendly. If he had not dropped out of graduate school, he could have been a charismatic professor charming a massive lecture hall full of students who swarmed to his classes. He spoke extemporaneously with many balanced phrases, a few of which I quoted above. He competed effectively with the noise of the jet aircraft that flew overhead.

A philosophical foundation helps evil to spread beyond mindless rage and incoherent hate. A philosophical foundation gives evil a focus. Hitler inspired people to die for a higher cause, and he died for that cause himself. His supporters completely overlooked that his cause was evil, violent, dangerous, and doomed. Into what abyss do Spencer's supporters plan to cast themselves? 

A word to my fellow citizens and fellow communication scholars: it is never enough to disagree with someone like Spencer. It is necessary for us to understand him, his message, and his followers. Also, let us not make the mistake of thinking that the alt-right is a mere fringe that good people can ignore. It is far, far larger than a fringe. The alt-right has become a major part of America.

Upcoming post: as soon as time allows, I'll talk about free speech and the alt-right. That was one of Spencer's themes, was it not?