Slippery rhetoric, slick arithmetic

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

I have been opining for a few weeks now in the confines of Facebook. This means only 156 of my self-defined nearest and dearest (who else, then, could one call a “friend;” Facebook, as a kind of postmodern egalitarianism allows no other designation) get to see these pearls.

I mean them to be entertaining at best, I suppose, and thought-provoking if they are to satisfy even my very few deepest desires. Instead I get a concatenation of bad readings, and, hence, I am taken to task for having said what someone else read—and not for what I actually wrote.

But this is not yet another lament merely about the degradation of good writing, and the even more rapid deterioration of comprehension attributable to poor attention and atrophied reading skills. I won’t completely insult my readers who simply don’t get it by suggesting, as well, that perhaps they have lost a step or two in the department of being able to think while doing something else, like reading. Contemplation is becoming a lost human capability.

Whatever the causes, I am sure that at least one of them is the general deterioration of the communication skills of those who, increasingly, are assuming the reins of trying to shape public opinion and individual judgment and perceptions. Writers and opinion makers (not to mention the marvelous talking machines who appear in various live action media, both in real time and by delayed transmission, whether over the airwaves through television channels, or through the larger pipe of the Internet on the multitudinous and multiplying sites that offer streaming versions of video and film, and even broader distribution of screeds prepared in various print and online media, and then re-transmitted or cross-linked or distributed by whatever means via the vast inner web of social networks) have become an industry, and words—more or less all they’ve got besides hacked phone conversations and doctored and staged videos—are the same sort of commodity as U.S. cattle and pork, bloated on the antibiotics and hormones that render them harmless, even as they are deployed and distributed for the significant task of providing sustenance, not of our physical bodies, but the body politic. Unfortunately, like the run of most American red meat, poultry, fresh water and ocean fish and crustaceans, words are the commodities of a monster industry that has long since forsaken quality, nutritional value, and wholesomeness, dare I say purity?, for pure volume, to feed the widening craw of the public, demanding more and more, like vast seas of krill and plankton devoured by the disappearing herds and pods of whales. We’ll never run short of words, I’m sure, but they will have long since lost their value as food (if this has not happened already) by the time we whales have ourselves become extinct even as we feed on them.

I recently encountered one such zealous young buck of a proselytizer, full of zeal and righteous indignation, and a raft-load of platitudes, stock phrases and what I used to teach my classes in Freshman Communication some 42 years ago was the propaganda tactic of “glittering generalities.”

Don’t look for substance in the prose of young Mr. Carl Gibson, 24, and “of Lexington, Kentucky, [and who] is a spokesman and organizer for US Uncut, a nonviolent, creative direct-action movement to stop budget cuts by getting corporations to pay their fair share of taxes.” I’m not picking on Mr. Gibson for any particularly good reason other than that he is the latest individual with a rant to make a point he fails to prove whose online excrescence was pointed out to me by “Reader Suppported News,” an organization constantly begging for money so they can send more and more such links to more and more such long-suffering sorts as myself who gave in to the weakness of donating at one time or another to what seemed like a worthy cause and a good idea at the time. It was mainly a way of paying for the privilege of having the touch put on me periodically (at shorter and shorter intervals) on the pretext that I wait breathlessly for the political ejaculations and expostulations of the likes of Mr. Gibson.

In all fairness to him, RSN also features the stringent, when not scolding, astringent, when not altogether sour, tendentious, when not totally condescending pronouncements of the failed candidate for governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and perpetual Washington outsider, though he did serve, exhibiting the same endearing qualities above elucidated, on the cabinet of President Clinton, for one term as Secretary of Labor, a great deal of which time he spent clarifying the myriad ways in which they (not him, but “they”) were getting it wrong. I will grant you, he knows how to make a career of it, first retiring his post to take on a university professorship at the esteemed Brandeis University and the decamping, when, no doubt, he saw there was little chance for political ascendancy to the gold-domed State House on Beacon Hill in Boston as chief executive officer of the commonwealth, to another university on the west coast. And Mr. Reich, of course, is far more polished, far more suave rhetorically speaking, and far more ready with numbers and data that seem to subscribe to the support and propagation of meaningful information. So, he’s usually a tad more convincing than the likes of Mr. Gibson. But for every Mr. Reich, there are legions of Mr. Gibsons, and his female counterparts, and they do as little justice to their cause in persuading the American public at large to the wisdom of progressive ideology and liberal political philosophy in general as the Republicans, however tainted by whatever the latest strain of virulence (in the present case a virus that apparently is found in tea), are effective in persuading the followers: acolytes and rabble alike, who avidly follow the liberal press and media. There is, in the end, enormous mutual reinforcement of increasingly antagonistic positions. And not the least of the problem is that, I have to admit, fools like me are wasting time and their breath pointing to the shifting rhetorical sands on which both bodies—with their opposing positions—stand; sands which erode with every passing gust of hot wind, the source of which shifts itself from right to left, from east to west, from north to south, and which seems to be inexhaustible.

In any event, I mean to present the smallest sliver of evidence, and counter evidence by way of observation and direct citation of commonly accessible sources of data and information, of the faults in the foundation of the protestations and exhortations of the Mr. Gibsons. If nothing else, this explains the frustrations and the inevitable shutting down, nearing the depths of despair, in which I find myself when viewing the world outside the confines of my cozy ken of familiarity, trust, and home comforts.

Here’s just one paragraph from his RSN essay, entitled, “Austerity, the Wrong Prescription,” which appeared today, 2011 August 9, on the RSN website []. It’s the sixth paragraph into the piece, which opens with a bit of ham-handed, exploitative melodrama about the plight of some imagined patient whose doctor threatens to cut off the patient’s blood supply, meals, therapy and, if that’s not enough, pain medicine… but it only gets worse, and the metaphor gets stuck in one’s gorge, so the real threat is asphyxiation on one’s own vomit if your were entirely to swallow this prose (all of which appears beneeath a captioned photo of a mother and her daughter embracing next to all their household goods, having been evicted from their foreclosed home… no facts, no explanation, just sheer gut-wrenching pulling of your heart strings and any other organs that the thin fingers of Mr. Gibson—I assume they’re thin; I can’t imagine a young man with his agenda, or his subject: “Austerity” being a candidate for an anti-obesity clinic—can grasp and pull with all his incompetent might).

Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell continue to give our teachers, cops, firefighters and other public services the axe, all to protect these failed “trickle-down” policies that have blown holes in our budget since the Reagan years. Their adherence to such flawed policy ignores reality – the economy has tripled since 1973, but median income has actually gone down since then. Something is trickling down, but it certainly isn’t wealth.

Without saying I agree or disagree with what I assume is some point buried in there somewhere—fact is, I’m not sure what the point is, and I will say I think John Boehner is a bonehead and a politician (of which there is no greater insult at present to hurl in the direction of a public figure) and Mitch McConnell, about whom the worst I can say is, he’s a Republican Senator and, of course, a politician. As the old lady who never voted said, “why encourage them?” Mr. Gibson speaks of “reality,” but then does not even give a muzzy picture of that reality.

Here’s my rebuttal to but this one paragraph, early in the essay, and after which he lost me, so I don’t know what he had to say, if he ever did, in fact, get around to saying anything that I haven’t seen or heard or read already some time in the past 30 years:

Whatever the merits of what Gibson says escape me) because at the start lack of definition and the manipulation of numbers undermine any substantive point he wants to make. He says the “economy” has “tripled” since 1973. definition of economy, or the metric used. Yet, the median income has “gone down” in that time.
1973 (July): U.S. population was 211+ million. 2010 (April): 308+ million. In that same time the gross national product (GNP) rose from a little over $5.5 trillion to nearly $59.5 trillion. The economy didn’t increase 3-fold, but 10-fold. However, on a per capita basis, the increase per citizen was a factor of 730%. This means nothing unless we factor in inflation, which amounted in 37 years to 391+%. In constant dollars, the actual difference in the size of the economy per capita was just shy of 187%, not quite twice.
All else being equal, and not factoring in all other phenomena (e.g., an increase in purchasing power, irrespective of income fluctuations; many goods are far cheaper because we put almost all consumer product production off-shore), the average citizen should be seeing an economic benefit commensurate with a rise in the “size” of the economy of almost twice the benefit when Nixon was still President.
Is this a fair assessment? I don’t know. I do know this kind of thinking is muzzy and misleading. And hardly a cogent argument.

Until the right forsakes the childish, racist, and irrational obdurate stubbornness of the Tea Party, and begins to accept the reality of the need for not only cutting out what can be cut in government with minimal injury to the great preponderance of the American public, while accepting that this will still not leave us in a financially balanced condition, and until the left accepts that the President can not create jobs, or make stones bleed (never mind give forth money), and until both sides agree to sit down to hammer out a common understanding of and definition of “fairness” to all strata of what is, in fact, a stratified society—while avoiding incendiary language of class and privilege and power, we will stew in our own juices, braising and braising until not only all sinew and fat, but the meat and bones of our being all disintegrate into a noxious fluid that can no longer sustain us as a nation.

And we won’t be able to do any of that until everyone agrees to look truth in the face, and however ugly or gut-wrenching the facts may be, never mind the conclusions one must draw from those facts. And once we look truth in the face, and accept it as this thing called reality (and reality is not the fantasy drawn by Mr. Reich, or Mr. Gibson (as an avatar of a far greater number of inarticulate zealots), no more than by Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Kristol), then maybe we will be able to deal effectively with that reality.

Things are, of course, neither as bad nor as good as the last person you heard from made out. If they painted a picture of rosiness or gloom, mistrust it. It’s wrong. The rhetoric is bad, I guarantee it. And you must go back to the only things we have: the true meaning of words, and the irrefutable facts embedded in numbers that anyone can verify.

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