Thursday, November 02, 2006

Finding Concealed Meaning in a Pile of Dung

I'm placing the religious rhetoric on pause for a moment to discuss an article [link] in the Washington Post today, entitled "MD Democrats say GOP Plans to Block Voters." From the article:
A recently distributed guide for Republican poll watchers in Maryland spells out how to aggressively challenge the credentials of voters and urges these volunteers to tell election judges they could face jail time if a challenge is ignored.
For obvious reasons, this has the Dems in a tizzy. They're worried about potentialities, rather than realities. Their focus, which remains on the potential for the handbook to prevent people from voting, is in the wrong place. One attorney for the state Democratic party gives us evidence of this, saying, "The tenor of the material is that they are asking folks, if not directing them, to challenge voters . . . It's really tantamount to a suppression effort."

A representative from Common Cause said that the technique is an "insidious voter intimidation tactic." They're right. It's slimy. It's also not the real issue. The trouble with bitching about the future is that nothing has happened yet. It's still in potentia. Prosecuting a political organization for informing its lackeys of filthy, evil tactics they can use won't work: ultimately, some damn activist judge will remind us of the whole Bill of Rights thing that protects speech, no matter how vile and insipid.

The real issue is with what the GOP representatives are saying to defend this little guide. From the article:
"I don't think that's borderline suppression," said state Republican Party Chairman John Kane. "It's making sure that people who have earned the right to vote are voting. We've had people die in wars to protect those rights."
For those of you who are slow on the uptake, I'll repeat the most important sentence: "It's making sure that people who have earned the right to vote are voting." Once more, even more condensed: "people who have earned the right to vote." Further: "earned the right to vote."

I have news for the Republican Party Chairman for Maryland: you don't earn the right to vote. It's a right that is assumed with citizenship. Let's quote that pesky Constitution:

Amendment 14 - Citizenship rights:
1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Amendment 15 - The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State...

Again in Amendment 24 - The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State

And hey, how about number 26 - . The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State

So: everyone born or naturalized here is a citizen. Every citizen can vote in every election by which he is directly affected. Every citizen over eighteen can vote. This sounds like something that has been repeatedly ratified throughout our history: voting is an American birthright, conferred upon naturalized citizens, and as such is unearned. The only instance in which that right can be taken away is in case of a felony, in which case the rights of citizenship are removed; however, the instances of felony among the population as a whole are exceedingly rare (.3% of Americans have been convicted of a felony), and besides, removing them from the rolls is what your "purges" are all about. In either case, Americans do not earn the right to vote.

Rhetoric reveals, but it also conceals. What implications arise with this statement is taken apart? Possibilities include:
1 - That someone needs to license and/or certify that a voter has earned this right.
2 - That these someones are poll workers trained by the GOP "Guide-to-making-sure-the-youth/hippies/homosexuals/furrin-lookin' people/black people-don't-vote" (okay, that's an exaggeration)
3 - That our license/certification would be subject to approval by the government, now entirely in the hands of the GOP.
More interesting is that the statement is hidden behind some pseudo-patriotic jingoistic cliche: "We've had people die in wars to protect those rights." Yes. The placement of this sentence is an act of rhetorical misdirection: he follows an easily contestable (but almost true sounding) statement with a fact that, in this context, actually supports the opposite: men have died in wars to protect a right to vote that need not be earned. Neat trick, huh?

The Dems, instead of focusing on what the GOP guide to pollster pranks and fun might do in the future, need to foreground the discourse of the present while noting its effects (what is it supporting?).


Anonymous said...

Wow, talk about missing the point. You are correct that all citizens (barring those who are convicted felons in certain states) have the right to vote. Nobody is disputing this. Lengthy quotes of the constitution are rather unnecessary. We're all on the same page.

However, in many (most?) states, no form of identification is required. No proof of identity, no proof of citizenship. Just show up, say your name is John (or Jane) Q. Public, and if your name is on the rolls, well, here's your ballot Mr. Smith.

Some of us actually live in places where a sizable percentage of the population are not citizens (like, to take a random example, Maryland). They, as your lengthy constitutional quotes will back up, do not have the right to vote. That little shortcoming, however, will certainly not stop more than a few of them from trying. And, thanks to more than a handful of judges, we can't simply solve the problem on the spot by asking for them to produce any form of state-issued identification.

You know, most of this type of thing could be avoided by a really simple ID requirement at the polling place. Sizable majorities of the population recognize this, and support that requirement (80+% in a recent poll quoted in the same publication that printed the article that got you so riled). And yet, one political party seems hell-bent on making sure that that does not happen. How anyone can point the finger at one party, calling them "vile" and their behavior "insipid", while giving a free pass to another party that clearly has no interest in a fair vote, held in compliance with the constitution you claim to love so dearly, is beyond me.

C.Berg said...

"Wow, talk about missing the point."
I could say the same. My post, as I recall, was not "in favor" of one party or another. It was a rhetorical exercise - hence the title, "concealed meaning" - intended to show two things. First, that one party's pattern of whine is far too predictable (I could have told you exactly what they would chase), which is, in any rhetorical contest - which politics in the US most certainly is - an extreme weakness. Second, that the rhetorical fallacy they could have exploited was likewise weak (and provided much fun for me) as well as predictable.

We look for bias far too often - and in the wrong places (see previous posts). I notice that, while you were quick to pick up on the "vile" and "insipid" remarks, you didn't pick up on the "bitching" and the subtle role reversal implying that certain liberal groups ignore the Bill of Rights when it suits them (just as certain Presidents do).

The "filthy" and "evil" labels are applied to perception (see an earlier post discussing the pseudo-epic of the visuals on the DNC homepage) that the Democratic party likes to apply to the R's (The R's aren't innocent: "weak, soft, the terrorists will win"). We aren't very careful readers, are we? This is the point: nobody really tries to understand things anymore. We always feel the need to frame it in terms of contests (See previous post re: Blogs, the Media, citizens).

Finally, I should stress this: what I write here is all a game to me - I chose political rhetoric in digital contexts as my dissertation topic because in this nation, political rhetoric (and the discourse surrounding it) will always provide a wealth of subject matter. I've thought of book titles: Conservatives are Jerks, Liberals are Crybabies comes to mind. Politicians and political parties in particular provide continual fodder. If it seems as though I poke at Republicans more at the moment, it's because they've gotten cocky.

Oh, and per your statement that "Lengthy quotes of the constitution are rather unnecessary. We're all on the same page" - did you read the recent poll demonstrating that fewer than 25% of Americans could name all of the protections afforded by the First Amendment? I think that we need as many quotes from that document as possible. Maybe someday they'll sink in.

Anonymous said...

Gee, how could I possible have seen any kind of bias when comparing one group who is "bitching about the future" against a different group engaging in tactics that are "slimy", "filthy", "evil", "vile" and "insipid"? You're right. No side-taking there.

In the end, though, this is all meaningless. It has nothing to do with bias. I don't care that you've taken a position (I have yet to see an unbiased blog). What I'm questioning is what you actually wrote. A discussion of looking for bias is a distraction.

In your rather wordy response, you never actually address the issue I raised. I was pointing out that the right to vote, for many people, is indeed something that is earned. You seemed really hot under the collar to say that it was not. Still hold on to that position? Why or why not? And given the answer to that, is the response described in the article really "slimy", "filthy", "evil", "vile" and "insipid"? If so, please explain why.

I'm sure your post was leaden with all sorts of academic issues and stuff that most people in the real world have no interest in, nor use for. But it does seem to me that someone who is trying to earn a Ph.D. in rhetoric should be able, when presented with a challenge to something they have written, to actually address the points raised in the critique, rather than telling me how I should be experiencing your wisdom on a higher plane. It will be a good exercise for you. If nothing else, it might help you before a tenure committee that may someday come across this blog.

C.Berg said...

Your response to my post was more focused on a solution to a problem (requiring voter identification), than the discourse surrounding the problem. My post discussed - in a non-academic fashion - the discourse surrounding the problem; or rather, the discourse surrounding that discourse, which is an apt characterization of what people like to call "spin." Discussing the discourse is what rhetoricians do: in the words of Roderick Hart, "Rhetorical criticism produces metaknowledge . . . that is, explicit realizations of implicit knowledge" (Modern Rhetorical Criticism p. 25). The other function: "documenting social trends" (p. 24). Rhetoricians point to trends in discursive practice (as I did, implicitly in the post and explicitly in my response) and they dissect and point out alternatives to the discourse produced by those practices (explicitly in both the post and the response).

I think our lines crossed at this point: my job is not to point out any alternatives or solutions other than communicative ones. My job does not involve policy solutions. My job is to dissect and reveal what is concealed within public discussion of those policies. When practiced seriously, rather than as a tongue-in-cheek exercise like many of my posts, rhetorical criticism functions as a public mediator in a divisive climate. It serves to open further discussion when two or more sides are contesting an issue by doing what Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly think (or would have us thing) they're doing: it tries to answer the question, "What are people really saying?" Even without providing solutions, this is a valuable practice, even in the "real world." I think the "real world" could use a good dose of rhetorical criticism in just about every aspect of public life.

Three final comments:

1. So far as illegal immigration goes, North Carolina has a higher population of illegal aliens than Virginia and Maryland combined. We have the fastest growing population of illegals in the nation (source: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (

2. The right to vote is not earned by anyone. Citizenship is earned by some (it is the birthright of others), and along with citizenship comes the right to vote, the right to due process, the right to serve in public office (after a given time), and a number of others. Having full citizenship rights restored after a felony conviction includes regaining the right to vote; however, at no point in time is the right to vote earned.

3. I won't be keeping any sort of blog whatsoever (aside from course blogs, which are a useful tool for discussing readings and other course material) when looking for a job (2 years), let alone when I'm up for tenure (5-7 years after that). My blog isn't widely read - thanks, by the way, for taking the time to do so - and I doubt that it will be around for long after I remove it (most hang around for about 4 months in various server caches, from what I understand).

BTW - we wouldn't happen to be related, would we? Your argumentative style (and stubbornness) are awfully Berglike.

Anonymous said...

In other words, your post (and you, be extension?) are not interested in solutions. Instead, you are interested in only the talk surrounding the problem, and in assigning perceived motives and/or beliefs to the various parties of the debate. I'm sure that you feel that that serves some noble purpose, but in the end it produces precisely squat. Attributing motivation to an actor based on your perception of their words is, alas, rather less than scientific, particularly when your own feelings on an issue are so readily apparent. And, no offense, but the "divisive climate" that you seek to interject yourself into as a "public mediator" is not terribly well served when it is clear that you hold one side in utter contempt.

In the end, though, all of that is meaningless. In the grand scheme of things, motivation really doesn't matter; actions matter. Most people would prefer that people do the right thing for the wrong reason. But you interest seems to lie solely in uncovering motivation (at least as you perceive it), and the actual actions are an irrelevant distraction. Sorry, but this does not, really, lead to the advance of civilization as we know it.

Given that it seems rather clear that your interest is not in actually solving the problem, but impugning the motives of those with whom you disagree, I can see that the brief time I have committed here was not well spent. So I will take my leave. Good day.

And no, we are not related. I'm sure that you meant the "Berglike" thing as a compliment, but it was certainly not received as such.

C.Berg said...

I know that with some groups, the only talk that matters is what those in charge have to say; however, the underlying necessity for any action in even a pseudodemocracy is talk. Informed decisions are supposedly what drive the actions of the ideal voter. To conform to what you expect of me, "I guess you guys don't really care about that."

Oh, and if you're "out of here," why the hell have you been back seven times in 48 hours? Are you eagerly awaiting my diatribe? Thanks for driving up my hit count!

C.Berg said...

"In other words, your post (and you, be extension?) are not interested in solutions."

I wrote, "it's not my job." Now, wherever you get "not interested" from that, please tell me. You're not reading what I'm writing, you're engaging in badly written spin, so why should I continue? I'm interested in my wife's female parts - this doesn't make me a gynecologist, just an enthusiast. I'm interested in solutions: I'll talk about them all day. As a professional, I'll talk about the talk surrounding them all day, not on my blog, which is reserved for pontificating and wordplay, but in a formal written context. I'm afraid I wasted too much of my time trying to engage in a discussion with someone who had already decided the issue in his mind, so Good Riddance.