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Hold on There, Robert Samuelson! Let's Think This Through!

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) April 8, 2010 Robert J. Samuelson has published a column entitled "The Politics of Self-Esteem: Why everyone feels offended" in NEWSWEEK magazine dated April 12, 2010, page 24.

Samuelson does correctly state that "[p]urging moral questions from politics is both impossible and undesirable." So he and I agree on that much.

I also agree with him that moral questions "evoke deep values." As far as I am concerned, moral questions by definition always involve values and value judgments.

Inasmuch as political debate involves debate about competing possible courses of action that can be taken, political debate by definition involves values and value judgments about each possible course of action.

Now, the NEW YORK TIMES did at one time run a news-analysis story in which the author pointed out that President Barack Obama tends to structure his speeches around imaginary adversarial positions "made of straw" (as the author put it) known proverbially as straw men and straw women.

In terminology used by Aristotle in his famous treatise on civic rhetoric, President Obama has a strong tendency to engage in epideictic rhetoric, the kind of rhetoric that is centered on values and oftentimes tends toward seeing the world of values in terms of good versus evil, instead of competing goods, one of which the orator would prefer.

In his famous treatise about civic rhetoric (or oratory), Aristotle discusses three kinds of civic rhetoric:

(1) deliberate rhetoric in legislative assemblies (such as the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives)

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(2) forensic rhetoric of the courts of law (wherein somebody stands charged with a violation of the law) and

(3) epideictic rhetoric (used on ceremonial occasions such as funerals of leading generals or politicians to "evoke deep values" of the sort that Samuelson refers to).

Of course Aristotle lived in ancient Athens during the roughly two-century experiment in Athens with limited participatory democracy.

But we in the United States live in an ongoing experiment with representative democracy.

As a result, we live through election campaigns, the likes of which Aristotle does not discuss in his famous treatise on civic rhetoric.

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Now, in the legislative assemblies in the United States today, what Aristotle means by deliberative rhetoric occurs in the debates about proposed legislation.

Moreover, when we turn our attention to considering political campaigns for elective office in the United States today, we can usually find candidates who campaign on certain proposals for legislation that they would like to get enacted if elected. Such proposals would usually qualify as examples of deliberative rhetoric, because they do provide springboards for debate.

Nevertheless, I would suggest that much campaign rhetoric in the United States is best understood as epideictic rhetoric rhetoric designed deliberately to "evoke deep values" (in Samuelson's words).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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