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

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Next, I would suggest that Christian preachers have for understandable reasons cultivated epideictic rhetoric in their preaching for centuries, just as the ancient Hebrew prophets did.

As Samuelson notes, "Abortion and gay marriage evoke deep values, each side believing it commands the high ground." Samuelson has no problem understanding the value nature of those two debates.

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But Samuelson is troubled that "President Obama pitched his health-care plan as a moral issue." Indeed, in my judgment, President Obama did correctly pitch his proposal as a moral issue. In doing so, he carried on the tradition of moral debate practiced centuries ago by the ancient Hebrew prophets Amos and Isaiah.

Now, as I've intimated above, I would argue that legislative proposals usually involve values and value decisions. It strikes me as inescapable for legislative proposals to involve values and value proposals.

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But this is not how Samuelson sees political debate about legislative proposals. He argues that there are supposedly "two theories" as he styles them. He argues that the supposedly "standard view of politics is that it mediates conflicting interests and ideas. The winners receive economic benefits and privileges; the losers don't." That much is true enough. But I would argue that debates about competing interests involve debates about values. For example, the debate about the legality of slavery in the United States involved values -- and competing "interests" in Samuelson's terminology.

But Samuelson sees debates about values as "the politics of self-esteem" as though all the abolitionists wanted to do was enhance their self-esteem. He objects to "fortifying people's self-esteem [by] praising them as smart, public-spirited, and virtuous." But according to Aristotle, this is exactly the kind of thing that epideictic rhetoric is designed to do.

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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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